This piece of writing is going to chronicle my time following the Canberra Raiders. Canberra Raiders are a rugby league team based in Canberra. The idea of this story is not particularly new, Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch runs along the same lines, about his devotion to the English Premier League team Arsenal. This will be a personal reflection, a look back and an understanding of why something has captivated me for 20 years now.
Let's go back in time a little while. It's 1990, my pop is down visiting us in Bega. He is watching the TV, the Balmain Tigers are up against the Canberra Raiders. I must be about 5 or 6 years old. Pop is a hardened Tigers man, having been the principal at Ibrox Park High School in Leichardt, where Balmain captain Wayne Pearce went to school.
I should add a note here that the previous year's grand final is still regarded to as the greatest grand final of all time. The Tigers take a half time lead, yet the “Green Machine” as they are known claw back into the game. John “Chicka”Ferguson scores right on full time to take the game into extra time. In extra time, reserve forward Steve Jackson, wearing number 20, takes the ball fifteeen metres out from the line. He was a late addition to the team and had never scored a first grade try before. He bumped off a couple of defenders and kept charging for the line. He bumped off a couple more, nearly there. He reached out, letting a few more defenders slip off him and planted the ball over the line. Try! Raiders win. In my extended family there are many Tigers fans, they cringe at every mention of the 89 Grand Final.
So the game my Pop and I are watching is the grand final replay. I only choose the Raiders because Pop is going for the other team, but they go on to win the game. Not only do they win the game, but also the premiership. I think I'm on to a good thing here, as well as the fact they are the closest team to Bega.
The next year my cousin Tom started to really get into the footy too. It was a similar situation, we were watching the Raiders play the Panthers, the beaten grand finalists from the previous year. As I was such a keen supporter of one team, he backed the other. They went on to win the 1991 Grand Final. Later that year the Raiders were caught for extensive salary cap breaches, not quite to the level of the Melbourne Storm over the last five years, but it meant they had to shed a number of players, they were not a force to be reckoned with in 1992.
1992 though was the first time I went to a game. The league was the NSWRL at the time, Canberra and Illawarra had been two of the first teams to be based outside of Sydney, both entering in 1982. By the time I was following the game Brisbane, Newcastle and the Gold Coast had joined the competition.
This game I went to was with my cousin, my uncle and my Dad. Where else would we head to but Penrith football stadium. Walking into the Panthers club in my Raiders jersey, the lady at reception said “I don't know if I'd wear that in here”. I was slightly concerned about a wild Penrith man coming and beating me up. After playing aqua golf badly, we went over to see the game. It was a close match, but Penrith won in the end. In the late stages of the game Steve Walters threw a pass which was ruled forward, the centre was away unmarked. I couldn't believe it. “That pass wasn't forward, it was flat”. I cried and my cousin gloated in his victory.
Neither team featured in the Grand Final that year, 1992 and 1993 both involved Brisbane and the Dragons, with Brisbane winning both games. 1993 was the year all fans were hanging out to see a Brisbane vs Canberra grand final, they were the two best teams of the early 90s. Unfortunately for the Green Machine, star player Ricky Stuart broke his leg just before the finals. Even though they still had a number of stars still playing, they went out in the early days of the finals. The North Sydney Bears were one of the real leaders each year during the regular season, however once the finals came around, it was a different story. Their team was full of stars, but simply could not play once the finals came around.
In the preseason in the early 90s there was the “Tooheys New Cup”. It was a knockout competition played in regional areas. A few times these matches came to Bega. My favourite was when the Raiders and the Illawarra Steelers came to town. These were the two closest teams, so most kids in the area went for one of the other. Not only the kids, but the grown ups on the hill drinking beer as well. Unlike many matches of that era, I have no idea what the score was, who won, or when it was, however it is one of my favourite rugby league memories.
In 1994, I went to another game. My uncle Tony took me to see Canberra play North Sydney at North Sydney oval. This time the Green Machine powered to victory. They continued this powering all year, winning the competition. Mal Meninga scored the final try in a big win. This was “Big Mal”'s final match in the competition. The next year the competition name was changed from the NSWRL to the ARL, a national competition.
The next few years the Raiders were still contenders, but couldn't quite make it to the top echelon again. The Super League war came and went. This was a major controversy in Rugby League, losing many supporters. The 1997 competition had two separate competitions, the Super League, which the Green Machine were involved in. When reading about it before it happened, I liked the idea, and I think the main reason for my support for this competition was that Canberra was always involved, there was no plans to cull them from the competition.
I was in high school by that time, I wasn't as obsessive into the football. I had played a season of league for the Bega Roosters, our team was one of the worst in the competition. I played most of my year on the wing, that's where they play the worst players at that level. I had played the year before in the school team. I ended up in the seconds team there, for some reason starting as a front row forward. We were still playing up against the top teams, so I would regularly find myself smashed down and bleeding. Playing for the Roosters, we endured thrashing after thrashing. The only teams we could compete with were Cooma and Cobargo, who were just as bad as us. The distances we needed to travel were quite staggering. Pretty well two hours in any direction, the Group 16 competition ran from Eden to Batemans Bay and up to Cooma. Two hours for a thrashing got a bit old, and I didn't get on well with my other team mates. I was not interested in turning up the next year.
Throughout high school I kept an eye on the Raiders, but didn't have the obsessive passion. They were still “my team”. There was no interest in following another team. However, once the Raiders were bumped out from the finals again, you had to choose someone else to support in the big game, the Grand Final. I remember enjoying Jamie Ainscough conceded a penalty try for the Melbourne Storm to win in only their second year.
The next few years provided grand finals featuring teams I didn't really care about at all, and the Raiders would generally scrape through in the back end of the top eight, then lose in the first round of the finals. Mal Meninga, the great man, came in for a stint as coach, which was not a particular success. He has now taken Queensland to a record four State of Origin series in a row.
In 2002, there was another salary cap scandal, this time at the Bulldogs. They were effectively thrown out of the competition that year, the Green Machine snuck into the finals. 2003 the Raiders were a big surprise packet, they were leading the competition for the first ten rounds. I was living in Sydney at the time and went to see them play the Roosters. It was a close game, the first time I'd been to the Sydney Football Stadium. You could hear some of the bone crunching tackles from the stands. Unfortunately it was not the day for the Raiders, from memory the score was 16-14.
It was a strong year for the Raiders, getting into the finals. Their semi final match was up against the Auckland Warriors. New Zealand hero Stacey Jones slotted a field goal to seal the match.
The next year I moved to Canberra, I thought I would be heading to games regularly, but I really didn't get there as much as I would've liked due to my poor student budgeting. I did see the rematch against the Warriors though. From high up in the grandstands with a mean hangover, I joined the crowd in a collective sigh when Stacey Jones kicked a field goal to put the Warriors up 29-28 with five minutes remaining. Clinton Schifcoske saved the day though, a field goal right on full time, another into the golden point extra time, game over, Raiders win.
Over the next few years I went to games every now and then. The Raiders were a team of has beens and never weres, the star player was Jason Smith, a mid-30s chain smoker, who put in some surprisingly wily kicks for someone who could not run at all.
In 2007 I moved to Melbourne. Before leaving I had seen the round one match against Manly in Manly, the Raiders were thrashed. The year ahead did not look good. As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder. It was hard to even see a game on tv. I took to going to a seedy “sportsmans bar” next door to a strip joint. Whilst the AFL played on the big screen, the NRL matches would get a run on the tiny screens around the corner with no sound. Maybe once a year the Green Machine would get a run on free to air TV. In Melbourne these games would not even show until 3am.
The next year I was back in Canberra. I was keen to go to the matches, but didn't always have the cash. I was living just down the road from the stadium, so I would wander up every now and then to check out a match. I ended up seeing a few games where the Green Machine piled on the points. They broke 50 against the Gold Coast, then absolutely smacked the Panthers 74-12 in icy conditions. The Raiders put on a strong run, even though their star player Todd Carney was sacked after 31 various alcohol related indiscretions. The run to the finals ended in the first week, a terrible injury toll saw them wiped out by Cronulla.
The under 20s competition was still running though, and the Raiders had made it through to the Grand Final. I went with my friend who is a keen Manly supporter. The Raiders beat the Broncos in extra time and Manly thrashed Melbourne 40-0. It turns out that Melbourne squad was well and truly over the salary cap.
Last year I joined to be a member, this year I have renewed it. The ticket prices for one game are so expensive, it makes sense to be a member. Most of the players from the under 20 premiership are now in first grade, some are taking steps to the representative levels already. The Raiders are in the bottom half of the competition at the moment, but are filled with the potential. Watching them still has me just as excited as when I was six years old.