OPINION | Are Canberra Genuine Title Threats?

Heading into the final two months of the 2019 regular season, most experts and fans have Melbourne, South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters as premiership contenders.

But what about Canberra?

This was a crucial year for the Green Machine. After two underwhelming 10-win seasons (2017 and 2018), a 2019 finals finish was the bare minimum to satisfy frustrated fans and ensure Ricky Stuart kept his job. A big international recruitment drive (including Wigan’s Ryan Sutton and John Bateman, and the Warriors’ Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad), the ability to finally close out games (killing the embarrassing ‘Faiders’ tag), coupled with the 1989 premiership celebration, had Canberra sitting in the top four for the majority of the year. They’re currently at 11 wins and 6 losses with a healthy +111 points differential, and a great 6-3 record at GIO Stadium (Bruce Stadium).

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They started strongly, winning five of their first six, then lost four from their next five (momentarily dropping from the top four), then rallied to win five of their next six.

While they’re 0-3 against Melbourne, Souths and the Roosters, they were all respectable losses. They were blown away early against Melbourne (but clawed back a bit to lose 22-10), trailed the Roosters 24-6 in Magic Round and stormed back to lose 30-24 – nearly taking it to Golden Point – and lost 16-12 to Souths in a cracking game played with finals intensity. After shedding the ghosts of 2016 in the off-season, the English contingent has galvanised the club, Corey Horsburgh is the hard-working forward every club loves (with passion as bright as his hair), while CNK is the new cult hero: respected for his on-field resilience and loved for his off-field generosity. Jack Wighton has embraced the switch to five-eighth to earn a NSW jersey. While Jack makes mistakes, he rebounds quickly with solid defence or a crucial kick chase.

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Canberra’s had their share of injuries (with Jordan Rapana, BJ Leilua, Josh Hodgson, John Bateman and Nick Cotric spending some time out), but haven’t used it as an excuse. Aside from the nightmare loss to Parramatta in Darwin, they’ve been very consistent.

Importantly, they’re learning to grind out wins. They beat Canterbury-Bankstown and Cronulla-Sutherland by two points, both times winning by a penalty goal after losing big leads. Last weekend, in a special home game celebrating the 1989 premiership (featuring a lot of past players), Canberra led the Wests Tigers 20-6 at halftime, didn’t score a second half point, but still won 20-12. While the Tigers are unlikely to play finals, it was still a great effort. They’ve also held the Gold Coast, Parramatta and the Tigers to zero. While they aren’t playing the usual Green Machine razzle dazzle footy, they don’t need to.

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Off-field, the club seems to be tight. There was a photo doing the rounds after the ICC World Cup semi-final between Australia and England, with Sam Williams and captain Jarrod Croker forced to paint their nails red and white after Australia lost, much to the delight of the English Raiders (that camaraderie carried over to a massive win over the Dragons). Speaking of Croker, he’s led the club admirably with co-captain Josh Hodgson, becoming Canberra’s highest all-time try scorer and seemingly setting club records that will never be broken.

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The next seven weeks will really test them.

They play Penrith away (with the Panthers enjoying a recent psychological advantage), the Warriors in Auckland, blockbusters against the Roosters (Bruce) and Melbourne (away), Manly at Bruce (the team most likely to steal Canberra’s top four spot), Cronulla at Shark Park, and the Warriors back at Bruce. Come September, Canberra will be either have a top four spot and primed for a decent crack at the premiership, or struggling in the bottom half of the eight and forced to play sudden-death footy.

Assuming Canberra finish top four (after all the work they’ve put in, they deserve it), can they challenge Melbourne, Souths and the Roosters? Can they break their 25-year premiership drought? Beating Souths and the Roosters is possible, as both sides have gotten the wobbles recently, while Melbourne are almost invincible. The game at AAMI Park in round 22 will show us if Canberra are ready.

Realistically, Canberra probably aren’t ready yet, especially with Melbourne’s dominance and hunger to erase last year’s grand final loss (though they said the same thing about Balmain in 1989).

Regardless of what happens between now and October, the next few years will have Raiders fans Viking Clapping with excitement.

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