On Friday night, Canberra qualified for their first grand final since 1994, and will play the Sydney Roosters at Homebush on Sunday October 6.
On 25 September 1994, Canberra beat the minor premiers Canterbury-Bankstown 36-12 at the Sydney Football Stadium, highlighted by two tries to Ken Nagas, Paul Osborne’s amazing cameo (which has reached “Jason Gillespie’s 200 against Bangladesh” levels of cult status) and Mal Meninga’s final intercept try.
With nostalgia a guaranteed success (Canberra’s rare 1992 Tour Match jersey against the Great Britain Lions was released last week and gobbled up quicker than Homer Simpsons devouring donuts), let’s look back at Canberra’s journey from grand final day at the SFS to the upcoming 2019 grand final.
WINFIELD CUP 1994
In 1994, rugby league was arguably the biggest football code in Australia. With the recent introduction of the 10-metre rule, the game was faster, more entertaining, and yet to be bogged down by over-officiating referees or the at-times forensic analysis of the Bunker. The game was expanding from Sydney, with Brisbane (back-to-back premiers in 1992/93) and Canberra the dominant teams and pending expansions into Queensland (the North Queensland Cowboys, South Queensland Crushers), Perth (Western Reds) and New Zealand (Auckland Warriors). The New South Wales Rugby League – which stood since 1908 – became the Australian Rugby League. With a change of emblem colours to green and gold, rugby league was no longer just for suburban Sydney. Balmain, Canterbury-Bankstown and Eastern Suburbs were re-named the Sydney Tigers, the Sydney Bulldogs and the Sydney City Roosters. While the Tigers and Bulldogs eventually reverted to their traditional names, the Roosters stuck with the shortened “Sydney Roosters” title (though still embrace their history with the #EastsToWin hastag).
New South Wales (with plenty of Raiders) sealed a hat-trick of Origin titles, winning 2-1, and denying Meninga a farewell series win.
Canterbury-Bankstown, North Sydney, Canberra, Manly-Warringah and Brisbane made the final five (with Illawarra narrowly missing out). Canberra and Brisbane won in the first week, with Canberra reaching the grand final qualifier against the Bulldogs and Brisbane playing North Sydney in the elimination semi-final. The Bears ended Brisbane’s hopes of a premiership hat-trick, and met Canberra in the preliminary final, after the Bulldogs won an extra time thriller against Canberra to make the grand final. Canberra won a controversial preliminary final 22-9, ending the Bears’ hopes of making their first grand final since 1943.
After Canberra won the grand final, the last full-length Kangaroo Tour began. With a healthy Raiders contingent (including captain Meninga and vice-captain Laurie Daley), Australia lost just one game: the opening Test against Great Britain at Wembley Stadium, and winning all 14 tour games in Great Britain and France (and an unofficial Test against Wales). Meninga’s final game was a 74-0 thumping of France.
THE RAIDERS FROM 1994 TO NOW
Canberra enjoyed another big year in 1995. Finishing second with a 20-2 record, they won the first finals game played outside of Sydney (beating Brisbane at Lang Park), but a season with so much expectation ended badly, losing the preliminary final to the Sydney/Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. The Bulldogs then upset minor premiers Manly-Warringah in the grand final, completing an amazing rise from sixth place in the new top eight finals.
That ended Canberra’s golden era: while they made the 1997 Super League preliminary final (losing to Cronulla-Sutherland at Shark Park), they spent most of the 2000’s in the doldrums. Though they regularly made finals (including the heartbreaking 2010 semi-final loss to the Wests Tigers), they were never serious contenders. The Raiders were an honest mid-table team: occasional flashes of brilliance (they destroyed Brisbane 56-0 at Bruce in 2009) but lacking the consistency to be a genuine threat. They did have cult heroes like Alan Tongue, Clinton Schifcofske, and Adam Mogg for fans to celebrate. The Raiders’ dwindling returns weren’t helped by the ACT Brumbies becoming a Super Rugby powerhouse. Canberra’s best year was 2003, finishing top four but losing both finals to Melbourne and the Warriors. They celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2006 with a popular retro jersey and a finals spot, losing to Canterbury-Bankstown in the elimination final.
Ricky Stuart’s appointment in 2014 – and his passion for Canberra – slowly galvanised the Raiders. After finishing second last in 2014, they rose to tenth in 2015. They finished second in 2016 on the back of a massive winning run in the second half of the season, led by BJ Leilua, Jordan Rapana, Blake Austin, Jarrod Croker, and Josh Hodgson. They introduced the much-loved Viking Clap to home games, and made the preliminary final against Melbourne, only to lose with one Edrick Lee dropped ball.
With so much expectation, the 2017 and 2018 seasons were massively disappointing, finishing tenth both years. They earned the horrible nickname “Faiders” for regularly losing games between the 65th and 70th minute mark, and seemed to be living off the 2016’s surprise success.
They finally found consistency in 2019 (also the 30th anniversary of the 1989 premiership), recruiting England’s John Bateman, Ryan Sutton, and the Warriors’ Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. These fresh signings, and a steelier attitude in defence, took Canberra to the top four, where they beat Melbourne 12-10 in week one of the finals and – in front of a sell out Bruce Stadium – beat Souths 16-10 in the grand final. Both these finals wins were built on defence, fitting as that’s how they got this far in the first place.
For Canberra to make it this far is a wonderful achievement. There’s been many years of frustration with false hope and late-game fade outs (don’t mention Bathurst to Raiders fans), but they’ve stuck by their team and finally been rewarded. The sell out preliminary final crowd shows that Canberra have embraced the Raiders again.
Regardless of Sunday night’s result against the Sydney Roosters, it’s important for Canberra to not only enjoy the moment, but spend the off-season preparing to back it up. The progress of 2016 was squandered as the team went backwards in 2017/18. Canberra need to capitalise on this opportunity and stay premiership contenders in 2020 and beyond.