It’s been 4745 days —almost 13 full years to the day — since the Canberra Raiders have found themselves in the NRL top four after 20 rounds.
One of the biggest droughts in rugby league is over but not before Canberra nearly threw away victory in a golden point heart-stopper against New Zealand Warriors at Canberra Stadium on Saturday.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart should make sure his health insurance is up to date after his side gave up a 22-4 lead with 10 minutes remaining before prevailing on the back of a fine captain’s knock by Jarrod Croker.
Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said before the season started the centre would be the first player picked in his backline if he was NSW Origin coach.
Perhaps the Broncos mentor has been proven right.
Just two weeks after Jordan Rapana sealed a game against Newcastle in similar fashion in golden point, Croker scored his third try of the game in extra-time to seal a 26-22 win.
The Raiders led 22-4 with just 10 minutes left but the Warriors scored three soft late tries, and a last minute sideline conversion from Issac Luke after fullback David Fusitu’a scored out wide, sent the game to extra-time.
In golden point Rapana was dragged down just short of the sideline, and the next tackle halfback Aidan Sezer made the right decision to pass to Josh Papalii, who put an unmarked Croker over.
Earlier, Canberra appeared set to cruise to victory but a quick double to Warriors five-eighth Thomas Leuluai bridged the gap to 22-16 with eight minutes left.
Canberra’s eighth home win in 10 attempts this year sees it leapfrog Canterbury Bulldogs into fourth spot, just a point behind third-placed North Queensland Cowboys.
It’s more heartbreak for the Warriors, who have been beaten in golden point in three of their past four games.
The hype around the Raiders will only grow bigger after breaking into the top four for the first time this late in a season since 2003.
“Only if you let the hype grow bigger, we’re not going to let the hype grow bigger,” Stuart said.
“Jarrod’s leadership has been a massive help this year. It’s been a lot of hard work and planning to get into a position like this, [but] we don’t need to look at the table until round 26.
“There’s no more excitement in there about where we are on the table then three weeks ago. The only excitment I have is the team’s improving.”
Canberra is known for adventurous attack, but the Raiders ultimately won the game in the first 35 minutes when forced to defend grimly thanks largely to their own ill-discipline.
The Warriors dominated possession and territory but could only construct one try through Manu Vatuvei, who went off in the second half with a knee injury.
Croker turned momentum on its head by scoring off a Sezer grubber. The next set he kicked and regathered to set up a Joseph Tapine try and give his side a 12-4 half-time lead.
“There was a glitch there [at the end] but people don’t realise how out on their feet they were at half-time after that defensive effort to keep them to 4-0,” Stuart said.
“It shouldn’t have got to that, that last part of the game’s not us.
“We made some really cheap and poor decisions which cost us dearly and they scored three tries, it’s not good enough. I thought we played extremely well for an hour of footy, but we’ve got to play for another 20.
“But I tell you they’ve got some character, the’re a resilient bunch. It’s nice to get two points and learn off some areas of the game I know will be very easily fixed.”
Croker has significantly improved his defence this year but still has his critics in that department.
But he insisted he didn’t use the outside noise as motivation.
“I’m only worried about the people around me and the people in the club. I don’t buy into too much outside of that,” Croker said.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I’m just worried about this green jersey and the people in the inner sanctum. The rest of it isn’t my issue.”
With 12 minutes left the Raiders seemingly put the game to bed when a Jack Wighton line break eventually led to centre Joey Leilua’s fifth try of the season.
But two quick tries to Leuluai set up a grandstand finish.
CANBERRA RAIDERS 26 (Jarrod Croker 3, Joseph Tapine, Joey Leilua tries; Croker 3 goals) bt NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS 22 (Thomas Leuluai 2 Manu Vatuvei, David Fusitu’a tries; Issac Luke 3 goals) in golden point extra-time at Canberra Stadium on Saturday. Crowd: 9471. Referees: Gerard Sutton and Chris James