The Raiders had an on-and-off month of footy behind them, and only had one top eight outfit in Penrith to contend with before finals, when they took on the Warriors at GIO on Friday night for what turned out to be one of the great lopsided games of the season. After beating Melbourne last week, the green machine had to get the win over New Zealand this afternoon, while the Warriors were looking for only their second win since Round 8, and had to lean deep into the resolve that’s come from returning to Mt. Smart, even if they were playing away.
For the first ten minutes, Canberra didn’t touch the Steeden, as the Warriors put down two converted tries, and scored the next two points as well, with a forty-metre penalty kick thirteen minutes out from half time. They wouldn’t score again today, even though they kept the Raiders out for the entire first forty, defending their line like a top four team despite being ranked worst in the comp for letting through points. The hosts had to hit back with a big statement after the break – and hit back they did, with spectactular vision and pride.
Put that down, in part, to the magic of Jack Wighton’s boot, which produced not one but two 40/20s during this second forty minutes of football. Jamal Fogarty mirrored it with the two penalty kicks that closed out the game, as well as his first conversion of the year from the left sideline. Still, the high point of this back forty was a magnificent pair of combos between Fogarty and Corey Harawira-Naera – the first a short ball, the second a sneaky grubber – that were good enough to amp up Canberra’s footy flow once again as they approach the finals.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak took the kickoff and sent it across to Addin Fonua-Blake for the opening charge, before Jack Murchie took a carry against his former club, and Euan Aitken brought it to the cusp of halfway. Shaun Johnson was at the forty by the time he took the kick, and the New Zealand chase delivered, as a three-man pack slammed Nick Cotric a metre back over the goal line to produce the first dropout of the afternoon. They swept left for the first time two tackles in, and won a penalty off it, when Jamal Fogarty crowded Adam Pompey.
With the first set in the twenty, the Warriors could really capture the game if they scored now, and they made massive inroads on both sides of the park. Only some blistering defence prevented Aitken from putting it down as he hung over the left chalk, before Murchie continued that opening run by collecting a short one from Johnson, rising from a Jack Wighton ankle tap at the ten, and reaching out his arm to plant the Steeden down on the right edge. Johnson’s kick and pass had set it all up, and he added the extras to make it 6-0 as well.
New Zealand were thus over a point per minute when they rolled into the restart, as Fonua-Blake reversed the kickoff by sending it across to DWZ for tackle one. Daejarn Asi now took the kick, and did just as well as Johnson’s pinpoint effort, lobbing a Burton-like bomb that utterly defied Xavier Savage, who reached out both hands to contain it, but still couldn’t stop it ricocheting off his head in one of the best falcons in years. If Canberra hadn’t cleaned it up, the Warriors would have scored then and there, but even so they had a scrum at the ten.
Three plays later, Asi finished what he started, mirroring Murchie’s charge with an even more effortless effort on the left, where he received a dummy half ball from Wayde Egan, showed it to the wing, busted through another low tackle from Wighton, and sliced through the rest of the defence like it was butter. Johnson bent it back from the sideline, the Warriors were on twelve unanswered points, almost ten minutes had passed, and the home team still hadn’t touched the footy, stunned by this masterclass in near perfect New Zealand rugby league.
Finally, Cotric made the catch under another soaring Johnson bomb, burrowing to ground ten metres out to avoid any chance of another dropout. Canberra had their first set of the night, the first step in a slow comeback that would eventually keep the Warriors to only a sole penalty goal over the next seventy minutes of football. You wouldn’t have known it from the start of the next set though, as Marcelo Montoya and DWZ took hard fast runs to supercharge their position, only for Johnson to end with his first misfire with the boot.
So far, the New Zealand kickers had sent it high and far as possible, hoping to create chaos at the other end, but this time Johnston overweighted it, gifting Savage some closure and composure when he took it in goal for an extra tackle. The visitors quickly absorbed the momentum, however, when Cotric found himself caught beneath Chanel Harris-Tevita’s leap for the high ball, getting himself a penalty for unintentional aerial contact. Tohu Harris was over halfway by play three, and Asi booted the first really spiralling bomb a moment later.
This could have been the hardest kick of the game to take, so it was a real rhythm-shifter when Savage, who had been lurking behind the left padding, collected it in goal for another seven tackles. Canberra had a shot at restoring the flow they’d glimpsed with their last augmented set, especially since they received their first burst of field position, fifteen minutes into the game, off an Egan error. Fogarty almost broke through on the right, the Raiders hit the New Zealand line, and yet Wighton followed Johnson with an overlong grubber.
The Bunker briefly scrutinised it to see whether Chanel had got a hand to the footy on its way into touch, and while this wasn’t an issue, the replay showed that Jazz Tevaga had held back Wighton, as Canberra started to make up for the opening deficit in field position with a full set in the Warriors’ ten. They started on the right edge, where Josh Papalii followed Fogarty with a near-break, before Adam Elliott shifted the play back inside and Zac Woolford tried to send Hudson Young across beside the left post with a well-timed dummy half short ball.
For a beat, this felt like the Raiders were consolidating in all parts of the park, but by the time they sent it back to the left, and Fogarty promptly chipped crossfield to the right, it seemed like they’d run out of options for now, as Jesse Arthars leaped up to take the kick and held his ground two out from goal. On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors had proved their mettle with the toughest goal line defence of the game, and looked set to face the same challenge a minute later, when a Pompey hand in the ruck got Canberra downfield again.
Elliott now made it a trio of big runs on the right, following Fogarty and Papalii by collecting a very late Papalii offload, busting through the line, and summoning so much strength that he seemed destined to score beside the right post, only for Johnson to lead the Warriors’ most heroic pack of the night to hold him up centimetres out. Still, his charge was money in the bank, and continued to energise the Raiders when Tevaga knocked it on, and New Zealand wasted their challenge trying to prove a strip, early in the following set.
Sebastian Kris embodied a new energy for the Canberra side as he charged up the left off the scrum, and Matthew Timoko continued it by almost breaking through in the right corner a few plays later, but for the moment the Raiders couldn’t quite harness this newfound adrenalin, as Kris bookended it all with a knock-on as he was trying to scoop up the Steeden late in the count. Now it was New Zealand’s turn to get the scrum feed, and they needed to complete this set with a bang (and ideally get a repeat) to recover some momentum here.
Chanel proved to be the critical playmaker now, poking his nose through the line and offloading for Asi to glimpse open space, before Johnson booted his first kick in a while to the right edge, where DWZ tapped it back for Daejarn, who might well have scored if he hadn’t lost it on the ground. Tapine now answered Chanel’s run, not with a near-break, but with some of the best post-contacts so far, while Fogarty outshone Johnson for the first time tonight, hanging it so high it took Montoya and Chanel’s best plays to return it to the thirty.
Finally, the Warriors got a burst of position, as a ruck error from Woolford gave way to a hand in the ruck from Wighton. Forty metres out, Johnson took advantage of the windless conditions to boot through what would become the last New Zealand points of the game to make it fourteen unanswered points. It was an interesting choice to take the kick, no doubt a sign of respect for the Raiders, despite the fact they hadn’t scored yet, but perhaps also an effort to regalvanise the power of Johnson’s boot, so powerful in the opening ten minutes.
Certainly it seemed to motivate DWZ, who came up with the best return in weeks, winding his way through one Raider after another to break through the line and hit halfway before he was finally brought to ground. The home team needed a big individual play to curb that flow, and Wighton almost provided it with a bone-rattling tackle on Chanel, but ended up stripping more than rattling the footy free, as Bunty Afoa leaned into DWZ’s energy on play one, and very nearly won a further penalty off Timoko, who did well to get back onside at the death.
Harris continued Afoa’s trajectory a play later, in set that was compressing Dallin’s mad charge into a series of plosive hits from the big men, so the Raiders had a rare chance to reabsorb all that energy as their own when Egan put it down, and Afoa got done for a slow peel on Savage a couple of seconds later. This was the most dramatic turnaround of the game, the crowd were at their loudest, and the green machine had finally found their flow, ten minutes out from the break, when Tapine busted through the line and went for a miracle ball.
You couldn’t blame him, since this felt like a clutch moment for Canberra, the right time to take risks, but the crowd abruptly fell silent when he lost it, and even quieter when Savage ricocheted it forward on the next kick return. As quickly as New Zealand had handed back the momentum, they’d regained it, and then lost it again with an Asi error, ushering in the most volatile period of play so far. With adrenalin coasting up and down the park, and handling growing more mercurial, one team – or player – had to stand up with a big statement here.
Montoya made a good start by taking the next high one on the full despite considerable pressure from Elliott Whitehead, and Asi made the most of it with a kick on the fourth, giving his men ample space to summon a four-man pack and drag Savage fifteen metres back, keeping him on the ground long enough for one of the slowest play-the-balls of the game. The Raiders looked for a penalty they didn’t get, while Fogarty hit back with an even earlier kick, a 40/20 attempt that bounced wrong when it arrived at the right sideline.
There were less than five minutes on the clock as the Warriors started working it back from their thirty, in what turned into one of the biggest grinds so far, culminating with Eliesa Katoa standing for an age in the tackle, before Johnson ended this period of clutchy kicks by booting it out on the full, and so providing Canberra with one last burst of energy, as the crowd went crazy once more. They needed to score before the break, and they hit the red zone midway through, where Foagarty looked scheming with the grubber, but didn’t pull it off.
That made it two botched kicks from Fogarty, and one from Johnson, while a DWZ fumble early in the count officially made this the messiest period so far as well. With a scrum at the twenty, Canberra had one last shot, as Fogarty reprised his barnstorming right edge run from the first quarter, Elliott again made it within centimetres of chalk, this time beneath the crossbar, and Wighton parlayed all that energy, a summary of the Raiders’ best moments so far, by coughing it up again on the left as he was preparing for an offload out the back.
Against all the odds, then, the Warriors headed to the sheds at 14-0, after forty minutes of defending like a top four team, despite being the cellar-dwellers for conceding points in 2022. They got one last bump up field with an Elliott offside, but were a second too short in setting up Asi for the field goal, foreshadowing their barren back forty. Even so, they had their biggest half time lead of the season, so Johnson was justifiably proud of the troops as they headed to the sheds to prepare for a Canberra outfit who were desperate to hit back.
They wouldn’t score any more points tonight, while the Raiders would lay down 26 unanswered points in the back half to come away with one of the better turnarounds of the season. It started almost immediately too, despite a strong four-man effort to drag Ryan Sutton back to the ten on tackle one, and another big defensive statement to prevent Emre Gule getting away the offload a play later. Wighton changed all that with the kick though, lobbing it so hard and fast that the bounce utterly defied Montoya on the sideline.
Straight off the sheds, the Canberra five-eighth had achieved his first 40/20 of the afternoon, as the Raiders launched into a repeat set from the ten, and delivered a few tackles later, off the most plosive and committed sequence of the game so far. Fogarty and Savage set it up with a pair of passes to the right edge, but even they couldn’t have predicted the mammoth sequel from Timoko, who slammed through Pompey, hung the footy over the line, and used Montoya as leverage to manoeuvre himself back through Chanel.
So unexpected was this Herculean effort that Albert Hopoate was completely unmarked when Timoko second phased the Steeden over for him to put down. Fogarty might have faded the kick away from the uprights, but this was still the key rhythm-shifter for Canberra, who only needed to score the next try, and convert it, to be well and truly back in the game. The Warriors did well, then, to survive the restart, even if it almost cost Egan the rest of the match when he took a beat to rise from a brutal Elliott-Guler-Young combo early in the count.
Elliott, in particular, was charged up from this contact, trying to elasticise the latter part of Canberra’s next set by attempting a sideways run on tackle four, and building enough of a platform for Wighton to boot through his first soaring bomb since the break. Montoya did well to take it on his knees, starting the long journey back from the dropped ball and aborted tackle on Timoko that set up the Raiders’ try, while New Zealand got a much-needed penalty a play later, when Elliott let his aggro get the better of him with a crusher on Chanel.
Four tackles after that, Pompey tried to get some closure of his own by attempting to scoot past Timoko on the left edge. Not only did he fail to get around the Canberra centre, but Arthars knocked on the high ball, returning the rhythm to the Raiders as quickly as they’d stolen it, especially once a Katoa penalty bumped them back down the park. Young got them rolling with a rollicking charge, Starling showed it for an age before banging into Harris just outside the thirty, Savage tried to break through Kris, and Elliott took possession once again.
This time he leaned more into the flow of that earlier left-edge run, setting up a series of cascading passes towards the centre that DWZ reabsorbed beneath the chip kick, which he took on the full in goal and carried all the way back to the forty to ensure that his men had a complete set in the Canberra end once tackle zero was done. With such a rapid acceleration of position, Johnson took a shot at a kick on the fourth, but he’d counted without Cotric, who took it brilliantly on the bounce and burrowed into the turf to avoid the dropout.
Wighton, like Johnson, opted to go early, looking for his second 40/20 since the break, this time on the other side of the park. He got especially unlucky with the bounce, gifting DWZ another decent return, but the momentum was still swinging against the Warriors, even if Johnson was able to get his kick away with no real pressure, just outside the forty. Savage glimpsed an answer to Dallin’s sublime return when he took the high ball, Tapine was back off the bench as Elliott took a deserved rest, and Corey Harawira-Naera was on a beat after.
Next time around, Johnson only got to halfway for his kick, giving CHN and Tapine just a little more space to lay a platform for the Fogarty boot, which sent Chanel deep behind the ten to accommodate its spin. As a result, New Zealand had to work hard to bring it back inside their own end, as Wighton and Kris combined to prevent Arthars hitting Canberra territory, forcing Johnson to weight it even further back, about forty-five metres out from his own line. Little by little, the Warriors were starting to flag, and looked particularly exhausted now.
On the other side of the Steeden, Starling supercharged the latter part of the next set with a twenty-metre dummy half dash, setting up Canberra’s best shot in a while as Wighton got in position for a chip to the left that Young would have transformed into a try if Kris hadn’t tapped it on in the air. Even so, the Warriors had to work it off their line again, and finally capitulated under the pressure of this shrinking field position, as Tevaga put it down in the twenty under pressure from CHN, after using up the challenge in the opening half.
Young was raring to cross over on the second play, rejuvenating the green machine on the cusp of the final quarter with one of the best short-range charges of the game. The Raiders parlayed that momentum out to the right, back inside, where Tapine took a shot at the posts, and then again to the left, where Wighton almost hit the chalk and won six more. Kris slammed over a play later, thanks to a beautiful low offload from Savage that combined the young fullback’s mercurial footwork with some of the best ball handling of the afternoon.
With eight tries under his belt, Kris had cemented his status as most prolific Raider of the season, behind Timoko and Young at six apiece, while Fogarty got his first two of the season from the left touchline to narrow the deficit to four with a quarter of football left. CHN slammed into the defence like his life depended on it to get the restart rolling, Papalii laid down some forward pack facts up the middle of the park, and the Warriors had to work it off their own chalk again, as Chanel was held up by a committed CHN-Starling-Papalii combo.
Seeing him struggle to make post-contacts or second phase was like a microcosm for the Warriors at this point in the game, as Walsh grew restless to rejoin the fray, and Wighton brought all this vision to a head with his second 40/20 of the afternoon, before taking the next charge to bring his men into the ten. Kris brought it right to the chalk a play later, Guler took a steadier a little further back infield, and CHN crystallised all that grunt by taking a short one from Fogarty on the right, and curving behind the posts for the conversation stopper.
Between Wighton’s kick and CHN’s putdown, the Raiders had reasserted themselves, scoring fourteen unanswered points to match the Warriors’ dominant opening, and taking the lead for the first time once Fogarty booted through the two from right in front. Now was the time for Walsh to return, and sure enough he replaced Asi for the restart, which started with some of the most committed New Zealand defence since the break to keep Guler and Papalii in the red zone, only for Aiken to concede six again with a ruck infringement late in the count.
By this stage Canberra had 16/16 to 7/8 completions since the break, and 675 to 348 run metres, as Young arrived at the brink of the red zone midway through the set, and Fogarty tried to reprise his combo with CHN, who didn’t break through on this play, but still managed to pop the footy back for Tapine to take another charge up the left, establishing the field position he’d need to link up with Fogarty once again on the last – this time off a deft grubber that Chanel dove on with an air swing and miss, leaving the footy live deep in goal.
In one of the most visionary moments of his career, Corey belied his massive frame by chasing it down like the smallest man on the park to ground it just before the dead ball line, making this two from two in the linkups with Fogarty. Canberra had responded to the Warriors with one of the best hitbacks of the season, and had their highest-scoring second half of the season as well, following their 22-point high against the Titans, reaching a sublime footy flow that made it feel anything was possible, especially with a passionate GIO crowd roaring them on.
Nevertheless, the Warriors were only eight points behind with ten on the clock, so they had a real chance to hit back, even if the stats were against them with the Raiders enjoying 10/13 of the last sets. Canberra glimpsed their first vulnerable moment in a while a minute later, when CHN collected a Starling offload, and lost the footy into an Aitken tackle, only for Wighton to send up a judicious challenge to show that the ex-Dragon had stripped the footy here, setting up Fogarty for the first of two penalty kicks that would close out the game.
Johnson had a shot to get the ball back to his men with a short kickoff, but he sent it too deep, ushering in a drab ending for the Warriors, who conceded three straight dropouts, and a pair of errors from Walsh to set up Fogarty’s final penalty kick thirty seconds out from the siren. Sure, they did well to defend their line, but this was still a big anticlimax after their barnstorming first stanza, so they’ll be as keen to reassert themselves against an ailing Storm as the Raiders will be for a more consistent game when they rock up to Gold Coast next week.