Welcome to the first uninformed, poorly thought-out footy column written by me, who doesn’t understand the game, in 2024!

After a heart-breaking loss at the end of 2023 to Newcastle (who got pumped the next week), followed up by a week-long media cycle about the outgoing Jack Wighton and his decision to bite down after Tyson Gamble stuck his arm in Jack’s mouth, I largely checked out of the league-o-sphere.

I followed Detroit in the off season, who had their best season in thirty years, and forgot entirely about Rugby League. The motor city men came within three points of a Super Bowl appearance, only losing to some absolute bullshit, so it’s good to know that whatever sports team I follow, they’ll be undone by a once-in-a-lifetime fuckup that costs them the game.

As for Rugby League, the sport travelled Vegas for the first time, where 40,000 people watched the game in person (mainly Australians) and a grand total of 100,000 people tuned into the games on television. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the roaring success the NRL may have hoped for, but I’m sure all the gambling revenue they acquired made up the difference.

I was very whelmed by the coverage, which makes me worry that the enthusiasm I had for Rugby League pre-pandemic will never return. I will always love the Raiders, but I find myself caring less and less for the struggles of other clubs.

Nevertheless, the decision to send four teams to America left the first round of the season up in the air, as the teams the NRL would usually lean on for free-to-air coverage were unavailable.

So, step right up, Canberra and Newcastle.

Channel Nine threw their toys out of the pram when presented with this matchup for their Thursday Night timeslot, but the NRL’s hands were tied, and so the restless rugby league pundits were “forced” to watch a game which went to golden point last year and went down as one of the best finals games in recent memory.

Boo hoo, what a shame. Fuck you, Channel Nine.

The broadcaster was not willing to take the black eye of featuring a small market team in a big market timeslot lying down, however. In the week before the game, radio personalities, talking heads, and everyone in between was peddling the narrative that Newcastle were going to march into their home ground, and jolly well give the Raiders a ruddy good seeing to behind the sheds. Jack Wighton couldn’t be replaced, and the rest of the squad was full of mediocre and untested talent.

And behind this feedback loop was an army of bookies who were more than happy to lengthen the odds for the green machine. As the lads were running out onto the field, you could’ve been convinced that they were lining up against Penrith, and that the result was a formality.

Either no-one watched that finals game last year, or they expected that Canberra would slide further, whilst Newcastle would improve. Even considering that, how a Newy 13+ result was expected is beyond me.

And, to the Knights’ credit, their first ten minutes was solid. No mistakes, physical in defence, Canberra’s forwards were stuffed, and outside backs boxed in. Danny Levi milked a questionable obstruction to deny Newcastle’s first score, but the boys in Blue and Red had come to play.

In the first ten minutes at least.

Despite getting brutalized by the Newcastle defence, Canberra refused to yield. Defensive efforts by… well, everyone, pressurized the Novocastrian attack in the red zone, resulting in pushed passes, mistakes, and very little yield for some quality field position.

Solid turned to sloppy, and as Hudson Young cleaned up Kalyn Ponga off the ball and went to the sin-bin, the Knights were barely able to take advantage.

As the game wore on, though, it was clear that Canberra’s defensive intensity was lifting. The runs got harder, everyone rolled up their sleeves, and Zac Hosking turned defence into attack crossing for the first four pointer of the season against the run of play, off a mishandled Jamal Fogarty bomb, momentum began to shift.

Newcastle hit back through Tyson Frizell, on the end of a clever ball from Kalyn Ponga, but the Raiders stabilized soon after. Carrying an eight-point lead into the sheds, the glorious 13+ predicted by the media was looking shaky.

But the second half would be the green machine’s undoing, surely. It’s in the Raiders’ DNA, and it undid them in the finals game last year. Newcastle just had to be patient, minimize mistakes and trade sets with Canberra until their own nerves undid them.

Well, that moment never came. In one of the most dominant second half performances in recent memory, the Raiders completed all sixteen of their sets, piled on three tries, and brutalised the Newcastle forward pack.

The exclamation mark which convinced me that Newcastle would not be walking away with two points, came after another Jamal Fogarty kick, resulting in Greg Marzhew getting brutally double-teamed by Tom Starling going in low, and Josh Papalii going over the top, and pushing him ten meters into his own in-goal.

You could feel Newcastle’s resolution snap, and the try scored in the ensuing set shattered it.

In the end, Canberra would leave 28-12 winners, after Emre Guler, Zac Hosking, and Hudson Young combined to score in a spectacular razzle-dazzle effort. As Jamal Fogarty lined up to put it between the uprights, the Novocastrian faithful were already heading for the exits.

And so after all that guff during the week, and before the game, Canberra being favoured for the wooden spoon, Jack Wighton being the kiss of death that would consign the Raiders to eternal failure, it would all be a media mirage.

An even-tempered Ricky Stuart was very clear after the match – it’s only round one, and there’s work to do. But there’s some serious potential there.

And whilst all the Raider recruits were impressive, it was Jamal Fogarty who stole the spotlight. And he did it with his boot.

Eight. Hundred. Kick Meters. A truly godlike statistic, that feels like it should be a record somewhere. After a shaky start, “Fogs” found his range in a hurry, and as Newcastle were knocking the Raider forward pack around and keeping the lads to 25-30m sets, every sixth tackle ended in a 60m+ roost that made sure Newcastle wouldn’t get anywhere close to the red zone.

A herculean effort.

Elsewhere, I was impressed by Morgan Smithies. I think Cory Horsburgh is going to have some serious competition for the lock spot going forward, and Zac Hosking may well be Elliott Whitehead’s full-time replacement. Don’t be surprised if “smelly” has a few more ankle injuries during the season.

It always makes me happy when we recruit star players – Zac Hosking is a premiership winner, after all – and don’t immediately remind them that they made a mistake coming to Canberra.

And that’s without the reinforcements ready and waiting in reserve grade. The 2s are eyeing off spots in first grade, and with how well folks like Mooney, Schiller, Asomua and Stuart (Chevy and Jed) played during the trials, I’d suggest to you that Canberra may be a more dangerous side with injuries and suspensions, than without.

It’s a long season, and there’s plenty of work to do, but it’s a mighty fine start for the men in green. See you next week for Raiders v Tigers at home.

Catch you next time,

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