This is why we can't have nice things.
A bumper regular season home crowd, the hype train leaving the station, the Canberra faithful ready to power the green machine to what would be a famous win. Would have been.
The buildup was amazing. Getting to see Jarrod Croker as a fresh-faced 18-year old with filthy blonde tips. Scoring his first try, kicking his first goal, becoming Canberra's captain, leading tryscorer, and collecting the most points in club history.
Despite never having played State of Origin, or representing Australia, Jarrod Croker is a living legend of the Raiders. That is undisputable. And with this latest herculean effort to reach 300 games despite all the adversity, he is a manifestation of Canberra's will to never give in, and to dig in and always have a go.
Interesting statistic, Jarrod Croker has never once been suspended. He is genuinely one of the game's good guys.
And of course, along the way to 300, Jarrod Croker has been criminally under-rated by the media and fans alike, who don't see the intangible value he adds to the side. Case in point, the five-game winning streak and seven of the last eight games Canberra had won before returning home.
I left my wage-slave job early to get to the stadium in time, and queued for half an hour to collect a Jarrod Croker stubbie holder. Because I love stubbie holders. The energy in the place was palpable, and everyone was hoping for a big win.
The Warriors are not the traditional easybeat, rubbish side they've been for the last decade, however. After a revolving door of coaches, it appears they might've finally found the man to take them forward - Andrew Webster. They've been excellent this season, but have struggled from time to time when travelling.
Which makes sense, because every trip incurs jet lag and involves three hours on a plane. Great stuff.
So when the Warriors came to town, against a fired up Canberra side, it was expected that the Raiders would walk away easy winners. Of course, longstanding Canberra supports will look at statements like that with a knowing smile.
Sadly, Canberra does not have a good track record of standing up in big games. That's why winning them is so special. With so much to play for, this fit the bill for a big game with high stakes. Regardless of implications in the chase to play finals football.
And so as the Viking clap sounded, and Jarrod ran through the banner with tears in his eyes, you could feel the pride of the fans watching something they thought they'd never see.
Even as the game began, the Raiders were full of beans. The engine room was taking big meters up the middle. The Warriors were also ill-disciplined initially, conceding several penalties and gifting Canberra piggy-backs into New Zealand's red zone.
As soon as the Raiders entered prime attacking position, they began to fall apart. Lateral running, wide passing and poor handling killed momentum more often than not. And it wasn't until a freakish ricochet rabbit ball fell into the hands of Jack Wighton, that the Raiders fell into the lead.
Despite this early advantage, the Warriors refused to yield, and defended resolutely until they had their own chance to strike back through a miracle bomb from Shaun Johnson. The kick looked certain to sail over the touch-line, until sentient haircut Dallin Watene-Zelezniak plucked the ball from the aether and planted it down.
Despite the rub of the green, including Mitch Barnett being sin-binned, and with all the football they could ask for, the Raiders were level. A late penalty goal in the dying moments of the first half saw the Green Machine with a slender two point lead, but that was with a lopsided possession count, and a host of poor attacking football from Canberra.
Things looked ominous, and the Raider faithful hoped that there was better football to be had in the second half.
During the half-time break, the Raiders also announced their NRLW squad. The idea of supporting a team later in a league's expansion brings much hope, as the pathways are more mature, and the player quality is (hopefully) improved.
I don't know enough about NRLW to pass judgement (which could also be true of the NRL squad...) but I look forward to coming to home games a little bit early to watch the ladies go around.
In particular, I look forward to watching brick shithouse prop Kerehitina "Kere" Matua crushing nerds on the front lines. At 170cm tall and 110kg, good luck slowing down her play-the-ball, other NRLW teams.
As the second half started and the NRL resumed, the possession evened up massively, as the Raiders appeared to clearly run out of gas. In a move that brought just a tang of nostalgia to Canberra's fans, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad scooted past some ramshackle edge defence to slam the ball down.
From there, the floodgates opened.
Where New Zealand had defended with force, Canberra decided instead to leak points. The Warriors scored three tries in the middle of the field, all of which involved busting through the front door, which appeared to be made out of glass.
In twelve minutes, the score ballooned out from 14-8 to 30-8, and the crowd had begun to head for the exits, milestone game be damned.
At this point, with the game firmly in New Zealand's top pocket, the sin-binning of Marata Niukore gave the fans some catharsis, but ultimately meant little.
Josh Papalii bulldozed his way over for a try to give the Green Machine a sniff, only for the final, embarassing nail to be hammered into the coffin. Shaun Johnson read the Raiders' ball movement like a book, scooping up the easiest intercept of his life on Canberra's 20, and planting the ball down inch-perfect in the middle of the field.
So instead of a glorious victory to celebrate a paragon of the Raiders, the fans and the players were treated to another embarassing pumphandling at home, at the hands of a footy team they should've beaten. Shades of the 42-14 hit job the Sea Eagles put on when they turned up.
The post-game ceremony helped to heal the wounds, though - and in particular, this moment, caught on camera, which I felt obligated to include, without explanation.
Once a Raider, always a Raider. I am so glad he was here, even if he played out of his skin, the jerk.
Seb Kris' knee injury is definitely a problem, he played poorly all night and was barely sighted. I understand Xavier Savage may have widdled in your cheerios, Ricky, but if he was fit, and Seb Kris was not, then the decision to play an underdone fullback is on you.
That isn't to say that Seb Kris should shoulder the entire burden, or even most of it. He is a tiny factor. Everyone played poorly, with the exception of Jarrod Croker, who defended like a man possessed all night. He made key stops, he fired the troops up as best he could, but there was nothing he could do with a totally gassed footy team.
Ultimately, whilst Canberra and New Zealand had similar error counts, the Warriors were able to defend their mistakes. Initially, when the emotion of the occasion powered the Raiders, they were able to match the intensity, but as time went on and fatigue set in, the lads from across the ditch punished the Green Machine time and time again.
At least it was easier to get out of the carpark.
The most bitter pill to swallow, after realising that Jarrod Croker was rewarded for his service with the equivalent of sucking a lemon, is that Canberra played their full strength side here.
This is the side that was promised as a top four side by Ricky Stuart last year. Cruelled by injuries, but able to match it with the best. A week ago they barely scraped past the NRL's version of the short bus, and a week before that they escaped against an undermanned South Sydney.
I am not suggesting that Sticky be sacked. Not at all. Ricky Stuart believes in Canberra, in a way that only he can. But if this is the best the Raiders can do this season, well, I don't know what you ask for. But clearly there's a long way to go in the development of the side.
And I do not envy the discussion the leadership and coaching group is going to have to have with Elliott Whitehead. He is absolutely past it, and needs to play from the bench, or consider trying to shape up in reserve grade. He has been a worthy servant of the club, particularly considering the rest of the English contingent has long since departed, but it might be time to reconsider the role Smelly has as a starting second rower.
This week, Canberra has the bye, so you won't have to deal with another of these articles. And, despite a poor performance on the weekend (along with everyone else, it must be said), Horse made the 18th man position for QLD, and Hudson Young made it back to NSW.
So every thunderous black cloud, has a tiny silver lining.
Catch you next time,
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