In a game filled with controversy, an undermanned Canberra Raiders side fell agonisingly short of one of their greatest ever wins, succumbing to the New Zealand Warriors 34-31 in heartbreaking fashion at GIO Stadium this afternoon.
The Raiders were down to just one man on the bench for the majority of the match and battled right to the death in one of the games of the year.
It was a nightmare start for the Raiders with Addin Fonua-Blake scoring first before star lock Joe Tapine left the field with a serious lower leg injury. A gruesome head clash between Ryan James and Seb Kris then left the Raiders with just Tom Starling on the bench with over 67 minutes to play.
The adversity seemed to click the Green Machine into gear with Jack Wighton slicing through to level the scores.
Ryan Sutton and Sia Soliola both crashed over for tries in quick succession to give the Raiders the lead.
George Williams added another try and a field goal before half time and the Raiders went into the break leading 25-6 and left the field to a standing ovation from the adoring home crowd.
The Warriors scored first in the second half through Kodi Nikorima to cut into the deficit before the Raiders hit back with the try of the match.
From deep in their own half, a Jarrod Croker offload found Jordan Rapana who broke clear before kicking through for Elliott Whitehead to score and give Canberra a 31-10 lead.
Fatigue was starting to set in for the Raiders and it allowed the Warriors to build their offload game which led to a Bayley Sironen try.
The most controversial moment of the match came in the 60th minute with Nikorima throwing a pass for Ben Murdoch-Masila to score. It looked like referee Henry Perenara was about to blow his whistle for a forward pass but instead allowed play to continue. The replays on the big screen showed the pass clearly travelled forward, leaving the local fans less than impressed.
It got the Warriors back to 31-22 and they were soon within one score after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck crossed with 11 minutes remaining.
The Raiders were desperately trying to hang on, but a six-again infringement put the Warriors in attacking territory and Adam Pompey crossed in the corner to give them a 34-31 lead with just over a minute remaining.
Canberra had one last chance after regaining the ball from the kick-off and it looked like Rapana had scored in the corner but a desperate dive from Tuivasa-Sheck knocked the ball out of his hand and left the Raiders heartbroken.
It was incredible effort from the Green Machine to keep themselves in the contest for the entire game, with the forwards in particular putting in a herculean effort. Josh Papalii ran for 209 metres in 70 minutes, Sutton made 51 tackles, ran for 188 metres and scored a try in 73 minutes, and Soliola ran for 135 metres in 53 minutes.
The Raiders will have to lick their wounds before next week’s clash with the Gold Coast Titans at Cbus Super Stadium on Saturday night, 3 April.
Hudson Young was a late withdrawal before the game and may be a chance to return to the second row. Tapine is almost certain to miss an extended period while James and Kris will be racing the clock to recover from concussion. Curtis Scott will also be a watch as he battled through a rib injury for much of the match, while Croker appeared to dislocate a finger in the first half but continued on.
The rest of the Raiders forwards will likely be sore after a brutal contest which may open the door for other players to step in. Dunamis Lui, Emre Guler, Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera all played in the NSW Cup game and could be a chance to return to first grade.
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