The Canberra Raiders have produced one of their toughest performances in recent history to beat the Sydney Roosters 22-18 in an epic semi-final clash at the SCG.
In front of a strong crowd of 18,110 which featured a sea of green, the Raiders fought off a strong challenge from the Roosters in the dying stages to keep their premiership dream alive and book a spot in a preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm next week.
After a slow start last week, the Raiders were determined to start well tonight and they did just that with big man Josh Papalii bulldozing his way over near the line from close range to put his side ahead 6-0 after just 5 minutes.
Papalii featured again in the second try, this time with a lovely offload to John Bateman who then found Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad streaking through the middle of the field. He then passed in to Jordan Rapana who in turn gave it to George Williams to score a magnificent team try under the posts and double their lead to 12-0 after 19 minutes.
The Raiders continued to dominate through the middle of the field and, after some sustained pressure, Joe Tapine used some fancy footwork and brute strength to shake off some flat-footed Roosters’ defence to score and all of the sudden the Raiders had a dream start at 16-0 up after just 22 minutes.
The Roosters have been a great side over the past few seasons, and it was only a matter of time before their big guns got them back into the game.
A brilliant pass from Luke Keary in his own half sent Josh Morris away down the wing before he put a perfect banana kick through to James Tedesco who scored to bring the score back to 16-6 and give the Roosters momentum heading into half time.
The Raiders’ starting middle forwards in Papalii, Tapine and Hudson Young all played outstanding roles in the first half, but you could see the momentum change once Papalii and Tapine came off the field late in the first half.
The first try in the second half was always going to be crucial and both sides had tries denied with Joseph Manu deemed to have used a second effort for the Roosters, while a Jarrod Croker obstruction denied Jack Wighton a certain four-pointer to extend the Raiders’ lead.
Manu wouldn’t to be denied twice though, after some lazy defence from the Raiders’ left edge gave him a clear run to the line to bring the Roosters back to within four points with still 23 minutes left on the clock.
It was a real war of attrirition out there with both sides looking out on their feet at certain times. Nicoll-Klokstad started to cramp with 20 minutes still left on the clock but showed tremendous heart to stay out on the field and pulled off one of the tackles of the season on Josh Morris in the corner as he looked certain to score and give the Roosters a chance to hit the lead.
Both sides were making plenty of metres with the ball and it provided the Raiders with a chance to extend their margin.
On the last tackle, Williams put through an innocuous grubber that Tedesco looked to have covered, but the ball took a wicked bounce which left him out of play and Wighton came sprinting through to ground the ball and give the Raiders some breathing space at 22-12 with 10 minutes remaining.
It seemed like the Raiders were on their way to another preliminary final, but fans were made to sweat a little bit longer.
The Raiders were on tired legs and the Roosters marched up the field again before an offload from Sonny Bill Williams to Sitili Topouniua who then found Tedesco for his second try of the night to bring the margin back to four points with five minutes to go.
The Roosters had one last attacking raid down the left edge but Tedesco couldn’t handle a hot pass and the Raiders managed to wind down the final minute of play.
It was an unfortunate way to end for Tedesco who played a sensational game for his club, but their dreams of a three-peat were crushed by the team they beat in last year’s controversial grand final.
There has been a healthy rivalry build between these sides, and while it doesn’t erase the tough loss from last year, this gritty and determined win was well deserved for the Green Machine.
It was a physical contest, so the Raiders will have to lick their wounds and turn their attention to a preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm at Suncorp Stadium this Friday 16 October.