Saturday March 31: after three heartbreaking losses to Gold Coast, Newcastle and the NZ Warriors, Canberra travel to Brookvale Oval for a crucial Easter Saturday night game against Manly. Like Homer chasing the Gummi Venus de Milo, Canberra hit rock bottom in the first half, trailing 26-6 before losing 32-16. That sparked Ricky Stuart’s famous press conference, labeling his team ‘soft’ and daring his squad to prove him wrong.
The following Thursday, Canberra returns to Bruce Stadium to play an equally struggling Canterbury in a rare Channel Nine game.
Canberra responds, leading 12-0 at halftime, but wounded fans are wary, they’ve seen it all before. Their pessimism is justified, with the Bulldogs closing the gap to 12-6 with 30 minutes left. Then, captain Jarrod Croker (shifted to the wing due to a number of injuries), scores the next 14 points – including two tries – as Canberra win 26-10. Anxiety is replaced by relief, especially for Stuart, who happily jokes around with Brad Fittler in the post-match interview.
The following Saturday night, they’re back at Bruce against the winless Parramatta. In their most complete performance so far, the Raiders don’t give an inch, winning 18-2. Two weeks ago, Canberra were a wreck, now a couple of wins has spiked the confidence for a tough game against Souths in Gosford.
Infront of an encouraging crowd of over 15,000 (more than most suburban Sydney games), the impressive Rabbitohs score three tries in 15 minutes. Canberra rally to close the halftime gap to 24-12, though Souths kick on to win 42-22. There wasn’t the same venom from fans compared to the Manly loss. The general consensus is Canberra tried hard against a superior Souths team and kept competing. Disappointing but not disastrous.
Another crucial match awaits against North Queensland in Townsville. While the Cowboys are a shadow of last year’s grand finalists, they’d just beaten Gold Coast and Canberra hadn’t won in Townsville since 2006. While Gavin Cooper scores the Cowboys’ first try after 15 minutes, Josh Papalii scores soon after to tie it 6-6 at halftime. Johnathan Thurston edges North Queensland ahead 8-6 with a penalty goal, the last Cowboys points. With half an hour left, Aidan Sezer gives Canberra a 12-8 lead. Twenty tense minutes later (a stunning try saving tackle by Jack Wighton on Michael Morgan typified Canberra’s desperation), Siliva Havili seals Canberra’s 18-8 win.
So what’s been the turnaround from the Brookvale nightmare?
Canberra’s defence has improved: in the first three rounds they conceded 80 points; their three wins cost just 20 points. Against North Queensland, they made 372 tackles (25 missed). They made 308 tackles (24) against Parramatta, and 316 (36) against Canterbury. A total of 996 tackles with 85 missed.
For most of last season, it appeared Canberra were living off the 2016 highs. They started slowly, rallied, stumbled mid-season with too many close losses and finally got their act together when it was too late. As frustration grew, tensions between the same players who worked so beautifully in 2016 was alarming.
After the first month in 2018, Canberra looked doomed to repeat 2017’s failures.
Now it seems Canberra have recovered. Ok, they’ve beaten three struggling teams, but winning becomes a habit. If Canberra beat Gold Coast at Bruce next Saturday, they’ll be 4-5 and on the edge of the eight. If they turn up with the same attitude as in Townsville, they should win easily.
They have some tough games ahead: St.George-Illawarra (round 11), Penrith (round 14 and 21), the improved Wests Tigers (round 15 and 22), Brisbane (round 16), Melbourne (round 20), Sydney Roosters (round 23). Souths (round 24) and NZ Warriors in Auckland (round 25).
Realistically, Canberra aren’t genuine contenders yet, but if they can start beating quality teams, they should make the eight.
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