Thursday night’s tough and bruising encounter between the Parramatta Eels and Canberra Raiders at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast has emphatically re-invigorated the green machine’s run towards the semi-finals.
The win, at least temporarily, snuck the men from the nation’s capital back into the top eight, something many would have seen as unthinkable considering the unconvincing and challenging season that appeared to be unfolding.
Some weeks back, coach Ricky Stuart called on his men to rediscover the urgency and desperation that his Raider teams have so often shown in the past; something that has been clearly absent in many of the performances tossed up in 2021.
Prior to the Raiders’ recent wins against the Sea Eagles and Sharks, the win-loss column had taken an evil shape after four losses in five games and a -54 for and against differential. A little further back, the Raiders had been towelled up the Roosters, Storm, Rabbitohs, Panthers and Eels; with the top sides seemingly having put a considerable gap between themselves and a Canberra team still yet to fulfil its true potential.
Such were the tensions around the captaincy of the club, dissent in the playing group and their partners and a premiership campaign looking more and more like a derailed one, that the coach jumped to the defence of his entire squad, refuting claims that the Raiders were ‘broken’ and suggestions that such dysfunction would put pay to their 2021 season.
True to his word, Stuart appears to have been able to flick the switch when most required and Thursday’s 12-10 victory against the Eels made something of a compelling statement.
That statement was not merely the kind where a team walks away with two points and suggests that a season has its natural up and downs and that the squad will continue to work on a week to week basis with the end game as their greatest motivator.
Far from it. There was, and has recently been, something impressively different about Canberra's performances. Something stark and eye-catching.
The Raiders completed its trio of recent wins with a gritty, determined and defensively superb showing against a Parramatta team that was averaging over 28 points per game heading into the match.
Keeping the blue and gold to ten points was something of an achievement and completely out of character for a Raiders defence that has leaked 30 or more points on seven occasions this season.
Yet any sceptics who felt that the coach's words were mere rhetoric and that the opening three months of the season were an accurate reflection of exactly where the Raiders stood in 2021, may now be forced to think again after what was an impressive victory.
At their best, Stuart’s Raiders have been consistent, relentless and often brutal in defence, something they rediscovered on Thursday night in spades.
Not that the win came easily for Canberra. After a stalemate first half where no points were scored, the Raiders kicked away to what appeared a winning margin early in the second with tries to Corey Harawira-Naera and Jordan Rapana, before the Eels responded quickly with a try of their own to Dylan Brown.
All Run Metres
Depending on your view, the match was either set up for another in a long line of Raider fade-outs or the chance to confirm to their fans and the broader rugby league community that the previous fortnight had been no fluke.
Despite a late try to Maika Sivo and the scariest of moments in the 80th minute when the powerful winger almost crossed for the match-winner, the Raiders held on for what could be a season-defining result.
For a team written off by many, it was the most impressive of wins and one that consolidated the work it had done over the previous fortnight.
Interestingly, the run home features more than winnable matches against the Knights, Dragons, Warriors and Roosters, with games against the Sea Eagles and Storm set to be the two encounters that ultimately swing the Raiders’ fate when it comes to semi-final play.
How that all plays out, we eagerly anticipate. What we do know for now is that Ricky Stuart has his Raiders humming along better than at any stage of the season.
Some may have written off the Raiders’ fortunes a few weeks back, now, only a fool would dismiss a side that looks to finding form and giving itself every chance of qualifying for the top eight.