Almanac Rugby League – 2019 NRL Preliminary Final: Canberra Raiders v South Sydney Rabbitohs – Now this is finals footy!


In the NRL’s first Preliminary Final in Canberra last night, the Canberra Raiders downed the South Sydney Rabbitohs by 16-10 to reach their first Grand Final in a quarter of a century.


Play was more frantic than flowing. It mixed grim forward warfare with flashes of expansive running play, individual heroics with team commitment (especially in defence), a slice of luck with a well-executed set play. A tight scoreline, several shifts in momentum and a sin-binning all added to a game which kept you on the edge of your seat to the end. Ultimately, Canberra won because they found an extra effort in the tired, dying minutes whereas Souths just couldn’t find a way through, even though they dominated large portions of the second half.


It’s a rugby league axiom that defence wins matches. The Raiders typified this as they repelled repeated waves of Rabbitohs attack at various stages, particularly in the second half. Souths forced at least half a dozen goalmouth drop-outs but Canberra did not concede a score to any of them. Down a man for the last ten minutes and holding on grimly to a narrow four point lead, Canberra not only held out doggedly but also scored the match-winner through man-of-the-match Josh Papalii.


Papalii is a big man and plays with an even bigger heart but last night must rank as his biggest performance to date. He played the full first half when the pace was pulsating and the forward hits were enormous, came out for twelve minutes at the start of the second half, took a ten minute break, and then returned for the last eighteen minutes when the pace was still frantic and the hits no less shuddering. Somehow he still mustered the strength to bullock his way through at least three or four defenders to score under the posts to seal the victory. Papalii was also placed on report for an alleged shoulder hit, a farcical call that didn’t warrant a penalty let alone a report.


Canberra’s other standout player was Josh Hodgson, a comparatively diminutive player, who attacked, harassed, defended, scraped and toiled as if there was no tomorrow – and there wasn’t. He created a try out of nothing for Croker and somehow saved one by Cody Walker that was beyond saving. Hodgson may not get the accolades of Cameron Smith or Damien Cook but he is no less a key to his side than they are to theirs.


To single out those two is a bit unfair because Canberra’s was a team effort. You don’t survive the onslaughts they faced without every man digging deep and coordinating with his mates to keep the line intact. We talk all too easily about defensive walls in footy but this green version was the real deal. Other Raiders to stand out included fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad who showed great poise for a youngster, Jack Wighton who has blossomed this year at five-eighth, and John Bateman who is just your ultimate, no-frills competitor.


Before the game, many observers felt that South Sydney had used up their fuel over the past few weeks and could not go the distance. Their effort last night was just the opposite. For long stretches of the game, they appeared to be the more energetic and faster team, especially through the halves and their back three. They dominated possession and field position for ages through strong running and deft kicking by Adam Reynolds. Cody Walker was close to best-on-ground with a livewire performance which kept the defence guessing every time he had the ball in hand. Sam Burgess and John Sutton were tireless forwards while Damien Cook did all he could to spark attacks. Dane Gagai scored a copybook try off a beautifully executed, set piece scrum play.


But, in the end, Souths just could not penetrate that Green Wall. They tried to go through it, around it and over it but Canberra found ways to survive all their attempts. A pedant might argue that Souths did finally run out of gas when Papalii stormed through some tired defence to score the winner but I think that would be unfair to a team which was still running and scheming to the last minute to try to find a score. The Rabbitohs lost no fans on this performance.


In the wash-up, Canberra goes on to the Grand Final. They’ll sweat over the availability of Papalii. In the worst case scenario, they’ll fight any suspension to the limit. The bigger question will be whether or not they played their GF last night and won’t be able to reach these heights again next weekend. “Sticky’ Stuart will get them up, don’t you worry about that!


Souths will be disappointed but can hold their heads high. Their feted warrior John Sutton goes into retirement as a club legend and premiership captain. His legacy is assured. They have plenty of good talent coming through and have unearthed three future stars in Cameron Murray, Campbell Graham and Adam Doueihi. Reynolds and Walker constitute a halves pairing for several years to come. The future looks good for The Burrow.


Now let’s look forward to tonight’s Roosters v Storm game – should be a ripper!



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A loyal Queenslander, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. Enjoys travel, coffee and cake, reading, and has been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. One of Footy Almanac's online editors who enjoys the occasional editing opportunity to assist aspiring writers.

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