Round 1: Canberra Raiders v. Penrith Panthers (GIO Stadium, 05/03/16)

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Every team in Round 1 has suffered from an unseasonably warm autumn, but no match has seemed to feel it as acutely as the clash between the Raiders and the Panthers at GIO Stadium last Saturday afternoon. With the temperature getting up to 36 degrees as the game progressed – and up to 40 in the middle of the field – you could have been forgiven for assuming that Rugby League was a summer sport, with the Raiders losing around 60 kg over the course of the game, and Joey Leilua and Josh Papalii shedding a full 8 kg between them. The weather was all the more startling in that GIO is generally one of the coolest and mildest of NRL venues, while both the Raiders and the Mountain Men are generally seen as cold-climate teams. Last Saturday, though, GIO was hotter than 1300SMILES, giving the game a tropical intensity that you rarely get south of Suncorp.

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Of course, the Raiders consciously train as a cold-climate team, reserving some of their most brutal pre-season sessions for the middle of the day. It was no surprise, then, that they felt right at home in the hottest part of the field, with the forwards taking on most of the brunt of the weather, culminating with a mad dash 30-metre try from Shaun Fensom that proved just how much of an asset he can be with with a bit of space. At the same time, as Blake Austin pointed out in a recent column, Aidan Sezer brought a forward-like toughness to his debut as Raiders halfback, playing most of the game after a knock to the face that left him blind in the left eye and nursing a fractured cheekbone. That didn’t prevent him getting in two tries, putting Canberra back in front with the most impressive display of sheer physical bravery  in the NRL since Sam Burgess’ performance in the 2014 Grand Final.

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At the same time, Austin himself was taken off early in the first half with a knee injury – a sorry state of affairs for a Canberra outfit that are relying more than ever on an effective halves unit. The silver lining was that Sam Williams and Lachlan Croker were on hand to step into the fray, with Croker, in particular, providing some much-needed Raiders spirit after a dreadful start to the second half. Indeed, Penrith were the favourites right up to the 50th minute, even with Canberra’s history of coming from behind in close games. Trailing at 22-16, and with Jarrod Croker suffering from a virus, the Raiders conceded several penalties in the first ten minutes of the second half before things started to swing their way again, thanks in large part to what Austin has described as Sezer’s Rocky-like gutsiness, in what has to be one of the best pieces of writing from an NRL player in some time.

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On the Panthers side, James Segeyaro’s 100th game may also be his last game for a while, as the NRL’s favourite little guy was taken off with what appeared to be a broken forearm. While Jamie Soward’s kicking game was on point, and it was fantastic to see Josh Mansour get in there with a try, Penrith were fairly weak in the second half, failing to complete many possessions, with most of their best moments also tending to revolve around the centres, where Trent Merrin also took the brunt of the heat, scoring his first try for the Panthers twenty-two minutes into the game. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Penrith have some way to go if they want to make the eight this season. In particular, they need to provide more of a showcase for Bryce Cartwright, who played for the full 80 minutes and managed 27 tackles.

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All in all, then, it was one of the most brutal, grinding games of the pre-season from two battling teams who have been out of the prestige circle for a while. At the same time, the extreme heat also seemed to create a certain amount of solidarity between the two sides as well, with Soward and Austin coming together on Twitter to express concerns that the two clubs’ medical officers didn’t recommend extra drinks breaks during the game – a strange decision given that they were included in the Roosters’ clash against the Rabbitohs the following afternoon, where conditions were much milder and cooler. By the end of the game, there wasn’t much energy left for heroics or aggression – everything was deflected into grinding, relentless footy, making it one of the most visceral matches in Round 1.

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