Some dubious refereeing decisions in the second half of a thrilling grand final have stolen some of the spotlight in the Roosters’ 14-8 win over Canberra to become the first team since 1993 to win back-to-back NRL premierships.
The Roosters matched the Brisbane Broncos’ ’92-’93 double — the last time a side won successive grand finals in a unified Australian rugby league competition, then the NSWRL — but this year’s decider was not without controversy.
The tense grand final was tied until the 72nd minute, when James Tedesco finished off a long-range effort to give his side the victory, but it came on the back of a bizarre sequence of events at the other end of the field.
With the Raiders attacking at 8-8, referee Ben Cummins called for a repeat set of six and Jack Wighton, who won the Clive Churchill medal in a losing side, took the tackle, only to be called on to hand the ball over.
The Canberra players were baffled and clearly unhappy, but that displeasure turned to fury when Daniel Tupou immediately broke down the left wing and put Tedesco over for the deciding try.
Despite the controversy, the often irascible Canberra coach, Ricky Stuart, said the first thing he did at ground level after the game was approach the four on-field officials to congratulate them on their efforts.
“No-one goes out there to make mistakes. They’ve got tough jobs,” he said.
“I’d like you to think it was a wonderful grand final.
“If it is the wrong call … there’s not a referee that would go out there and try to make a mistake. If it is wrong, I hope it’s not the spotlight of this evening.”
It was an unfortunate way for the game to finish, considering the sensational 80 minutes of football that the teams put on display.
The Raiders’ stingy defence was a major feature of their run to the grand final, but it took just six minutes for the defending champions to penetrate the green wall.
After Boyd Cordner almost crossed on the left, the Roosters forced a dropout and reloaded for a fresh set, with 20-year-old rookie Sam Verrills dancing through the defence from dummy half.
Through the first quarter of the game, the underdog Raiders had looked slightly overwhelmed by the moment — making silly errors and giving away a penalty to allow Latrell Mitchell to push the lead to 8-0 — but the second 20 minutes of the game belonged to the Green Machine.
Once they got some possession, five-eighth Jack Wighton took his turn in control of the game. He made some incisive runs and shouldered most of the kicking load, one of which even forced a mistake from Dally M medallist James Tedesco.
This time, the Raiders did not panic when given a chance close to the line and some fancy footwork by Wighton saw him wrong-foot Cordner, blow past Angus Crichton and touch down on the half-hour mark.
The scores remained at 8-6 until the break thanks to an exceptional defensive passage by inspirational Canberra captain Jarrod Croker, who rushed from his position on the other side of the field to stop a rampaging Mitchell before charging to the other side to mop up after a Joseph Manu knock-on forced by Wighton.
Then, 10 minutes after the break, came the game’s first refereeing flashpoint.
The Raiders were on the rampage, with star prop Josh Papalii leading the way, and he was right under the posts revving up for another charge.
John Bateman floated across the field and popped a pass to him, but Roosters half Cooper Cronk saw him coming and, knowing he was giving up some 20-30 kilograms, tried to hit him early. Unfortunately he hit him a split-second too early and prevented Papalii from getting a play on the ball.
The referees sent the incident to the video referee for a potential penalty try and professional foul. After a review, the former was ruled out, but Cronk was sent for a 10-minute rest for the latter.
“He can’t go to the bin,” Cordner pleaded with referee Ben Cummins, but the retiring star was on his way to the sidelines in his ninth grand final.
The penalty goal was potted to level the scores and the Raiders did cross through Jordan Rapana in the final seconds of Cronk’s time off the field, but a poor decision by Joey Leilua saw him force the final pass forward, allowing the Roosters to make it through the first 20 minutes of the half having conceded just two points.
As reward for their defensive toils, a high shot on Luke Keary gave Mitchell a chance to put his team in front with the boot. But his kick was hooked and left the scores tied.
That put the Raiders on the charge once again and they appeared to have received a chance to reload when Tedesco was ruled to have knocked on as he tried to gather a Raiders bomb.
Referee Cummins was again the centre of attention as he waved his hand above his head, clearly signalled six more tackles. Wighton took the tackle, assuming he would be allowed to get up and play the ball, but he was called upon to hand the ball over.
Then, just when it was most needed, the Roosters’ electric backline found the space they had struggled to locate for most of the match, going from Keary to Mitchell to Tupou to Tedesco for a game-winning 60-metre effort.