For the first time since 1990, the Raiders have won at Belmore, in what has to be one of the most disappointing losses for the Dogs this season. As the wars continue to rage around whether the NRL moves to large-scale venues permanently, there was a sense that this might be one of the last games we see at Canterbury-Bankstown’s home ground, and so there was a particularly volatile feeling in the air. Part pride, part defensiveness, part anxiety, I could feel it the moment I walked in the front gates and it continued for the entire game. It felt right, then, when it suddenly – bizarrely – started raining heavily at half-time, only to stop entirely ten minutes into the second half. Abruptly turning the field into a wet-weather sludge, it seemed to make the Bulldogs – and their supporters – feel even more desperate, defiant and united.
For all the Canterbury-Bankstown spirit, however, it was clear that the Raiders had it from the outset, thanks in large part to Jarrod Croker, who put in one of the most dominant single performances this season. With 2 tries at the 7th and 56th minutes, 3 conversions and 2 penalty goals, he scored all but 4 of the Green Machine’s 22 points. With a perfectly placed kicking game, he has to be an Origin contender for centre, since he’s easily as good as Michael Jennings – or will be in another year or so. Rarely have I seen a player make such a powerful display of captaincy on the field, as he rallied his troops and set up big play after big play, coming close to breaking David Furner’s record for the number of points scored in a Raiders game.
Adding to the Croker Effect were Aiden Sezer and Blake Austin, who played a critical role in setting up their captain’s tries. While they don’t get a lot of hype, they’re quickly becoming one of the most underrated halves pairs in the competition at the moment. Watching them and Croker weave in and out of the boys in blue, you could almost believe that we were back in the Raiders heydays of the early 00s and early 90s. The only downside for Canberra was Iosia Soliola being taken off with a broken arm. As one of the Raiders’ biggest and toughest defenders, Soliola is going to be sorely missed, and it’s even more important now that Frank-Paul Nu’uasala steers clear of some of the brainsnaps and near-brainsnaps that have plagued his game over the last couple of weeks.
As far as the Bulldogs were concerned, Michael Lichaa was pretty good in defence, coming up with 47 tackles to Shaun Fensom’s 51, not a bad effort given that the the Canterbury hooker was back on the field for the first time in a month. While there was a momentary surge of hope for the Bulldogs at the end of each half – Josh Reynolds scored a try in the 35th minute and Will Hopoate scored a try in the 68th minute – it was quickly dampened by Moses Mbye’s kicking game, which left the Dogs without a single conversion. Granted, he had some tricky angles to negotiate, but it was still a bit of a downer for the team as a whole. All in all, Hopoate’s try was probably the high point – there’s something about a fullback moment that late in the game, especially when things are going so bad for the team, and it managed to rally the fans even more than Reynolds’ four-pointer just before half time, as well as stopping a few in their tracks on the way to the gate.
At the same time, there was something a bit bittersweet about Hoppa’s try as well. Given that this was his fifth in five games, it felt like the beginning of a new consistency for Hopoate, which begs the question of how the Dogs are going to fare when that consistency is disrupted by his exemption on Sunday. Without going into that decision in any way, it suffices to say that he put in the kind of last-minute performance that Canterbury fans would like to see in every game, and proved that he’s turned out to be more of an asset than anyone really expected after Des brought him over from the Eels.
As might be expected from a Bulldogs game at Belmore, though, the emotion was even more front and centre than the gameplay. On the one hand, there was a carnival kind of vibe, with Josh Reynolds sinbinned for Josh Jackson’s foul in the first half – all in all, there were five Joshes on the field – only to be called back at the last minute after the ref finally got it right. Not surprisingly, then, there was a lot of great banter coming from the Canterbury supporters, especially in my part of the stand, to the point where it felt as if all the frustrations of the bunker system were being directed at the ref on the night, something that’s perhaps a bit easier and more pointed in such a small, intense venue.
That sense of carnival was exacerbated by the fifteen-minute downpour between the first and second halves, which suddenly seemed to transplant the game to GIO Stadium, or at least give the Raiders the advantage of a team that are more used to training in adverse, wintry conditions. By the end, things were pretty emotional, and while there have been a few disappointing anniversaries this year, none was more affecting than Chase Stanley’s response to suffering a hamstring – and a Bulldogs loss – in his 100th game. Watching the already iconic footage of hard man David Klemmer comforting him in the sheds, I was reminded that, for all the bluster, the Dogs are really vulnerable at Belmore, since it feels as if they’re fighting for their legacy and heritage each time they play there.
All in all, then, it had to be one of the most atmospheric and memorable games of the season so far, although a bit bittersweet in its reminder of the suburban Rugby League culture that’s starting to be absorbed into ANZ and Allianz. As far as the Dogs are concerned, it’s going to be a challenge to front up against the Storm after such an emotional loss, although Sam Kasiano’s hit of the season on Shaun Fensom should remind them what they can do with their big boppers. At the same time, both the Raiders and the Eels are going to have something to prove at Pirtek, in what promises to be yet another turning-point for two of the most unpredictable teams this season.