It was billed as a clash between teams with contrasting styles – and we’re not just talking football.
The forgotten Canberra Raiders from the nation’s capital who barely rate a mention when it comes to representative stars or possible premierships had made the 2019 NRL Grand Final. Twenty-five years since the green machine won the big dance, they were up against the heavy favourites: those star-studded, slick boys from Bondi beach in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The Sydney Roosters were also attempting to become back-to-back premiership winners – something no team has achieved since 1993.
Right from the build-up, you could feel tension in the air. Coach Stuart of the Raiders refused to acknowledge the younger, new-age ‘Super Coach’ Robinson of the Roosters earlier in the week at the Official NRL fan day. Some Raiders players followed suit and ignored their opponents in the awkward ‘fan photo’ live onstage in Sydney’s Martin Place. You could see what the Raiders were doing: ‘Us against them’. Siege mentality versus flair and confidence. And that’s exactly what happened on grand final night.
From the opening exchanges, the Roosters asserted their dominance by controlling the speed and tempo of the game. As if we were to expect anything less, the first controversial decision (of many) went the Roosters way. Luke Keary, the classy half from the ‘Chooks’, had his kick charged down by the hardworking Englishman Elliot Whitehead of the Raiders only for it to ricochet into the Roosters on-field trainer. The referee deemed it a Roosters ball given they were technically the ‘attacking’ team. Never mind, Whitehead only had green grass and daylight between himself, the ball and the try line!
Shortly after, boom rookie Sam Verrills capitalised on some lazy try line defence and snuck in for the Chooks’ first try. After a penalty conversion minutes later, the Roosters looked like skipping away as the bookmakers predicted. Insert the classy Jack Wighton who split the impenetrable Roosters’ defence with agile, power running and sheer determination to make the Roosters look – for the first time – shaky and vulnerable. But we were only just getting warmed up.
Coming out after half time with the game locked at 8-8, the Raiders all of a sudden looked the goods with their ruthless and rugged defence. Fast line speed and dominant in possession, dare I say it, the Raiders were on top. Suddenly, attacking the Roosters line, man of the moment and 372 game retiring veteran Cooper Cronk took out the hulking front-row forward Josh Papalii prior to catching the ball. There may have been a split second in it and you can’t blame Cronk considering he gives away 20+ kilos to the Tongan wrecking ball. Cronk gets his marching orders of 10 minutes in the bin. “Cool your heels Coops”, the referee remarked as the Raiders inched closer to holding the elusive Provan-Summons trophy. Could the Chooks hold off a surging and confident Raiders outfit with just 12 men?
They did that and more.
For some reason, unbeknown to us arm chair fans kicking and screaming from our lounge rooms at home, going ‘backs-to-the-wall’ and down on troops somehow can give an advantage that stirs a team into action, the kind that can define a season and possibly defend a premiership. The Roosters all year ran the mantra “Be comfortable being uncomfortable” and that’s what it would take to go back-to-back without their General directing them. Try as they might, the Raiders threw everything at their opponents. But the Roosters kept turning them back, repelling each set of attacks. The hyped pre-match call by Robinson to name co-captain Jake Friend on the bench (despite only playing five games all year under a constant injury cloud) paid dividends as he entered the arena with a classy kick and energetic defence to help steer his team in Cronk’s absence.
It was as if Robinson had planned last years ‘Cronk Scapula-Gate’ injury as a prelude for this moment. The Roosters stubbornly refused to wilt under the pressure and controversy of the sin-binning. Not long after, with Cronk back on the green and the game seemingly in the balance with the Raiders charging up the field, the Roosters were barely hanging on. The commentators were even riding them off with former coach and mentor Gus Gould conceded they “looked done” at one point.
Wighton (judged Clive Churchill ‘MVP’ medallist in a losing team) put up another towering bomb towards the Roosters right edge with an aerial collision forcing the ball backwards – for a moment seemingly in the Raiders’ favour. Here, there was confusion as referee Ben Cummins questioned who touched it. Within that split second, Cummins signals ‘six again’ clenching his fist and waving in the air to provide six more tackles to the Raiders.
This is it, surely the end for the Bondi boys who have courageously hung in all second half. Then, as the Raiders feverishly throw the ball around probing for gaps to pierce the Roosters line, Cummins raises his arm in the same play signalling ‘last tackle’. Uhh what?! Did he just… he did.
Cummins gets a tip-off by the pocket referee that alters the original call, but the Raiders’ Wighton is unaware and takes the ball to ground. The 83,000 screaming fans were perhaps to blame here.
Change over, Roosters ball.
Raiders’ players yell and scream at Cummins that they ‘played on’ the originally call signalled. It’s the one thing you learn as a young footballer – always play to the whistle, the first decision is the only decision, full stop. But apparently it’s not.
It will sit as one of the most infamous moments of indecision in NRL history.
Here's how the Fox League commentary team reacted to #SixAgain
📺 Watch live on Fox League NOW! pic.twitter.com/h1r6Wyqnlx
— FOX LEAGUE (@FOXNRL) October 7, 2019
It’s hardly a surprise given the NRL’s form in 2019 using two referees, the added (and dreaded) bunker, inconsistent judiciary decisions, and the quagmire of interpretations that officials have peddled to fans and the media all season. It was going to happen in a big game, at a big time, at some point. We didn’t want it to… but this was it. Minutes later, the Roosters charge up the field and hit their potent left side attack through representative stars Keary, Mitchell, Tupou and current Dally M medal winner Tedesco to provide the knockout blow to the Raiders. Seemingly in a heart-beat, the Roosters ice the game through their classy backline that has finished off many a lesser team throughout the 2019 season.
What a game, what a decision. The build-up and tension of Grand Final week remained right up until that 72nd minute play. Roosters convert and the score is unchanged until the final whistle, 14-8.
The result will be debated well into the future with the underdogs and sentimental choice Raiders having a grasp on the trophy to only have it taken from them – yet again by a force beyond their control. (Perhaps they do get “treated differently”, as suggested previously by Stuart). Russell Crowe, your thoughts please: “Horseshit result in the NRL Grand Final. Raiders ripped off #sixagain”.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) October 6, 2019
However, you can argue that the Roosters got theirs also with the sin-binning of their chief playmaker Cronk. It had it all, heartbreak and ecstasy. Slick versus siege. The Raiders will travel back down the M5 to lament what could have been. In the end, Roosters coach Robinson summed it up best in the post-match press conference to inquisitive journalists. “You can talk about lots of decisions, but we nailed the execution on an opportunity we had”, he said. And he’s 100% correct. That’s why they’re the premiers. You don’t fluke being back-to-back premiers through luck or controversy alone. Class and experience outshone all else when it mattered – six again or not. It’ll be a long Summer for the Raiders, but they’ll be better for it. Bring on season 2020.
Words by Zac Mullane.