Green with envy, no more. The Canberra Raiders are into a grand final.
The Green Machine was transformed into the time machine at GIO Stadium on Friday night, turning the clock back a quarter of a century to send the nation’s capital into raptures after a 16-10 victory over South Sydney.
Ricky Stuart, just 80 minutes away from delivering what he helped deliver 25 years ago.
To make it even more special, the Raiders overcame the controversial sin-binning of fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad with just over 10 minutes remaining to secure a momentous victory.
However a historic night in Canberra could be marred by a high tackle from man of the match Josh Papalii that may deny the inspirational prop a position in next Sunday’s grand final at ANZ Stadium.
Papalii, who scored the match-winning try, was placed on report in the second half after collecting Rabbitohs fullback Adam Doueihi across the head with his shoulder, however if deemed just a grade one careless high tackle he will escape with just a fine and be free to play.
Also of great concern for the Raiders is the calf injury that forced centre Joseph Leilua from the field mid-way through the second half.
Match: Raiders v Rabbitohs
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
But they were all tomorrow’s problems, for today was time to celebrate for a club that has been through hell and back over the past decade.
South Sydney had plenty of opportunities, and ultimately their inability to strike with the ball will haunt them over the off-season as they come to terms with the reality of two straight preliminary final knockouts.
Equally, Canberra’s desperation in defending their own line played a huge part in their ability to await the winner of the Roosters-Storm showdown in next week’s grand final.
The Raiders came into the game with everything to lose. The expectation was that they’d book their passage into the decider, especially considering their opponents had limped into the penultimate weekend of the season with an unconvincing win against Manly seven nights earlier.
Bennett, Mr September himself, sprung a few surprises pre-game – including the dumping of departing prop George Burgess in what would have been game No.150 in the NRL.
South Sydney had a mountain of possession to open the game, however failed to convert pressure into points against a somewhat nervous Raiders side in front of an NRL record crowd of 26,567 at the venue.
A host of South Sydney errors coming out of their own half helped change the momentum of the game, with the Raiders getting into the game through some brutal defence and in turn collecting the first try of the contest after Jarrod Croker dived on to a drop ball from Corey Allan in his own in-goal.
Papalii stands tall in the moment of need again
A set play from a scrum should have allowed the Rabbitohs the opportunity to equalise, however a try-saving tackle from Hodgson on Cody Walker forced the ball free with the Bunnies No.6 over the line.
However there would be no denying Dane Gagai soon after, with another scrum play causing damage for the Raiders as the South Sydney centre strolled around his man to level the scores in the 29th minute.
The Raiders scored a fortuitous try to open the second half after Wighton managed to get a boot to a ball he fumbled in the nick of time, chasing down the ball to dive over in the corner for a 10-6 lead.
Bunker awards try to Wighton
Things got worse for the Rabbitohs soon after when Doueihi was left seeing stars after a high shot from Papalii that saw the Raiders prop put on report.
With just over 10 minutes to go the game turned on its head when Adam Reynolds sprinted down field after an intercept, only for Nicoll-Klokstad to be sent to the sin bin for a professional foul.
It was deemed the Raiders fullback stripped the ball out of Reynolds’ grasp, forcing the home side to play all but the remainder of the game with just 12 men.
Papalii sealed the deal soon after when he beat Liam Knight and Damien Cook to score under the posts, a moment that not even a consolation try to Campbell Graham in the dying seconds could ruin.
Croker pounces on an Allan mistake