A pair of late tries in the space of eight minutes has seen the Canberra Raiders cruise to a 32-18 victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
The game was anyone’s for the taking as the Raiders led 20-12 with just inside 30 minutes to play, before a try to Luke Bateman on the cusp of the hour mark combined with a try to Michael Oldfield on debut eight minutes later put the result beyond all doubt.
The Green Machine crossed for both tries in a 10-minute period in which Souths second-row Angus Crichton watched from the sidelines due to a professional foul on Nick Cotric.
It came after Crichton milked the clock for all its worth as the Rabbitohs backtracked with desperation after a Canberra linebreak.
He denied the Raiders of a certain try in the act, but the pair of tries that followed would mean the play was of little worth.
Bateman bustled his way over inside two minutes of Crichton departing the turf, before Oldfield snapped up a missile of an Aidan Sezer cut-out to the delight of Stuart in the box.
Croker converted both tries as the Raiders climbed to a 32-12 lead, before Souths fullback Alex Johnston crossed for a consolation try on the stroke of full-time.
The late surge sewed up the first of six must-win fixtures for the Raiders in their do-or-die attempt to keep their 2017 finals aspirations alive.
Despite the win, things didn’t get off to a dream start for the men in green.
They found themselves on the back foot from the get-go when Jack Wighton was gang-tackled in the in-goal off the kick-off.
The Rabbitohs went tantalisingly close to capitalising when centre Hymel Hunt steamed through in pursuit of an Adam Reynolds grubber in the ensuing set before fumbling the ball in the put-down.
It was the Green Machine who would be first to apply the scoreboard pressure, Croker collecting a Wighton short ball on the left edge in the ninth minute before carrying two defenders over the line.
The skipper made no mistake from the tee before extending his side’s lead to 8-0 through a penalty goal from straight in front in the 17th minute.
Presented with an increased load of responsibility given the absences of pivotal forwards Josh Papalii and Sia Soliola, second-row Joe Tapine came to the fore when he crossed for the Raiders’ second four-pointer of the night two minutes later.
The Kiwi international latched on to a ricocheting right-to-left Sezer punt before Croker handed the Raiders a 14-0 cushion.
But a costly Wighton error would then see Souths hit back, the fullback willing the Steeden over the dead-ball line as five-eighth Cody Walker raced through to plant his own grubber for the hosts’ first try of the game 25 minutes in.
Reynolds added the extras to make things 14-6, but another piece of Tapine gold then opened the door for Cotric to continue his sensational rookie season.
Tapine bustled through Reynolds from 25 metres out on the left edge, before offloading to Croker who would find Cotric with open pastures ahead.
Croker proved a deadeye for goal in nailing the conversion from the left touchline to convert Cotric’s 13th try of the season, before Canberra took a 20-6 lead into half-time.
The Raiders went agonisingly close to extending their lead six minutes in to the second stanza when forward Clay Priest spilt a Blake Austin offload on the Rabbitohs’ line with his nose through the defensive line.
The Bunnies would rub salt into the Raiders’ wounds just minutes later, centre Tyrell Fuiamono hurtling through to ground a Reynolds grubber in the 51st minute after Oldfield had done his best to get to the Steeden first.
But with the game in the balance it was the Raiders who picked the lock through tries to Bateman and Oldfield.
The Raiders are now set to meet the Cronulla Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium next Saturday night when they will aim to ensure their finals hopes continue to flicker.