There’s finals defeats that break your heart, like Canberra’s 40-4 loss to the Eels in 2022, and then there’s finals defeats that have your heart beating out of your chest with pride, like Sunday’s 30-28 loss to the Knights.
The outcome may have been the same, with the Raiders bowing out of the title race, but the contrast in emotions could not be more stark.
After staving off the Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Eels to sneak into eighth place, the Raiders headed to Newcastle as rank outsiders against a Knights team that had won nine straight.
What the underdogs dished up across a drama charged 89 minutes contributed to one of the great finals of the NRL era – a 10-try, five-star epic that, in many ways, provided a microcosm of the Raiders’ season.
After losing four of their first five to open the season, the Raiders won 10 of their next 12 to climb from 16th on the ladder to fifth.
They then tasted defeat in five of their last seven, going down to fellow contenders the Warriors, Knights, Storm, Broncos and Sharks by an average losing margin of 20 points as the Green Machine stalled big time.
That rollercoaster ride continued on Sunday when the Raiders led by 10 points at half-time before falling behind by 12 and fighting back with two late tries to send the game to extra-time.
NRL try time: Jordan Rapana
Living every moment with his team was coach Ricky Stuart, a man who has inspired plenty of against-the-odds triumphs during his decade at the helm in Canberra.
“That the Raiders DNA, what you saw there today,” Stuart said post-match.
“That just showed so many people why we are a top-eight team, unlucky not to be in the top four. I can’t be any prouder.
“You wouldn’t know that we had two Origin players out and an international player. You would have heard about it if it was another club but we don’t talk about it, we just worry about the next bloke up.
“I was so proud of those young boys and their effort in that cauldron tonight.
“We were on the back foot from the start but the Raiders DNA kicked in tonight and I thought we were very, very brave.
Don’t underestimate the word proud, because I was.Raiders coach Ricky Stuart
Having been part of the finals in four of the past five years, including a grand final appearance in 2019, the Raiders have come tantalisingly close to a fourth premiership but the 29-year wait goes on.
Stuart’s monumental contribution to the club dates back to the 1989, ’90 and ’94 premierships when he joined forces with the likes of Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Brad Clyde and Glenn Lazarus to deliver three titles in a glorious six-year run.
With another generation of Raiders royalty in Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton farewelling the club after Sunday’s loss, Stuart turns to a new breed of youngsters he has ushered in during the past two seasons including James Schiller, Ata Mariota and Hohepa Puru.
Trey Mooney stuns the Newcastle crowd
Playing just his fourth game of the season, Schiller stood tall with a double and 120 run metres against the Knights while 21-year-old Mariota’s powerhouse charges have drawn comparisons with club legend Josh Papalii.
Giant 21-year-old forward Trey Mooney also grabbed a crucial try against the Knights in the sixth game of his career, surging past several defenders on a 20-metre charge to the line to put Canberra in front for the first tim,e.
“The young boys were outstanding tonight, they really stepped up,” skipper Elliott Whitehead said.
Hudson Young streaks away
“For them to come out and perform the way they did in front of a big Newcastle crowd is exciting for the future of the club."
If that future is to include premiership success then the likes of Corey Horsburgh, Joseph Tapine and Hudson Young will need to lead the way.
Horsburgh came of age in 2023, making his Origin debut for the Maroons and playing 22 of the Raiders' 24 games before a shoulder charge on Brisbane's Corey Jensen in Round 26 ended his season prematurely.
The wholehearted Horsburgh averaged 113 run metres and 38 tackles per game and typified the toughness and resilience his coach values so highly.
Young missed just one match all season, scoring nine tries and running for 104 metres per game, and his decision to re-sign with the club until the end of 2027 was a huge boost for the club.
Kiwi enforcer Tapine is another signed long-term in the national capital and at 29 he will be the cornerstone of the Raiders pack for the next four years.
With that trio working the house down and a posse of quality outside backs led by Jordan Rapana, Seb Kris and Matt Timoko to add the finishing touches, Raiders fans will enter 2024 with high expectations.
Timoko started in all 25 of Canberra's games, scoring 11 tries and making 14 line breaks, while Rapana notched his 200th career game in Round 27 against the Sharks.
After 549 games of loyal service between them, Wighton and Croker leave a huge void, but the culture they created and standards they set in tandem with Stuart will live on long into the future.
NRL try time: Matthew Timoko
"Those guys left the house tonight under the greatest example of the Raiders DNA, the way we played tonight," Stuart said on Sunday.
"A lot of teams went away [when we went 12 points down] but that's not the Raiders.
"I asked the senior boys all week that they had to lead and they did. The balance was great in regards to our youth and our senior players."
In 2024, that balance tips more towards the youth as Stuart looks to inspire the next generation of Raiders and turn pride and passion into a premiership.