A Victory For the True Believers

BY DAN

You could hear the chants raining down from the stands.

RAI-DERS!

RAI-DERS!

RAI-DERS!

There was more than 25 thousand people chanting in unison. They weren’t imploring their side to win. They knew they were going to and they just wanted to make sure the players knew too.

It was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.

img_6836-1
Proof of life

***

A few years earlier it had been different. I had returned from a long stint overseas midway through the year. The Raiders had been mediocre while I was away. I had worried when I left at the end of the 2008 season that I was missing the burgeoning of a dynasty. Such was the Campese purple patch – it made me question more than a decade of mediocrity. Instead 2009 had been a year of consolidation.

In 2010 the traditional biennial Raiders’ run got under way late in the season. A helpful draw saw the Raiders with a home final against the Tigers. Being a member I got as many tickets as I could in the same spot I always sat.

But the crowd felt different to normal. The first meaningful home final in years, there seemed to be more people there to see the spectacle rather than to support the Raiders. At the best of times Canberra people have a tendency to not vocalise their feelings. Throughout the game people seemed to be sitting on their hands, turning their heads to watch the Green Army chant like they were surprised by them. It felt almost as if the crowd had been infested with Canberra’s version of the ‘corporates’ that ruin grand finals.

People will tell you that game ended when Jarrod Croker missed a long penalty goal that could have tied the match late. But really it ended when Campese’s knee buckled under the hopes of all Raiders fans. The quietness of the crowd and how helpless it felt at the Raiders’ lowest moment is something I’ll never forget.

campo knee.png
Silence and heartbreak in 2010

***

The Raiders of 2012 were less exciting than the 2008 or 2010 models, minus the nitrous boost that Campo at his best provided. More steak than sizzle, but that steak wasn’t the fat scotch-fillet of previous finals runs.

As any Raiders fan will tell you Josh McCrone is the most honest of players. So honest in fact that when he ran the ball to the line you could practically see his face trying to process options available. The result of this was invariably to throw a face-ball to a surprised second-rower who would almost be through the line when McCrone sent the ball his way.

But McCrone tried hard. He couldn’t help it. If you ever needed someone to dig you out of a hole, Josh would never rest until you were safe.

Sam Williams was his partner in the halves and represented the hope of the future. After growing up in the post-Carney vacuum, we had hope that Sam may be the well-behaved version. The halfback you could take home to your mother. Williams was a more accurate and longer kicker than McCrone, a superior organiser and ball-player, and just seemed to understand the game better. Athleticism was perhaps not his strength and may be why he isn’t playing full-time first grade today. But like a good relationship it didn’t matter if he was perfect, but that he was perfect for the 2012 Canberra Raiders.

Sam williams.jpg
Everyone loves this guy

Williams had to do all the organising because the Raiders ruck was manned by Glen Buttriss, who was as honest as McCrone but with even less flair (note: McCrone had little flair). Buttriss could run and pass, though never in the same play. Iffy service out of dummy-half is usually a death-knell for sides, but Glen made up for it with a heart clearly stolen from the National Museum. Like McCrone, his decisions to pass and run were made well in advance, brain fibres cranking over in a way that even from Bay 72 you could see him thinking. He was inspiring to those of us who aren’t quick enough to think before they do.

The talent deficit of the ball players was counterbalanced by the talent that existed around them. At this stage Josh Dugan’s inability to pass (or get up after being tackled) didn’t hamper his ability to be effective. Sandor Earl and Blake Ferguson’s “Dorguson” predated the derivative but superior “Leipana”, giving the Raiders power and pace on the outside. With Croker and Reece Robinson on the other side, it was no surprise this side had the 5th best attack and the competition’s leading point scorer.

In the middle was one the more underrated forward packs in recent history. Sure there were some big names – Josh Papalii was making his name, Dave Shillington was still playing for Queensland and Australia. They were surrounded by a bunch of men who were such honest toilers they’d make an angel jealous. Joel Thompson, Bronson Harrison, Dane Tilse and Shaun Fensom were never stars. None ever played origin, but if you needed a hit up after a dominant tackle, any of these men would take the ball without fear or hesitation.

***

To paraphrase Australia’s greatest treasurer, the 2012 elimination final between the Raiders and Cronulla was one for the true believers.

For two sides with very different histories, there sure was plenty of spite between them. Canberra’s fallen angel Todd Carney was on his final stop before bubbling his way out of the NRL forever (insert OutKast’s ‘forever ever? Forever ever?’ here). Colin Best, who a few years earlier had been an integral part of the Campo Renaissance was now in blue, white and black. To compound matters Blake Ferguson was in green, not so much burning bridges as carpet bombing them on his way out of the Shire. That doesn’t even mention the powder keg we didn’t yet know existed between Josh Papalii and Paul Gallen.

Both sides ended up in Canberra in the first week of the finals via very different paths. The Raiders sat at 6th position, having won 8 of their last 10 games to drag themselves from spoon contender to finals attender. David Furner must have been perilously close to losing his position after the Raiders’ 8th loss of the season – a 40-0 loss at home to the Tigers – occurred in just their 12th game. He was already under pressure heading into 2011. Just months later he was coaching a finals side.

When the Raiders began their run in round 17 the Sharks were sitting in equal 2nd position. They took 5 points from the last 10 rounds of the season to somehow sit a solitary point below the Raiders in 7th when the finals started. The Raiders had thumped the Sharks 36-4 at Shark Park along the way.

***

Ricky Leutele scored early. I don’t remember the specific errors that led to it, more that they were there. Leutele went over just outside Jarrod Croker and Sam Williams, which given their relative lack of size was going to be a problem spot for the Raiders.

The Raiders of that vintage rarely seemed to score first. Through their late season runs it was almost like every game was a microcosm of the season. A slow start, a sudden jolt of brilliance and then carnage.

The Raiders and the Sharks settled into the battle in the middle. When you have the likes of Gallen, Fifita, Graham, Bukuya, Jeremy Smith and Anthony Tupou lining up against Shillington, Papalii, Joel Thompson, Fensom and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs could you expect anything less. Despite the Raiders fearsome forward pack making their name that year the Sharks still seemed shocked when the Raiders came out in the first half and metaphorically smacked them in the mouth.

Paul Gallen must still have nightmares about what Josh Papalii did to him that day. You can hardly say a man who weighed upwards of 115 kilograms could stalk a man, but Papalii did his best impression of an enraged rhinoceros, neither hidden nor subtle, hunting a terrified Gallen.

After Papalii nearly killed him with a tackle from his weakside towards the end of the half, Gallen complained to the referee. He was warning Tony Archer he would take his own revenge – something endorsed by Phil Gould in commentary – but really he was asking for protection from the beast that was hunting him.

Gallen remonstrates.jpg
Gallen remonstrates

But the real action was happening elsewhere. After being outplayed on both sides of the ball for the first ten minutes the Raiders snapped into action when a Josh Dugan kick was mishandled by Isaac Gordon, and a 40/20 ensued. The Raiders had their first set and what followed was the most perfect ten minutes of Raiders football since the 1990 Grand Final.

[Aside: you’re probably wondering why I referenced the 1990 decider there. It’s kind of the ugly sister of the Raiders trilogy. Not the breakthrough victory that was 1989, not the confirmation of the Greatest Side in Rugby League History that was the last game of 1994 season. But there’s a brief period in the first half of 1990 Grand Final when ‘Chicka’ Ferguson and Laurie Daley scored off the back of some Ricky Stuart genius. During this period the Raiders look unstoppable, a flash of lightning sent from the future to explain how the game was going to be in the coming years. It was just a brief moment in that game, but it was beautiful.]

On the ensuing set the Raiders attacked and then something happened that I’d never seen before, and wasn’t even sure I’d seen it then. Even watching it now on replay I’m asking myself if I believe my lying eyes. Attacking down the right hand side, Josh McCrone took the ball at first receiver, straightened at the line, and instead of throwing the face ball to Josh Papalii, sent the most stunning cut out pass in Rugby League history. Stunning because it was of course aesthetically pleasing, but also because everyone was dumbfounded he’d done it. On the call Peter Stirling said, “teams are so used to him going short, especially to Papalii on this side, that’s what they’re looking for when he goes to the line.” McCrone had literally broken the habit of a lifetime, and with it the Raiders were away.

On the very next set, Sam Williams took off down the left after a good hit up from Glen Buttriss. He scythed through the line before coming to the fullback. Just how he got the ball back on the inside is a mystery. On the day I couldn’t tell, and no matter how many times I rewatch it still can’t. People talk about Benji Marshall and his flick pass. Sammy Williams’ pass inside to Jarrod Croker is still my green-eyed preference.

If Croker had scored then maybe we’d remember Williams’ pass better. But instead Jarrod stepped inside a would-be tackler, propped and chipped to the opposite corner where Sandor Earl may have been in the middle of the Nullabor for all the space existing around him. At the ground 25 thousand Raiders fans lost their collective mind. At home millions more listened to Ray Warren lose his:

“Ooooh stop it it’s starting to hurt! RUGBY LEAGUE! RUGBY LEAGUE!!”

Even Phil Gould’s distaste for Rugby League – the game he’s paid to organise, commentate and promote each week – temporarily lifted. “That was brilliant. It was utterly breathtaking”, he said, apparently still capable of doing anything but complain about obscure rules.

The Raiders soon scored again. Shaun Berrigan, playing the Jason Smith memorial ‘random name who spun out the twilight in Canberra’ position (previous holdees: Phil Blake, Matt Adamson, Ian Hindmarsh and Matt Orford), made a bust over the line but was held up. He somehow offloaded from that point and the ball fell onto the ground. Josh McCrone picked it up and floated it to Josh Papalii. No one wanted to tackle Papalii (with good reason) and so he scored. This was the point where commentators would say it was ‘all of a sudden 16 to 6’ and I guess you’d think the Raiders were going to run away with, if you hadn’t watched the Raiders play for any period outside of 1987-1994 (which, to be fair to most people outside of Canberra, they hadn’t).

***

The second half started with the Sharks desparately trying to claw back points. But then a critical moment.

In the 47th minute Carney went down on almost the same spot that Campese did in 2010. Just like 2010 the Sharks scored in the same passage. To complete the ‘this seems familiar’ the Raiders defence had been split because their line was staggered. It could have been any Sunday in Canberra.

And just like in 2010 the 25 thousand people in the stadium knew it didn’t matter.

Carney left the field to what can at best be described a mixed reception. On the coverage you can barely hear someone shout “tough luck Todd!” as Carney heads down, which one might assume was well-wishing. Until you hear someone, perhaps the same punter, follow up with ‘ya cunt’.

Carney
Tough luck Todd….

Jeff Robson went over minutes later but it was considered an obstruction. Then the Raiders got a high tackle penalty. And Paul Gallen complained for about the 9th time. But it worked, because moments later the Sharks scored down the Raiders right after a forward pass so blatant it was shocking to see the touch judge perfectly in line.

Stapleton missed the conversion, but for the first time that afternoon anxiety crept over the ground. Would the Raiders, the better side all day, be run-over by a side missing their star player? Was the team that shows no fear of Canberra Stadium about to break our hearts again? And like 2010 were we going to just sit there and watch it happen?

***

The game was well-poised you might say. The Sharks had all the running. The Raiders had nothing but problems.

“20 to go, chance to level it up, they’re right where they want to be, the Sharks”. Fuck off Phil Gould, who asked you (ok everyone, but shhh).

A 70 metre set and a well-placed Sam Williams kick meant the Raiders had a set to make things right. The tension rose. The Raiders were the better side. They were ready to win this game. But it was almost like they didn’t know it. Someone had to tell them.

For the second time in two sets a wayward Buttriss pass was the banana in the tailpipe of an attacking raid. A sliver behind Williams is all it takes to delay every other pass along a movement. That split second means that when Jarrod Croker got the ball the inside defence had shuffled across to cover him. The hit flattened the young man.

When Croker lay on the ground I thought he was trying to milk a penalty. But then when he looked incapable of playing the ball, full blown worry hit. At 22 Croker was already an integral part of the side, and with the score so close the Raiders could use that years leading point-scorer for the NRL. He would not be seen for the rest of the game.

In this moment of despair the Raiders needed to know that they were going to win.

***

RAI-DERS!

RAI-DERS!

RAI-DERS!

It was raining down on top of me from the Gregan/Larkham stand. It was bubbling up beside me and around me from the faithful. We weren’t cheering them on. We were reassuring them we knew the result and if they just listened to us it would all be fine. Right then and there I would have run through a brick wall if someone in lime green told me to.

(Related: I am about 57 per cent sure this is how mobs start).

I wish I could tell you it comes through on the highlights of the game. It does register through the screen but doesn’t rate a mention from the commentators. But to this day I remember looking around, swivelling my head to catch the sound as it boomed in the open Canberra air. No ground announcer had asked for this. No stadium screen had demanded it. It was organic and beautiful and I refuse to believe that every person in green didn’t get goosebumps. This was a moment.

Joel Thompson had to play the ball for Croker, now out the back with the trainer. Tony Archer yelled ‘this is the last’ as if to remind everyone that the Raiders had been stripped of all momentum and advantage in the set. Williams bombed again, sending the ball to the back of the in-goal. Out of nowhere Blake Ferguson snared the ball and put it down.

Pandemonium.

I’ve never liked Blake Ferguson as much as I did in that moment.

Dorguson
Ferguson. Pandemonium. Fergumonium?

An intelligent person would have looked at the try and wondered how Blake Ferguson caught the ball behind the Sharks defensive line. A proper Rugby League brain would have wondered where the Sharks fullback had disappeared to. I just wondered if we had willed that try to happen, like 25 thousand people had performed some Jedi business and forced the ball into Ferguson’s hands. Andrew Johns said it was a miskick. He didn’t know like we knew.

That was the moment. The next 10 minutes was just celebration.

The faithful love it.jpg
Celebration

The Sharks kicked the ball dead from the restart. A penalty and a couple of tackles later, the aforementioned ‘dummy-half who couldn’t pass’ Glenn Buttriss stepped out of dummy half. He threatened to pass. Maybe he even wanted to. But he’d done such a poor job of it that day that part of him surely knew running was a better option. The Sharks had no idea what hit them. Buttriss went through, scrambling to the line like a starving man for a cracker.

Buttriss
Buttriss goes through

As if to prove the day couldn’t have worked out anymore perfectly, the Raiders scored again moments later when Josh McCrone couldn’t decide between going short or long. The gears cranked and he chose instead to nearly throw it to the other team. The ball fell to the ground, was scooped up by Blake Ferguson who took an unimpeded run to the line. This was peak McCrone. He had a 3 on 1. He could have gone short and it would have been a try. He could have thrown the long ball and it would have been a try. He instead chose to try and pass to the only Sharks defender. On this sweet day it nestled safely in Ferguson’s hands.

Ferguson seals it
Ferguson seals it

And then as if the football god’s recognised that his calm demeanor in the face of the ridiculousness of the 2012 Raiders needed to be rewarded, Sam Williams added the last try to the game. He dummied and went through from close to the line, cementing one of the greatest games by a Raiders half in finals footy.

It was pure. It was deserving. The local product. The biggest game of his life, showing the world that he belonged not just in first grade but in FINALS FOOTY (shouts to @randomfootyfacts). It was like for one sweet day the football gods looked down and thought “Sam Williams deserves something nice.”

It still warms my heart to think of just how satisfying that try must have been. Here’s a man that is constantly a second option, at the Raiders and his other NRL stops. In the biggest game of his career he stands up, plays the game of his life. I wanted to hug him in that moment and I want to hug him now and I’m nearly mostly sober.

***

I walked out of Bruce Stadium that day about as happy as a human has been on the dark trail back to Dryandra street. The Canberra crowd had turned the silence of the darkest moment of 2010 into a heartening roar of 2012. We dragged the best out of the team that so many of us loved, even though we knew it was always just going to be temporary.

I still think back to that day as one of the happiest moments in sport. It sounds odd, given all they did was book a week longer in a finals series they were never going to win. But something about the connection between the crowd and the 17 men in green has always struck me. It was but a moment, but it reminded me that we are not alone in this world, that sometimes, and maybe only for a moment or an afternoon, we are part of something bigger. Even if in this circumstance we deployed this power in a football game, maybe another time we as a community can band together to do something more important.

***

The Raiders lost in the next week in a cavernous and empty ANZ stadium. I think most Raiders fans knew that win was as far as they would go. This team was honest. It was hardworking. But it wasn’t talented. It had a limit and with our help it reached it.

In the end though all that mattered was that one day. It was a victory for the true believers.

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