The Canberra Raiders overcame a frustrating first half to defeat the New Zealand Warriors 26-14 in front of 6,000 fans at GIO Stadium Canberra to keep their top-four hopes alive.
Elliot Whitehead was forced into a playmaking role early in the game after George Williams was ruled out with concussion and showed his class to lead the Raiders’ recovery.
The Warriors have shown plenty of determination this season and got the better of the Raiders early in this match with Peta Hiku pouncing on a grubber to give his side a 6-0 lead after 10 minutes.
The Raiders finally got some field position and hit back quickly with Jack Wighton putting Jarrod Croker away with a lovely pass and he converted his own try to level the scores at 6-6. Croker copped a heavy knock scoring the try and was soon taken from the field for an HIA and chaos ensued.
John Bateman was penalised during a tackle and the Warriors kicked a penalty goal to regain the lead at 8-6 after 20 minutes.
Some niggle after a scrum that saw players from both teams run in for some push and shove resulted in another penalty to the Warriors and they extended their lead to 10-6.
The Raiders were warned by referee Chris Sutton for their poor discipline and after Jack Wighton was penalised for being offside, he was sent to the sin bin – much to the chagrin of the home fans.
In the next set, Hiku strolled through a gap where Wighton would usually defend for his second try of the afternoon and the Warriors’ lead was out to 14-6 after 28 minutes.
The Raiders were again under pressure with the Warriors on the attack, but an errant pass from Jazz Tevaga was scooped up by Semi Valemei and, with nobody in front him, he sprinted 90 metres to score a much-needed try for the Raiders.
Still down to 12 men, the Raiders soon had another try through some brilliance from Whitehead.
On the last tackle, he put through a grubber which he regathered himself then put through another kick to Hudson Young who scooped the ball up off his toes before sliding over under the posts to give the Raiders an unlikely 16-14 lead at halftime.
The Raiders did an exceptional job to steady the ship with Wighton off the field and came out in the second half looking far more in control.
Whilst defending close to his own line, Whitehead produced a timely intercept and sprinted down field before passing to Jordan Rapana who was tackled 30 metres out from their attacking try line.
The Raiders shifted the ball left on the next play before Croker found Valemei with a flick pass and he beat two defenders to score his second try and give the Raiders a 20-14 lead after 50 minutes.
Croker slotted a penalty goal to give the Raiders an 8-point buffer with 25 minutes left on the clock.
The Raiders managed to steady the game in the second half and a late try to Nick Cotric in the corner put the finishing touches on a scrappy game.
The win means the Raiders are still within reach of the top four with one round remaining, but will need to beat the Cronulla Sharks and will be relying on the Wests Tigers upsetting the Parramatta Eels.
Ricky Stuart certainly wasn’t pleased with the quality of the game and had some choice words for the NRL in his post-match press conference.
“That was a shocking game of football,” Stuart said.
“If we had have put some lineouts in when the ball went out we would have had two rugby union games here in two days. Disgraceful.
“If my team was giving those penalties away, that’s well and good. We get penalised for it. They were doing the same type of things and not getting penalised for it. It really frustrates me and if I say anything you just get payback.”
“Now look, Graham Annesley is a really nice man. He’s been in the game for a long time. But in regards to rugby league, Graham Annesley and myself … we are planets apart. Planets. Thank God COVID is in because we wouldn’t get any more than 6,000 to these games.
“I just don’t think it went both ways in regards to what we were getting penalised for. Jack Wighton’s sin bin – would that have been the same decision if it was a semi-final? I hope not because he wasn’t offside. You can’t make that error.”