On September 24, 1989, Steve Jackson scored THAT famous extra time try to seal Canberra’s incredible grand final win over the Balmain Tigers. Not only was it the first premiership outside of Sydney, but it was arguably the greatest grand final in NSWRL/ARL/Super League/NRL history (closely followed by the 2015 North Queensland vs Brisbane decider).
This year, Canberra are celebrating that premiership’s 30th anniversary. There’s been gala functions, the “old boys” home game against the Wests Tigers, a special 30 year training jersey (that’s proved popular with fans) and the 1989 heritage jersey, which the Raiders have worn as their new home jersey. The club’s official podcast – Behind the Limelight – included a weekly section celebrating 1989, interviewing players, officials and historians about that great day. Some old Balmain players – like Steve Roach, Paul Sironon and Tim Brasher – have been good enough sports to appear on the podcast.
On the field, Canberra have celebrated the anniversary with a top four finish. Like 1989, they came into the finals rather unfancied: in ’89, Canberra finished fourth in the old final five system, meaning they had to win three sudden-death finals just to make the grand final. This year, Canberra’s poor record against fellow top four teams Melbourne, Sydney Roosters and Souths (with just one win against Melbourne), a lack of recent finals experience by comparison, and a momentum-killing final round loss to the Warriors, saw experts doubt them. It would surely be another Melbourne vs Sydney grand final.
Last Saturday night, Canberra went to Melbourne, trailed for most of the second half, and pinched a 12-10 win with a late John Bateman try (proving that Canberra’s English raid is working), delighting the small but vocal Raiders supporters among the 20,000-plus crowd. While Canberra have some injury worries (Nick Cotric copping an accidental boot to the face from Ryan Papenhuyzen) and a couple of players on report (Jordan Rapana and Joe Tapine), they’ve all been cleared for the preliminary final on Friday September 27.
It’s Canberra’s first preliminary final at GIO Stadium. Their last two preliminary finals were at Shark Park (1997) and AAMI Park (2016). During Canberra’s golden years in the late eighties and early nineties, all finals were played at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Canberra will play either South Sydney or Manly-Warringah. The preferred option is Souths, as Manly have a habit of getting under Canberra’s skin, and could rattle them on their big night. Regardless, it’ll be a sold out, pumped up crowd at Bruce, with probably the most emotional Viking Clap ever.
The top four finish has been vital after two poor years in 2017 and 2018. A repeat in 2019, and Ricky Stuart may have lost his job. Canberra recruited smartly: rather than competing with big local names, they got Bateman and Ryan Sutton from Wigan and the then-unknown Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad from the Warriors. The 2019 Raiders have fantastic camaraderie with everyone knowing their role, rather than relying on a handful of superstars.
The resurgence is based on defence. Traditionally known as a powerful attacking side, Canberra’s woeful defence in the last two years (especially in the back end of games) have cost them finals spots. This year, they’ve conceded 384 regular season points so far (averaging 15.36 a game), keeping Gold Coast, Parramatta and the Wests Tigers to nil. While the 2019 Raiders don’t need big scores to win, their 536 points scored (at 21.44 a game) is good enough. A cromulent effort on both sides of the ball.
A fine example of the improved defence is the last two games against Melbourne, conceding 28 points in 160 minutes. Take out Melbourne’s 18-point opening half in round 22, and it drops to 10 points in three halves. Amazing considering Melbourne were comfortable minor premiers and have scored 641 points so far (averaging 25.64).
If Canberra make the grand final, they will likely play the Sydney Roosters or Melbourne. Their two games against the Roosters were close losses (30-24 and 22-18), with Canberra a chance to win both in the dying minutes. However, the Roosters have been gaining momentum and belted Souths 30-6 in the other qualifying final. They will be motivated to become the first back-to-back NRL premiers.
If it’s a Roosters v Canberra grand final, the Roosters will be heavy favourites, but can Canberra cause an upset? They’ve beaten the seemingly invincible Melbourne twice at AAMI Park this year (infront of big, parochial crowds), so they’re a huge chance.
It would be a wonderful story if Canberra won their fourth premiership while celebrating their first, destined to appear on highlight shows for years to come.
We’ll see what happens on Sunday October 6.