The Canberra Raiders have lived with the heartbreak of grand final defeat for more than a year now but their shot at redemption could be just 12 days away.
Having exacted a measure of revenge on 2019 champions the Roosters last Friday, the Green Machine rolls into Brisbane this week for a preliminary final showdown with the Melbourne Storm - a team that knows a thing or two about getting it done on the big stage.
With the Raiders within touching distance of a first premiership since 1994, NRL.com experts Brad Walter and Chris Kennedy go head-to-head to debate whether Jack Wighton, Josh Papalii and co can take Canberra to the promised land in 2020 and bury the demons of last year.
NRL.com senior reporter Brad Walter
There’s an old rugby league saying that you have to lose a grand final to win one, and the experience of playing in the club’s first premiership decider for 25 years has the Raiders primed to go one better this season.
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart and his players have had numerous obstacles thrown at them since last year’s controversial 14-6 loss to the Roosters but the way they responded to those challenges suggests the bitter taste of defeat has made them hungrier for success.
It is a familiar path for teams such as the 1991 Penrith Panthers, who had lost to the Raiders the previous season; Canterbury in 1995 (also after defeat by Canberra a year earlier); Manly in 1996, Melbourne in 2007, Manly in 2008 and the Storm again in 2017.
Then there were four …
After the disappointment of last year’s grand final loss, the Raiders could have surrendered hope of making amends this season when co-captain Josh Hodgson joined a mounting injury list in round nine.
With fellow English international John Bateman sidelined until round 12 after complications to off-season shoulder surgery and props Iosia Soliola, Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler ruled out before Hodgson, Stuart’s forward stocks were decimated.
In addition, COVID restrictions meant Canberra had to bus it to “home” games at Campbelltown Stadium and fly in-and-out for away matches, while there were distractions over the contracts of Bateman and NSW Origin representative Nick Cotric, who are leaving after Canberra’s next loss.
However, the resolve of Stuart and his players never wavered in their bid to bring the Provan-Summons Trophy to the national capital for the first time since 1994 and they are now within one win of a second successive grand final.
With Josh Papalii leading the way up front and Bateman and the NRL’s most under-rated superstar Elliott Whitehead in the second row, the Raiders have a forward pack to match it with any team and the off-loading game to trouble Melbourne on Friday night.
Jack Wighton and George Williams are as good as any halves pairing in the Telstra Premiership, while the previously unheralded Tom Starling and back-up hooker Saliva Havili have combined to cover the loss of Hodgson.
Match: Panthers v Rabbitohs
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Perhaps the best example of Canberra’s determination to finish the job they started in 2019 were the tackles fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad made to drive each of the Morris twins, Brett and Josh, over the sideline and save otherwise certain tries in last weekend’s gripping 22-18 triumph over the Roosters.
The Raiders defeated the Storm 22-6 in Melbourne in round three and went down 20-14 six weeks later after scoring three tries apiece despite losing Hodgson in the first half with a ruptured ACL.
If they can get past Melbourne at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, the Raiders will face either Penrith or South Sydney but neither team is likely to hold any fear for a team who believe they should have won last year’s grand final and have earned a second chance.
Match Highlights: Roosters v Raiders
NRL.com reporter Chris Kennedy
Let me say from the outset I'd love to see the Green Machine break a 26-year title drought. I just don't reckon it will happen this year, for several reasons.
I'll admit I've already been wrong about the Raiders once this year; when star hooker Josh Hodgson's season ended in round nine I thought Canberra's did too. Incorrect.
What the Green Machine has achieved since has been incredible, with Tom Starling stepping into the dummy-half role and the likes of Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii leading from the front.
But… to finish fifth then win the premiership, winning four sudden-death finals in four weeks? That's a mighty ask.
They've already knocked off eighth and fourth but assuming Penrith beat Souths they still have to get through second then first, and both those sides have just had a week off to rest while the Raiders are backing up from a very tough win over the Roosters.
Get Caught Up: Finals Week 2
Since the 2006 Broncos, every premier bar the 2015 Cowboys has finished in the top four and won their first final to earn a week off.
And not since the sixth-finishing 1995 Bulldogs in the ARL has a team won a premiership from outside the top four, winning four consecutive sudden-death finals to claim glory.
Brisbane also did it from fifth two years prior, in 1993. and we could debate how likely that would have been had the Raiders juggernaut not lost star halfback Ricky Stuart on the eve of the finals.
And that's it – they are the only two teams in 112 seasons of professional rugby league in Australia to win from outside the top four.
Canberra have mental strength on their side and won't fear the Storm or Panthers but both those sides beat Canberra in their previous meeting.
Canberra have been up for a while with five wins on the trot but have to get better still to beat either team, let alone both.
So as much as it would be a wonderful story, I'm sorry to have to be the party pooper but Canberra won't be the team holding the Telstra Premiership aloft on October 25.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.