The Canberra Raiders did everything but win in their 14-12 loss to the Melbourne Storm in Saturday’s preliminary final. The battled. They scrambled. They probed and they raided. And in the end they walked away without earning a spot in the first week of October. But there was plenty to like, and plenty to build on. They showed pride. They showed resilience. And they showed that if they find their way back to a big game in the future, they have the intelligence, talent and heart to win.
Playing against the Storm is always a frustrating experience. They wrestle in the play the ball. They investigate and examine every weakness of those opposite. They wait for you to make a mistake. And if that doesn’t come, they wait some more.
This was the exact tactics that the Storm employed against the Raiders. With the ball they attacked the Raiders in the middle. And to be fair to them, they made metres this way. Jesse Bromwich stood out (21 runs for 196m) as he always does. But Dale Finucane (11 for 127m) and Jordan McLean (11 for 127m) joined him in the middle, pushing and searching for space in what they had identified as a weakness in the Raiders defence. Yes the Raiders bent. But they showed resilience. They weren’t going to break here.
And so the Storm pushed a little wider. In the 11th minute it was Cronk running a pass wide of the ruck that first scared the Raiders defence. He repeated the dose in the 32nd minute, only this time there were less bodies around him and he made his way into the in-goal. Josh Papalii initally made a dud read on the play, but somehow made up rectifying his error, rushing back to Cronk and nearly holding him up.
And that was the range of the Storm attack for 70 minutes of the match. They made some metres in the middle before trying to poke through around the edges. When they would score against 12 men, and when they had a try disallowed, it was because they found space or numbers just one or two passes wide of the ruck. The ball rarely made it to the wings, and for outside of some broken play, the Raiders kept the Storm backline in check.
The Raiders defence was impressive – worthy of a side that considered itself elite. So often in these pages we have complained about line-speed, or poor structures and decisions in defence. But these were not present in this final. The Raiders showed they had 17 players capable of containing the Storm.
With the ball the Raiders were far more enterprising. Josh Hodgson, even playing on half an ankle, was at his deceptive best around the ruck, providing the Raiders forwards with the space and momentum they needed to make metres. Josh Papalii (16 for 166m) continued his rare form, seemingly bending the line at will and adding momentum to otherwise staid sets. Junior Paulo (12 for 116m), Jo Tapine (9 for 100m) and Paul Vaughan (6 for 72 in just 22 minutes) were also impressive, but Shannon Boyd and Sia Soliola both had their moments with the ball.
The success in the middle meant that when the Raiders went wide there was space available to them. The Raiders first try came on a shift to the right, the threat of both Boyd and Soliola running lines towards the centre forcing the Storm to hold more defenders in the middle than they needed. And then Elliot Whitehead through a ball that Jonathon Thurston would be proud of and Jordan Rapana was in. Later, as the Raiders were trying to find points, they ran the ball on the last, and Hodgson, Baptiste, Paulo, Tapine and Whitehead formed what has to be one of the most unlikely backlines that again went around the Storm to keep the Raiders in the game.
In between the Raiders showed a willingness to play the enterprising football that their fans love. They went around the Storm. They tried to go through them. Edrick Lee dropped at least one pass that could have resulted in points.
Despite this impressive style, the Raiders couldn’t find themselves with the necessary field position to take advantage. While they often piggy-backed the Storm down the field, they didn’t receive the same help from the Storm in getting into attacking field position. Too often they were bringing the ball out form their own half, and neither Aidan Sezer nor Blake Austin were able to find space on their long kicks for the Raiders to force the Storm into bad field position on a regular basis. And while the Raiders took points when they got opportunities, those moments were so rare. They couldn’t earn repeat sets, taking poor last tackle options far too often.
And then Jack Wighton was sent to the sin-bin. This was a critical moment. The Storm scored 8 of their 14 points in this ten-minute period. This is was the first time a ‘slow-down’ penalty was considered a sin-bin offence this season. Tony Archer will come out today and say it was the correct call, and will defend his referees. But that was the wrong call, and it influenced the outcome.
Despite their more enterprising play, despite a defensive effort that was worthy of a grand final place, the Raiders will be watching the Storm play the Sharks next week. There is much to be proud of here. They played smart on both sides of the ball, earning the right to examine the wings by drawing the Storm defence into the middle. They were courageous in the face of adversity, holding the line as best they could as the Storm took advantage of Wighton’s sin-bin. And then when all hope was lost, they pulled themselves back into the game and gave themselves a real shot.
The Raiders didn’t win tonight. But they showed that if they can find themselves in the same position next year they are capable of winning against the best in the competition. Let’s hope they get another chance.
 It’s also worth pointing out here that the try that the Storm scored in this period came on the back of an error in the play the ball. The video referee looked at this and got it wrong. Such is life.