An incredible second-half resurgence from the red-hot Raiders has turned a nightmare trip to Townsville into a Canberra semi-final.
Trailing the New Zealand Warriors 22-6 at half-time this afternoon, the Raiders were 40 minutes away from being shunted into an energy-sapping trip from Auckland to north Queensland for an elimination final against the Cowboys.
But six unanswered tries after the break secured the Raiders their 13th win of the season, and fifth in succession.
Cronulla’s 36-22 loss to the Cowboys delivered the Raiders sixth position on the table and locked in a sudden-death date with the Sharks at Canberra Stadium next Sunday.
Halfback Sam Williams is confident of returning from a shoulder injury, while fullback Josh Dugan will be monitored during the week after rolling his ankle at training on Thursday.
Having lost in their past five visits to Townsville, the Raiders would have been short odds to be bundled out without much more than a whimper given they haven’t won up there since 2006 and won just two of their past 19 games in Queensland.
But their trademark late-season surge will have the other seven teams in the top eight nervously looking over their shoulder hoping they don’t draw the Green Machine.
The Raiders languished as low as 15th at the midway point of the season but have stormed home to win nine of their past 12 games.
It’s impossible to talk about this year’s charge without drawing comparisons to 2010.
On that occasion, the Raiders won eight of their final nine games before knocking off second-placed Penrith, only to have their charge ended in an epic two-point loss to the Tigers at a packed Canberra Stadium.
Momentum is on their side, but coach David Furner warned that would now be irrelevant if they want to make a run deep into September.
“Semi-finals are different altogether, I’ve said that to the players,’’ he said.
“That 26-round comp’s gone. We’re in a position where it’s been sudden-death for the past five, six or even seven weeks. We certainly need a better start.’’
Of that there is no argument.
With Dugan having stayed in Canberra after being ruled out on Friday, and Williams in the grandstands, the Raiders were sloppy in the early exchanges.
Forward passes, dropped balls - hardly the trademarks of a team fresh off rolling the minor premier the week before.
Memories of that upset of the Bulldogs faded away as the Warriors charged out to a 16-point half-time lead.
Manu Vatuvei justified his nickname of “The Beast”, steamrolling Raiders five-eighth Josh McCrone in a fearful statement of intent.
Vatuvei posted a double and the Warriors led 22-6 at the break.
The Raiders couldn’t get to the sheds quick enough.
As for the Warriors, they probably had their bags packed for Mad Monday based on their efforts, in the same vein as losses against Manly and the Knights, where they were run down after leading by 18 points.
Shaun Fensom, Reece Robinson and Blake Ferguson crossed in the space of 19 minutes to give the Raiders a lead they never relinquished.
“What I liked is that earlier in the year we may have been in that situation and wouldn’t have been able to get out of it,’’ Furner said.
“I just [asked them to] refocus at half-time.
“The players knew what they had to do.’’
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Raiders, featuring the season-ending loss of playmaker Terry Campese and speculation about Furner’s future in wake of their 40-0 hiding at home to the Wests Tigers.
While somewhat surprised with the resurgence, captain David Shillington said he always had belief the club could turn around its fortunes.
“Earlier this year when we were struggling a bit, we called for patience from our fans and with people judging us,’’ he said.
“I could see we have a good group of young players and those guys have got more experience as the year’s gone on.’’
Stand-in Warriors coach Tony Iro accused his side of being “soft” after the match.
“This side’s got the potential to be a really good footy team. But we have got a soft edge to us at the moment,” he said.
“Usually you just bash some hardness into them [to fix it]. I’m pretty sure, regardless of what happens next season, they’re in for a tough pre-season.”
Skipper Simon Mannering agreed with Iro, saying New Zealand's defensive game had fallen away a lot this season.
“He’s hitting the nail on the head,” he said.
“We’ve just made it a habit of, over the last eight weeks, switching off, and being soft.”
CANBERRA RAIDERS 42 (B Ferguson 2 R Robinson 2 S Berrigan S Fensom J Papalii tries J Croker 7 goals) bt NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS 22 (M Vatuvei 2 P Godinet B Matulino tries B Henry 2 J Maloney goals) at Mt Smart Stadium this afternoon.
Friday, September 7: Qualifying final 1 - Canterbury Bulldogs (1) v Manly Sea Eagles (4) at ANZ Stadium, 7.45pm.
Saturday, September 8: Qualifying final 2 - Melbourne Storm (2) v South Sydney Rabbitohs (3) at AAMI Park, 5.45pm.
Saturday, September 8: Elimination final 1 - North Queensland Cowboys (5) v Brisbane Broncos (8) at Dairy Farmers Stadium, 7.45pm.
Sunday, September 9: Elimination final 2 - Canberra Raiders (6) v Cronulla Sharks (7) at Canberra Stadium, 4pm.