After its crushing home loss to Gold Coast a month ago, you wouldn’t have backed Canberra to play finals with someone else’s money.
But Raiders coach David Furner was prouder than he has been all season after his side kept its playoff hopes alive with a scrappy 20-10 victory at Penrith this afternoon.
Furner has watched his side put cricket scores on quality teams at times this year.
And although it certainly wasn’t attractive, yesterday’s grinding win put a bigger smile on his face.
“We’ve had some very pretty wins and that’s an ugly one, but I like that type of football from this team,’’ Furner said.
“The first half wasn’t the best but I thought our defence, apart from the first try, was pretty gutsy.
“They were running harder than us [in the first half], and I thought we did that [to them] in the second half.’’
Down 6-0 at half-time against the struggling Panthers, the Raiders' season was just 40 minutes away from evaporating.
But a well-directed dressing room blast from Furner inspired the attitude adjustment Canberra needed to keep its finals hopes alive.
Penrith took the early lead through a fourth-minute try to winger Josh Mansour, and only scrambling defence prevented Canberra being further behind at the break.
And while they needed some divine intervention from the football gods, Canberra rediscovered its intensity in the second half to keep its September dream in tact.
Six minutes after the break Panthers fans were in uproar when Raiders centre Jarrod Croker was awarded a controversial try.
Video referee Paul Mellor ruled Croker’s hands didn’t touch the ball contesting a high kick with David Simmons, and gave the 21-year-old’s 16th try of the year the green light.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary was fuming about the incident after the match.
“He [Mellor] must have been watching something different to me, I actually thought it was a no-brainer,’’ Cleary declared.
It proved the critical slice of fortune Canberra craved to take its season off life support.
Just seven minutes later Lady Luck again smiled on the Raiders when five-eighth Josh McCrone snapped up a loose ball from a Luke Walsh grubber to run 65 metres and score.
Midway through the second half the Raiders capitalised on another break when a McCrone attacking kick rebounded off a Penrith defender, straight into the arms of second rower Joe Picker, who crashed over.
A Croker penalty goal with 10 minutes left handed Canberra a 14-point buffer before Penrith playmaker Lachlan Coote scored a consolation try in the dying minutes.
It is just the second time the Raiders have secured back-to-back wins this year after last week’s home victory over Brisbane.
The Broncos’ loss to Canterbury yesterday means Canberra is just two points outside the eight, behind the Queenslanders and Wests Tigers.
It takes on the freefalling Roosters at home next week, a golden opportunity to square the season ledger at 11-11.
Already decimated by injuries, the Raiders had to also contend with the withdrawal of Dane Tilse due to family reasons.
The in-form prop rang Furner at 4.30am Sunday morning to inform him his wife Katie was going into labour with the couple’s first child.
It proved a false alarm, but Furner praised young bookends Sam Mataora and Mark Nicholls for stepping up in Tilse’s absence.
With Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Brett White also injured, it meant David Shillington was the sole member of the Raiders' much-vaunted prop quartet to play.
The skipper responded by playing big minutes in a massive 146-metre, 26-tackle effort.
“Tilsey rang me about four o’clock this morning, and when I saw it was Tilsey I knew what it was about,’’ Furner said.
“The players we were missing [up front] were pretty handy, but what we did have was a couple of young ‘fronties’ [Mataora and Nicholls] who are doing a tremendous job.’’
Canberra’s win was offset by second-rower Josh Papalii being placed on report for a raised forearm on Coote when making a decoy run in the second half.
Star Penrith centre Michael Jennings was also booked twice, for attacking the legs of McCrone when making a kick, and a high shot on Picker.
Papalii already has 75 carryover points, having pleaded guilty to a late-tackle charge after Canberra’s round 20 win at Cronulla.
But Furner indicated the club would likely contest the charge should the judiciary panel today deem he has a case to answer.
“I honestly think Coote ran into him,’’ Furner said.
“He [Coote] is the defender, and if someone comes in on your natural reaction is to do that [protect yourself].
“What’s he supposed to do? A bloke’s coming in to belt you, and it’s not as if he [Coote] is coming in there to drive in the tackle.
“That’s my thoughts but I’ll have to have a look at it.’’
CANBERRA RAIDERS 20 (J Croker J McCrone J Picker tries J Croker 4 goals) bt PENRITH PANTHERS 10 (M Gordon J Mansour tries L Walsh goal) at Centrebet Stadium. Referees: Jason Robinson, Brett Suttor. Crowd: 7437.