Almanac Rugby League – NRL Finals Week 1: Canberra v Cronulla – Keep the light on

Canberra Raiders 14 Cronulla Sharks 16

5:35 pm, Saturday 10th September

GIO Stadium, Canberra

Paul Macadam

You’ve been losing sleep over this. Going to bed restless and waking up much the same. The last six weeks have been a grind. It didn’t have to be this difficult. You’ve been saying that a lot lately. Missing 2nd place on the regular season’s last day was a proper kick in the pants, and further polarised the moods of these fanbases. Canberra jubilant, the Shire anxious. Cronulla one win in six. Canberra ten wins in a row.

5:35 pm refuses to arrive. You watch the first two quarters of the Swans to calm your nerves with the sight of men seeking to move an oval-y object towards a set of goalposts. Nearly ready now. The Viking Clap. It’s intimidating even on TV, let alone at the ground, and proves that 25 000 people can create a stirring atmosphere on their own without the, uh, “help” of hype music. Some of the press coverage has been insufferably sanctimonious, though. Not sure why Cronulla were expected to treat the Clap with reverence just because someone in the Raiders’ marketing department watched a bit of Euro 2016.

No Gallen again. Seven minutes in, vice captain Graham gets his head position wrong in a tackle. His night ends then and there. Canberra start like an apartment complex on fire. The first ten minutes are negotiated, and if we could just make it to fifteen then the home crowd might… nevermind. Josh Hodgson’s unpredictability allows him the time to reach the line with minimal tracking. These are situations where you seek to stay in touch and trust that your time will come. A loose pass. A length-of-field run. 12-0 down. That the score remains stagnant for 20 minutes is remarkable, considering Canberra’s dominance. When a football team’s attacking structures malfunction, it must revert to defending its line obsessively. They do. For four sets in a row, at one stage. Hanging on by nails. If Edrick Lee catches a standard pass, it’s 16-0 and let’s call the whole thing off.

All the forwards lift in the absence of their primary leaders. Kurt Capewell is terrific in his third NRL game, especially after not playing any football for a month. Matt Prior has an absolute blinder. Few inconsistent players bloom at 29, but he’s been brilliant this entire season. Kept putting shifts in when others had their heads turned by the finals. The try illustrates his grit. Looks like he’s erred in not passing to Maloney, but Prior plows toward the chalk through pure will. Right on half-time, right back in it.

Cronulla return from the sheds with a steeliness that says no, you’re not allowed to play any football for the next 40 minutes; we’ll be taking care of that, thanks very much. Hodgson’s ankle goes twang. This doesn’t immediately change the game. Smelling a wounded opponent, the Sharks overcompensate by giving up back-to-back penalties. The game management nous of this side worries me at times. Concerns are short-lived. Prior – once again – with an off-load, Lewis has the vision to see an overlap, kicks for his winger, and Holmes is there to pounce. Just two points in it now. We’re murdering them down the middle. This is turning. Be patient.

No footballer is immune to pressure. They’re people. We could do with reminding ourselves of that more often. Cronulla lose sight of the clock; playing like a team with five minutes to score a try, rather than 22. Green heads are falling off, too. Right on the hour, Papalii breaks clear. Finds Croker, who’s hauled down five metres from the posts. Our right edge is shot to pieces, but Baptiste attempts to burrow over the markers. Hodgson would have passed long to the left, or kicked. That’s the difference experience makes. Bullet dodged.

Two sets inside Canberra’s 20 metres draw an infringement from flustered tacklers. Blocker Roach on commentary is chatting rubbish about how the Sharks should go for another try. Guess that’s why Wayne Pearce captained Balmain instead of him. Maloney steers his kick through. 14-all with 13 left. Every moment has water under it. Desperation defines Cronulla from here on. Ennis races off his mark to obstruct Sezer’s field-goal shot. Fifita sprints to the wing (!) and forces a chip kick directly into touch. Bukuya drags Wighton down on his own mere minutes after hurting his neck.

Barba was anonymous in the first half. You couldn’t rate his overall performance any higher than six-and-a-half out of ten. But. But but but. Barba is a player of moments. It’s his mini-break from Maloney’s inside ball which cuts Canberra’s defence open which pressures Whitehead into the penalty that ultimately decides the result. In the lead at last. Five minutes to survive. There’s a physical hole in your stomach the whole time. It’s… it’s out. Yep. The kick’s gone out.

Cronulla have done it. I don’t know how. I suspect they don’t yet know how, either. It feels like a turning point. Not just for this season, but potentially in the history of the club. First semi-final win outside of Sydney in seven attempts. First time – correct me if wrong – in a final we’ve come back to win from more than six points down. More than that, though. This is a win to hard-wire into memories. A precedent to make this team believe it can win from any given situation (I’d argue that believing this to be possible is no less important than whether or not it actually is). Future Sharks, too. Remember what they did that night in Canberra.

There remain asterisks marks. Gallen’s injury troubles aren’t going to be smoothed over at age 35. He starts if fit, of course. But it’s a significant if. And who is pushed out if Tagataese returns? Hooking Townsend was a huge call. The correct one, as it turned out, though Shane Flanagan will have to go gently with his halfback over the coming fortnight, and find ways to restore his confidence.

Let’s leave all that in capable hands. You can sleep soundly once more. Sharks (yes you), keep believing. We’re so much stronger when we believe. Those who travelled to Canberra: they couldn’t have won it without you. I know they always say that. But look into Chris Heighington’s eyes when he says that. He means business. These Sharks mean fking business.

Two weeks to take stock. Two wins away from greatness. September 23rd at Allianz. Could be the best Friday night of your life, you know. I’ll see you there.

Cronulla Sharks 16 (Matt Prior, Valentine Holmes tries, James Maloney 4 goals) defeated Canberra Raiders 14 (Josh Hodgson, Jordan Rapana tries, Jarrod Croker 3 goals). Crowd: 25 592.


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About Paul Macadam

Songwriter under my own name, drummer for Library Siesta. Newly ecstatic Cronulla tragic who also loves Liverpool because life wasn't meant to be easy. Too slow for the wing, too skinny for the second row.


  1. Love the tension, Paul.
    The pre-game.
    The moments. One by one. That matter.
    The feeling of reaching a turning point.
    A great ride.

    Go the sharks.

  2. A win to be proud of Paul.
    It’s funny. All week I’d felt confident about this game. We like being the underdogs I kept telling myself. Favouritism has always weighed heavy on our brow.
    At 12-0 and seemingly everything that could be going wrong doing exactly that, my confidence was admittedly taking a pounding. Much like our line in that passage of play you refer to.
    Through such adversity, the steel of resolve is forged.
    Prior was immense. All game. All season. I think if there was one player I would shake the hand of above anybody else this year it would be him.
    That final 2o minutes was – in the words of the Shawshank Redemption – ‘time drawn out like a blade’
    I paced the lounge in front of the TV, barking out encouragement and constantly telling the boys to “calm down!” A piece of advice, that my wife helpfully pointed out. I might be wise to heed myself.
    When Croker stripped Beale in the dying seconds, I almost wept in frustration. Surely the footballing gods could not be so cruel. Their capricious whim carried the steeden over the sideline and the agony is over. The ecstasy begins.
    2 wins mate. Just 2 more. Can we start to believe?

  3. Thanks E.R. Hope I did the match justice. This season has had a sense of destiny about it from pretty early on – the town’s been waiting 14 years for a team this strong, and there’s now a genuine belief that they can do what all the others couldn’t. A great ride, indeed.

    Sure is, Andy. As a fanbase we definitely prefer the underdog tag, and I think the players do, as well. Haha – I’m often guilty of shouting COOL HEADS BOYS, COOL HEADS in a much more frantic manner than those on the pitch. Course we can start to believe! If we’re not going to now, when are we? The Beale strip was a sickener – would’ve been just like us to shark it up from there. But we didn’t. We won. And we can win again. And again. Imagine the parties…

  4. And I was wrong about the latter of those two stats: Cronulla came back from 12-2 down to beat Western Suburbs in week 1 of the 1996 finals. Canberra far stronger opponents, though

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