The Canberra Raiders’ transformation from NRL fighters to challengers has been completed with a convincing win over South Sydney.
It’s been a hectic weekend in the nation’s capital and the makeovers spilled over onto the football pitch on Sunday afternoon, as the Canberra Raiders officially completed their transformation from NRL fighters to challengers.
With their 32-12 defeat of a disappointing South Sydney side in Dubbo, the Canberrans ambushed their second top eight team in as many weeks and secured their first three-match winning streak of the year. They are now only outside the top eight on points difference.
Jack Wighton made his case for Origin selection on his return from suspension, while milestone man Josh Papalii scored a try in his 250th game to give Anthony Albanese some competition for the mantle of top dog in Canberra.
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For the Rabbitohs, Sunday’s loss was the kind that could mean the difference between playing in a football final and watching it on television in September.
The Souths still have games with the Panthers, Storm, Cowboys, Roosters, Sharks and Eels (twice) waiting for them, so they just can’t afford to lose to the last eight teams, especially not as emphatically as they did on Sunday.
Souths received criticism for his performance of Jekyll and Hyde last week, but Dr. Jekyll must have missed the bus to Dubbo; the Rabbitohs were not a threat at any stage on Sunday.
Souths lacked fluidity down the middle and losing Junior Tatola to a head injury in the first tackle of the game did them no favours.
Heading into Sunday’s game, the Raiders had scored the third-fewest points of any team this season, but had little trouble getting through Rabbitoh’s soft defense.
The Raiders were leading 20-0 at halftime and although the Bunnies managed to stop the bleeding in the second stanza, they never seemed like a serious chance to chase down Canberra.
The end result could have been even more brutal had the Raiders not missed three of their goal attempts.
Cameron Murray’s return from injury can’t come soon enough for the Rabbitohs.
“It’s disappointing,” Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou said of the loss.
“Losing Junior was obviously a big blow for us, but I still feel like we gave them chances through bad offloads that put more pressure on our defense and attack.
“We have to be a little more resilient when things don’t go our way.”
Playing for the first time this month, Wighton wasted no time in raising his hand for any of the vacant places at center back for the New South Wales team.
He threw an unmarked pass to Nick Cotric in less than five minutes and the winger opened the Raiders’ account in the corner.
In the second half, Wighton threw a line break that eventually gave the Raiders the field position they needed to freeze the game with a penalty goal.
Wighton’s versatility, ability to play at both ends and his nine games of experience on Origin will all work in his favor as he continues to push for selection on the NSW side.
A suspected hamstring injury to fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was the only sour note for the Raiders.
“I don’t know how bad the hamstring is, but it had to come off at half-time,” Canberra coach Ricky Stuart said afterwards.
“I’m not sure how bad it is, but I’ll check it out tomorrow.”
In his 250th NRL game, Josh Papalii stretched out for the kind of try that few are better qualified to score.
Early on, Big Papa worked his way down the line, shrugging off the Rabbitohs with alarming ease and extending the Raiders’ lead to eight points.
The jubilant celebrations of his team-mates were testament to Papalii’s status as one of the most beloved figures in Canberra.
“He’s one of the favorites here at the club,” Raiders captain Elliott Whitehead said afterward.
“What it means for the club and the playing group is huge. Getting the win and putting on a performance for him ended the week on a high.”
Papalii proved to be just as influential off the ball: minutes after his try, he and Whitehead booked Liam Knight and fended off a certain try in the process.
As of Sunday afternoon, only two men had played more games for the Raiders than Papalii.
If he stays fit and accepts a contract option to stay with the club until 2025, the big man could overtake Jason Croker to become the most capped player in club history.
I don’t know about Dubbo
The NRL has gotten better and better at bringing the games to the Australia region in recent years. By the end of the 2022 season, regular season games will have been played on 27 different fields, up from 23 in 2012 and 18 in 2002.
But on their first two trips to Dubbo, the Rabbitohs were taken to the dry cleaners.
The Panthers beat them 56-12 on their first visit last season and this time they gave up more points in the first half than in any other game this year.
However, Demetriou said the club would not reconsider their decision to play there.
“It’s not the place,” he said.