The Canberra Raiders have vowed to rally around shattered goalkicker Jarrod Croker, adamant that failing to take their earlier chances against an injury-stricken Tigers was to blame for a 19-18 loss at Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday.
Croker cut a forlorn figure in the dressing sheds after he sprayed his 74th-minute penalty goal attempt from 37 metres, which raised memories of his devastating missed late kick that condemned Canberra to a semi-final loss to the Tigers in 2010.
Coach Ricky Stuart consoled his centre afterwards and told him it was the side's squandered second-half chances against a team who finished with 14 men that was at fault.
"Jarrod's won us more games with his goalkicking than he's lost," Stuart said. "I've spoken to Jarrod and he's not to take that on his shoulders, we have to take the responsibility because we should have won that game. Under those conditions we should have put them away in the second half and we weren't good enough, simple as that.
"You can't dodge around the truth, we should have won with what happened to that team [Tigers] tonight. It's unacceptable how we got beaten. They had injury after injury and if we think we're a first-grade football team, we should have won. There's no excuse for that.''
However, Stuart was critical of head referee Matt Cecchin's decision to stop Croker from taking the kick initially to bring Tigers players back onside, despite Croker having already begun stepping towards the ball.
"I probably have the same thoughts I had when [Anthony] Milford got hit in the head off the kick off, it was wrong,'' he said. "I've never seen a referee jump in as a bloke's about to kick a goal to win a match, and he jumps in as he takes his first step.''
Tigers skipper Robbie Farah said he reminded Croker about his missed shot four years ago at Canberra Stadium when he was lining up the kick.
"I sure did," Farah said. "He [Croker] just smiled and nodded, I was trying to get into his ear to put him off. I just walked up and reminded him of that semi-final.
"Considering the circumstances, that win is as gutsy as it gets.''
Canberra has slumped to 4-11 and while their finals hopes are shot, a first wooden spoon since its inaugural 1982 season is a big possibility.
The first half was spiteful and littered with melees, highlighted by Farah accusing Raiders prop David Shillington of eye gouging. He declined to make an official complaint when asked by referees, and said he accepted Shillington's explanation that it was accidental.
"Shillo's a good guy, I've roomed with him on tours [with Australia] and he said he didn't mean it,'' Farah said.
"He said to me he was trying to push me off and there was no intent in it, and I believed him. I didn't want to make an official complaint and get him suspended.''
Canberra centre Jack Wighton's hopes of a maiden NSW Origin jersey suffered a setback when he sat out the entire second half with a broken thumb.
But it was the Tigers who suffered most through injury, with the loss of James Tedesco (knee), Sauaso Sue (shoulder) and Tim Simona (concussion) ensuring the hosts finished the match with a one-man bench.
At 18-all midway through the second half, Canberra had six sets on the undermanned Tigers' line, but failed to find the killer touch.
Raiders skipper Terry Campese missed an easy field goal attempt with 10 minutes left, and the Tigers made him pay when opposite number Braith Anasta slotted home the eventual match-winner the next set.
"We shouldn't have been in that position," Campese said. "I should have kicked my field goal 10 metres out, that's my job. We had those sets of six on their line, we should have scored.''
Rookie Raiders winger Brenko Lee scored a first-half double, including a spectacular chip and chase for his second, but two tries to Tigers winger David Nofoaluma and another to Pat Richards gave the hosts an 18-12 half-time lead.
A long-range try from Croker early in the second half levelled proceedings, but despite a glut of possession, the Raiders could not find the killer punch against a brave Tigers.
WESTS TIGERS 19 (David Nofoaluma 2, Pat Richards tries; Richards 3 goals; Braith Anasta field goal) bt CANBERRA RAIDERS 18 (Brenko Lee 2, Jarrod Croker tries; Croker 3 goals) at Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday night. Crowd: 9243. Referees: Matt Cecchin and Gavin Reynolds.