With the game on the line and their season hanging in the balance, Canberra coach Ricky Stuart needed his big three to deliver something special – and they did.
Having trailed 22-8 at half-time against a spare-parts Newcastle team at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday, the Raiders had fought back to be tied 22-22 inside the final 10 minutes.
As the clock ticked into the 72nd minute, Joseph Tapine slipped a ball to Josh Papalii about 35 metres out from the Raiders’ goal-line, backed up his prop partner to keep the raid alive, then one-armed a bounce pass back for Jack Wighton to scurry across for what proved to be the winning try.
“It was unreal to see the two big boys link up, striding up the middle there, then I was lucky enough to get the crumbs and finish it off for them,” Wighton told reporters after the game."
It broke the deadlock, gave Canberra their first lead, and they hung on to win 28-22 and stay within one win of the top eight with two games to play against Manly (home) and Wests Tigers (away).
NRL Round Up - Round 23
The ninth-placed Raiders (26 points) must win both, substantially improve their minus-25 points differential, and sweat on losses from one of the three teams above them – the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Broncos (all 28).
But that scenario looked a long way off after leaking five tries to the struggling Knights in the first 40 minutes.
“It’s not what was said. The boys knew what had to be done,” Stuart said when asked what words of wisdom were offered at half-time.
Raiders: Round 23
“I just thought the way they reacted after the half-time break was a sign of a mature team, and a team that cares about a result.
“That’s really important, winning those games, because it keeps us alive for another week and we’ll review and talk about that first half but we all know what it was. We’ve just got to be better.”
Only two minutes before scoring the try that saved their season, Wighton had kicked out on the full attempting an audacious 40-20, but rather than drop his head he backed himself and his teammates.
“I thought I nailed it and she just kept carrying too far,” Wighton explained.
“It’s one of those things, mate. I’ve done them a few times and I’ve nailed a few too, but that’s one of the things I pride myself on – never giving up – and that stuff happens.
“You don’t try to do it. You try to get the best result you can and sometimes it goes like that and you’re on the back foot.”
Wighton compared Canberra’s comeback victory to their late-season revival, in which they have won six of their past eight games to remain an outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
“We started the game terribly, and we did everything we said we weren’t going to do, and it was a little bit embarrassing, to be fair,” he said.
“It was good to come out in the second half and make our wrongs right and finish the game getting a win. I was as embarrassed as anyone in that first half, just the way we let the game slip into a mud fight, but the second half we did try to correct it, go back to what we know, and it worked.
“We’re always in the fight. We’ve made it hard for ourselves this year, putting teams to the sword then letting ourselves down but we always come back and try to fix it, and that’s a really good sign.
We don’t got no quitters, and I can say that proudly.Raiders playmaker Jack Wighton
Tapine, returning after one week on the sidelines nursing a rib injury, produced another dominant display in the middle of the field, albeit after a sluggish start.
In 57 minutes, the Kiwi international ran 17 times for 175 metres, made 26 tackles, and delivered the money ball for Wighton’s try after starting the movement with his pass to Papalii.
Tapine and Papalii combination a ripper up the middle
“It was pretty tough to get my gas in the first half, but I knew I had to build into it,” Tapine said.
“My ribs felt good today, and I wouldn’t risk playing and not being 100 per cent for the boys if they weren’t, so I felt like I was ready to come back.
“The first three days I was in a bit of pain and I ruled myself out for three weeks, but it came good after a week and I’m happy.”
In the best form of his career, the 28-year-old forward who began his NRL career at Newcastle said he had made a conscious effort to be a better player, and person.
“I think I’m a bit more professional, and I’ve matured a bit as well. It’s a lot of things combined, really, so I can’t put it down to one thing,” he said.
“It’s everything in the week – prep, training, diet, just everything that goes into being a footy player, and even growing … my leadership skills as well, so that really helps with your mindset.”
Match: Raiders v Sea Eagles
Round 24 -
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra