Canberra Raiders v Melbourne Storm
Canberra Raiders player Paul Vaughan crosses the line for the match-winning try. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Raiders prop Paul Vaughan crossed for the dramatic match-winning try, but centre Jarrod Croker's sensational defence was the catalyst for bringing Canberra Stadium back to life.
Vaughan showed the type of sharp footwork normally reserved for outside backs, not lumbering forwards, in dancing his way through several Storm defenders to barge his way over the line in the 79th minute of Sunday's thrilling 24-22 win against the Melbourne Storm.
Croker's subsequent conversion from directly in front gave the Raiders the lead for the first time – fitting given his three try-saving tackles kept the Green Machine in the game.
The Raiders (3-4) snapped a six-game losing streak at home and gave their season an enormous shot in the arm before next Sunday's trip to Brookvale Oval to face the Manly Sea Eagles.
"He's a freak, he's unbelievable,'' Vaughan said of Croker. "He's been playing unreal this year and I don't think he's far off rep duties.
"That try that he saved on [Sisa] Waqa at the end, that was something else. That gave us a lot of confidence to think we could still win it."
After earlier stopping Kangaroos star Billy Slater and centre Mahe Fonua when they were all but certain to score, Croker made his most influential play with nine minutes remaining and the Raiders trailing by four.
The Storm's Fijian flyer, Waqa, appeared for all money set to seal the two competition points, until Croker made a last-ditch lunge to push him over the dead-ball line.
"He dived [for the try-line] very early, I knew initially he was short and then the ref called no try and that's the only angle they could go on,'' Croker said. "They couldn't change the decision based on the video.
"I don't know what it looked like on TV but I know the initial contact was on the ground, so it was just a matter of the ref's call after that."
With the Raiders having one final crack with time winding down, Vaughan was in the right spot at the right time as the ball was flung out wide.
"I don't know what happened, everything happened so quick, there was a loose ball and I jumped on it,'' Vaughan said. "I got put on the edge for [Josh Papalii] in the last 15 minutes.
"At first, I was just trying to get the ball to someone who was a bit quicker than me but I saw a couple of [Storm players] hanging back, so I thought there might have been a gap and it just opened up for me.
"It felt like I was going that slow that I was on the treadmill, so it was good I wasn't that far out."
The Canberra junior was mobbed as teammates came from everywhere as they celebrated their first win in the ACT – in a rare match on free-to-air TV no less – since they beat Parramatta 14-0 on July 20 last year.
The crowd of 10,941 erupted in recognition of breaking the unwanted drought in dramatic circumstances.
"I've dreamed about that since I was a little boy,'' Vaughan said. "The feeling was unbelievable, it felt like a full house, everyone was going mad.
"This is all I've wanted to do my whole life and I want to keep this feeling forever."
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart praised his side for hanging in the contest.
"The energy and the heart and the self belief we played with ... I told the boys that it would click at some stage,'' Stuart said. "It's still not clicking yet.
"I know what we're building here and I know what's in the players, but we still have to be better in regards to our execution and we'll bounce out of that with a little bit of heart."