While 2022 has been rough for Canberra so far, it’s easy to forget it’s their milestone 40th anniversary.
With that in mind, here’s my top 10 moments of Raiders history.
The Final Five Play-off
After two tough seasons (four wins in 1982 and nine in 1983), Canberra made the fifth-place play-off in 1984, after Canberra tied with the fifth-placed South Sydney (both 13-11). While these days points differential would mean the Raiders would miss the finals, it was good enough for a mid-week play-off in the 80s. Though Canberra lost 23-4, getting that far showed that the Milk could compete with the Sydney big boys. and it didn’t take long for Canberra to become premiership heavyweights.
The Raiders got their revenge in 1987, beating South Sydney in the minor semi-final (and torturing poor Steve Mavin).
The Old Jersey Returns for the 25th Anniversary
After switching to an ugly dark green/lime green/black jersey in the early 2000s, and then to a more traditional lime green jersey (with the blue, gold, and white ACT stripes along the shoulders), Canberra brought the old school kit back for their 25th anniversary in 2006. While it was a darker shade of green, the ACT stripes were back as massive armbands (though partly covered by the sleeve sponsor).
The Raiders kept that design (with varying shades of green) until 2012. Canberra marked their 25th anniversary by finishing seventh (continuing the club’s bizarre 2000s pattern of making the finals every even-numbered year), though they lost to Canterbury-Bankstown in the elimination final.
The Toyota Cup Premiership
While it wasn’t a first grade title, it was still an amazing achievement for a club starved of success since 1994 (except for a NSWRL Premier League title in 2003). Canberra dominated the first Toyota Cup (National Youth Competition/Under 20s), finishing first and sailing to the grand final. The decider gave us the Canberra v Brisbane epic that we should have gotten in the 1990s, with Canberra winning 28-24: in a see-sawing Golden Point game, Jarrad Kennedy scored the long-range winning try in the 88th minute.
More importantly, a number of Raiders would graduate to the NRL: including Josh Dugan, Jarrod Croker, Shaun Fensom, and Justin Carney. The Raiders only reached one more NYC decider, losing heavily to the Wests Tigers in 2012.
Knocking the Broncos Out
Speaking of the Broncos, Canberra had the pleasure of ending Brisbane’s near 20-year finals streak in 2010, beating Brisbane 18-16 in the final round at Lang Park (a year earlier, Canberra had demolished Brisbane 56-0 at Bruce), a rare and satisfying away win over their bitter rivals. The win saw Canberra sneak into seventh, while Brisbane dropped to 10th.
The Dragons Hoodoo
While Canberra veered from entertaining to horrible through most of the 2000s, they had an almost supernatural hold over St George Illawarra, winning six straight from 2003 to 2007, and nine straight from 2008 to 2013. It didn’t matter where each team was on the ladder, Canberra always found a way to win. Even in 2010, when the Dragons won their first premiership as a joint venture, the Raiders beat them twice in the regular season. The Dragons finally broke the hoodoo in 2014.
Mal’s Fairytale and Ozzy’s Cameo
After a rare finals miss in 1992 and Ricky Stuart’s injury heartbreak in 1993, Canberra won their third premiership in 1994. While they finished third, they had to go the long way to the grand final, beating North Sydney in the major preliminary semi-final, losing to Canterbury-Bankstown in a thrilling major semi-final, and beating the poor old Bears again in the preliminary final.
While the stage was set for a fairytale finish for Mal Meninga, there was a surprise hero for the Raiders. Brought in as a replacement for the suspended John Lomax, Paul Osborne set up the first two Raiders tries in the opening 16 minutes as the Raiders ambushed the Dogs: “Ozzy” has been dining out on his grand final heroics ever since, which is fair enough. Ken Nagas scored two tries and David Furner was the Clive Churchill Medallist. Mal got his fairytale moment with the final intercept try before capping a wonderful career with another successful Kangaroo tour.
There were seven Raiders on that final full length ‘Roo tour (Meninga, Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde, Furner, Brett Mullins, Ricky Stuart, and Steve Walters).
The 2019 Preliminary Final
After narrowly missing the 2016 Grand Final, Canberra made the decider three years later, their first in 25 years. While the Raiders were a tenuous 7-5 at the halfway mark, they won eight of their next 11 to finish fourth and upset Melbourne at AAMI Park in the qualifying final (their second away win against the Storm in a month) to reach the Bruce preliminary final.
In arguably the biggest Raiders home game in almost a decade, the Milk responded, beating Souths 16-10, with Josh Papalii’s 73rd minute try sealing an emotional win as Canberra embraced the Raiders again after a couple of quiet seasons. While they didn’t win the grand final, THAT preliminary final win is still a cherished memory.
The Perfect Year
After the breakthrough premiership in 1989, the 1990 season was almost perfect for Canberra, as they won nearly every prize available. They won the pre-season Channel 10 Challenge Cup, the NSWRL Winfield Cup, and the Under 21s. Brisbane’s win in the reserve grade decider denied them a clean sweep.
Even so, Canberra’s first grade side was unstoppable: winning 16 games out of 22 and moving to their current home Bruce Stadium (with eight wins, a draw, and two losses). While Penrith beat them in the major semi-final, the Raiders beat Brisbane in the preliminary final and then beat the Panthers 18-14 in the grand final, with Ricky Stuart winning the Clive Churchill Medal.
Big Mal Signs
Who was Canberra’s biggest signing (aside from Matt Orford of course)? Mal Meninga. While Mal hadn’t played in the Sydney-centric NSWRL yet, he was already a legend in Queensland (playing for Brisbane Souths), in England (St Helens), and was one of the original Maroons in State of Origin.
Mal’s signing in 1985 attracted a lot of Queenslanders – who would turn Canberra into the late ’80s/early ’90s “Green Machine” force. While Mal broke his arm twice in the late ’80s, he recovered to play in Canberra’s three premierships and would coach the Raiders from 1997 to 2001, before dominating Origin again as coach of Queensland’s eight-straight series wins (2006 to 2013).
The Greatest Grand Final Ever
What more needs to be said about the greatest grand final in NSWRFL/NSWRL/ARL/Super League/NRL history?
We all know the story: heavy favourites Balmain raced to an early lead, Mal’s ankle tap, Laurie Daley’s basketball pass for Chicka’s try, the controversial benching of Steve Roach and Paul Sironen, Ben Elias’ near miss field goal, Chris O’Sullivan’s successful field goal, and THAT Steve Jackson try.