In their first meeting since the memorable 2019 decider, the Roosters and the Raiders faced each other on the near-perfect turf of the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Over a dozen players from that epic Grand Final were missing from this clash and most of them were injured Canberra stars.
The Roosters, having won six of their seven games since the resumption were a point clear of the Knights in fourth position on the competition ladder. The Raiders, having won two of their last five games were slipping down the ladder, clinging to seventh place. A season-ending injury to star hooker Josh Hodgson last week threatened Canberra's hopes of securing the premiership glory that they went so desperately close to claiming last year.
Even though the SCG is only a temporary home for the Roosters, they are far more familiar with the venue than the Raiders, who had not played on the slick surface since they were beaten by Manly in the 1987 NSWRL Grand Final. With everything stacked against the Raiders, they were determined to stand up to the competition's benchmark team.
And stand up they did, a gutsy performance seeing them hold on for a 24-20 victory in a game where the lead changed multiple times. Although asked to complete an energy-sapping amount of defence in the first half, it was sheer determination that saw them come away with the two competition points.
"It's one of the better wins I have been associated with at the club," Raiders captain Jarrod Croker said after the game.
When asked about the stand-out performance of prop forward Josh Papalii, Croker said it was not surprising.
"You forget to congratulate Papa [Josh Papalii] because he does it every week ... we try not to take him for granted.
"We were quite confident after last weekend, we had a tough effort against the Storm, down a few troops."
The Raiders opened the scoring following a Jack Wighton break, with Dunamis Lui crossing under the posts after an exchange of passes through the forwards. The Green Machine were playing high-tempo football, hitting the edges after punching it up through the middle, moving in waves, just as the Roosters play the game.
It wasn't long before the Roosters answered with slick ball movement out to Brett Morris who dived over in the corner. The best player in the world, James Tedesco, put on a step to leave Raiders captain Jarrod Croker stranded, before passing to Morris.
The Raiders' resolve would be tested in the next 20 minutes with the Roosters enjoying all the possession, with six again calls and goal-line drops outs keeping them in control. The Roosters had 13 out of 16 sets of tackles and still the Raiders held firm until Morris crossed again in the corner, this time off a Kyle Flanagan floater.
There is no team in the competition that can weather that much possession, especially when the team with the ball is the Roosters. The depleted Raiders would have been very happy with only being 12-6 down at the break.
With rain drifting across the ground, the second half started with the Raiders applying the pressure. A clever kick through from Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad led to a Croker try and with the conversion the scores were level at 12-12.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said last week after their loss to the Storm, that he was more than happy losing if his players were putting in that much effort. He was similarly proud of his side's performance against the Roosters.
"There wasn't many people [who] gave us a chance tonight, outside of those in the club," Stuart said.
"With the injuries and the five-day turn around. I said last week I don't care what people say, what people think, because they don't know what is actually under the jumper, they don't know what we're built on.
"I'm very proud of the players, but it's just another win though; we have to keep that heart and style of play and just move into the next match now.
"When he [Papalii] got whacked in the nose, I don't understand why we didn't get the penalty, but I knew we would go on and win then, because they poked the bear."
After the Roosters took the lead through a penalty goal, George Williams put the Raiders back in front with a brilliant, sweet-stepping solo effort from 10 metres out. The Roosters regained the lead through a Matt Ikuvalu try, before Raiders prop Josh Papalii strolled through the middle of the Roosters' defence to put Canberra ahead again. It was a contest worthy of a grand final, a game set up for another agonising last-minute victory by the Roosters.
Try as they might, the premiers could not break the Raiders' defence in the closing minutes of the game. And the captain's challenge, introduced largely because of what happened to the Raiders in last year's Grand Final, may have saved them.
With the Roosters applying the pressure late in the game Jordan Rapana was penalised for interfering with Josh Morris as he chased through on a high kick. The penalty would have seen the Roosters attacking the weary Raiders line. The Raiders challenged the call and the decision was reversed after replays showed Rapana simply held his ground under the ball, which he safely caught.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson was disappointed with the many errors and particularly the soft tries his players conceded.
"I thought there were way too many errors in attack and defence for us," Robinson said. "You can be willing, but I thought we didn't have our starch tonight, it was very frustrating. They work so hard, but they just weren't good enough tonight."
The win answers the doubts many had about the Raiders remaining a premiership threat after the season-ending injuries they have suffered to key players. With Papalii leading the way up the middle and Williams, Wighton and Nicoll-Klokstad stepping up in attack, they look capable of going deep into the finals.
Perhaps even one better than last year.