Rugby League


What we learned: Cronulla Sharks v Canberra Raiders


CANBERRA RAIDERS 22 (Anthony Milford 2, Matt McIlwrick, Jarrod Croker tries; Croker 3 goals) bt CRONULLA SHARKS 12 (Sosaia Feki, Tim Robinson tries; Michael Gordon 2 goals) at Remondis Stadium on Sunday. Referees: Henry Perenara and Gavin Reynolds. 


The competition's two worst teams going head-to-head in a match clouded by ASADA controversy. No one expected the Raiders and Sharks to turn on an NRL clinic and the game lived up to its expectations in a sloppy first half. The Raiders got off to a shocking start and the Sharks, riding on emotion in the wake of their 2011 supplement program debacle, got out to a 6-0 lead. But the Raiders clawed their way back into the contest in the second half. The win means the Raiders will almost certainly avoid the second wooden spoon in the club's history. But beating an undermanned and drama-plagued Sharks outfit merely smooths over the cracks for a week. The Raiders have to show some spirit in their last two games of the year. Both are at home, one against the Wests Tigers and the other against the Parramatta Eels. If they don't win both, they will slump to the worst home record since the Raiders moved to Canberra Stadium. Winning against the Sharks will give the players some confidence. But it will count for little if they can't back it up and get back-to-back wins for the first time this year.


The Sharks could have been forgiven for not turning up to their last home game. Their side was almost unrecognisable with captain Paul Gallen among a host of players either injured or suspended by ASADA. Despite being a game between the NRL's two lowest ranked teams, there was plenty of attention. The Sharks threatened to pull off a stunning upset when they led at half-time. But the toll of a year of drama showed in the second half. The Raiders were stuck in a hard place. A win would be put down to the Sharks' off-field troubles. A loss would be humiliating. Raiders coach Ricky Stuart took his team to Sydney a day earlier than normal to help the players escape from friends and family telling them they would beat the Sharks by 30. Credit to the Sharks, even when Anthony Milford scored a second-half double, they refused to throw in the towel and got within four points with 15 minutes remaining.



There's no guarantee Raiders captain Terry Campese will return to the NRL this week, despite making his comeback in the NSW Cup on Saturday. Campese is fighting for his NRL career after being overlooked for the game against Cronulla. He faces an uncertain future at the club and Ricky Stuart will review his performance for Mounties before deciding if he will be recalled. Campese is refusing to give up without a fight and deserves every credit for trying to force his way back into the team. But it's Anthony Milford's brilliance that continues to haunt the Raiders. The superbly talented playmaker was the driving force behind the Green Machine avoiding the most embarrassing loss of their season. He scored two tries and set up two more. The sight of the fleet-footed back in action should give Raiders fans some hope for the future. Instead, it just causes heartache knowing he will be at the Brisbane Broncos next year. Stuart lauded props Dane Tilse and Shannon Boyd for their work in the middle of the field, declaring: "We wouldn't have won if it wasn't for Tilsey today. [Milford] took the game by the scruff of the neck. But my big blokes in the middle have been my backbone all year. Tilsey said before the game he was going to aim up, and he deserves the credit today. Not the backs." Jack Wighton was solid at fullback, but was never tested under the high ball. Josh McCrone struggled in the first half and was benched at the break with Stuart injecting Mitch Cornish.


In a dark, dark season, Jarrod Croker is surely the Raiders shining light. The Goulburn junior continued his outstanding point-scoring year, passing Canberra legend Mal Meninga on the club's all-time points tally. Croker is now third on the list behind David Furner and Clinton Schifcofske. Croker has scored 18 tries this season and is up to 868 points in his 138 NRL appearances. He will have Furner's record of 1218 in his sights in the coming years. "It's nice just to be mentioned in the same sentence [as Meninga], but it's something I'll look back on later," Croker said. Croker was also the Raiders' co-captain for the first time and he had a hand in setting up Anthony Milford for a try, which all but killed off the Sharks' hopes of winning. "Croker's been one of the stand outs, that's an amazing points accumulation," Steve Menzies said. "He's been one of the highlights for the Raiders this year."


The Cronulla faithful didn't hold back when the Sharks opened the scoring just before half-time, turning to Raiders mentor Ricky Stuart's coaching box to abuse him. When Jack Wighton dropped the ball in his own in-goal, one fan turned and said: "That's what you did to us, Ricky." It was brutal as both teams struggled in the first half. Commentators Greg Alexander and Steve Menzies both chimed in with comments that it was "obvious why these teams are at the bottom of the ladder". The first half was a dour affair with both teams failing to make any real impact. Stuart was the Sharks coach from 2007-10 and still has a soft spot for the club. He has been in contact with suspended captain Paul Gallen all year, and says he is there to help if Gallen needs help in the fallout from the ASADA drama.