BY CURTIS WOODWARD
The Canberra Raiders have qualified for their first grand final since 1994 after surviving one of the greatest finals matches in the history of the game.
All the momentum was with the Raiders coming into the game. The script said it was meant to be Canberra’s fairy tale. Nobody told the South Sydney Rabbitohs who came within a whisker of stealing it.
Neutrals were riding the Raiders wave.
The underdogs, the viking clap. All that stuff.
But the Raiders on Friday night were possessed.
For years we’ve spoken about Canberra as the entertainers. If the opposition scored 24, the Raiders would score 34. It was great to watch but it didn’t get them any closer to the grand final.
On Friday night, they were truly tested.
They spent most of the second half defending their line. The crowd was incredible. They were the unofficial man of the match. Never underestimate what 30,000 fans can do for you when you think you’ve taken your last breath. When you think you’ve got nothing left to give and that energy pulsates through you one last time.
This was Canberra’s night.
If they win next week, they’ll talk about this crowd for decades to come.
The second stanza was all one-way traffic.
Canberra said no.
And then it got worse. They spent the last ten minutes with twelve men after their fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was sent to the bin after a professional foul. It smelt like heartbreak but the Raiders kept coming.
Watching the game, it always appeared Canberra were going to get there as unbelievable as that sounds. Everything they did looked like a side going to the big dance.
Josh Papalii was incredible.
Not long ago at the 2017 World Cup, he was overweight in a Samoan side that spluttered into the quarter-finals. Some thought he was finished. Now look at him. Papalii is the easily the best prop in the world. He is a beacon. Follow me boys… I will not let you down.
It was poetic that it was he that slammed down the try underneath the black dot at the southern end of GIO Stadium to send his club through to the decider.
Papalii is the poster boy for Polynesian kids making their way. He’s now the benchmark for all kids – white, brown or purple. He’s incredible.
The big enforcer was placed on report for what was perceived as a high shot from the referees. The fact is, he will get off. First contact was not with the head. He’s fine.
After the game, Ricky Stuart was asked about Papalii.
Stuart owes Papalii cases and cases of beer for as long they both live.
Then there’s the English Cameron Smith – Josh Hodgson.
Hodgson is as good as Smith although they are quite obviously a little different.
For Melbourne, Smith controls the tempo of everything.
Hodgson does that and everything else.
Their skill level is almost equal but Hodgson does things physically that Smith could only wish he could do. The way he pumps fists with his props. His insistence on putting his body in places it shouldn’t. His absolute desperation to scramble to plays he has no right being at. Hodgson is almighty.
The captain was everywhere.
His defensive reads were world-class. Croker’s toughness, for such a small man, can’t be disputed.
He barely saw the ball in the second half but you could see it…hear it…when he gets the Steeden. He’s a mongrel in every good sense of the word.
A naturally-gifted freak that deserves to do his thing next week at ANZ Stadium.
Everyone can write Canberra off in the grand final.
Do it at your own peril.