An inspired Penrith Panthers second-half comeback wasn't enough to deny the Canberra Raiders a 22-12 win at GIO Stadium on Saturday night. In front of a 21,000-strong crowd, the Raiders sealed their first ever preliminary final in the NRL era.
Croker penalty goal denies Panthers fightback
When Sitaleki Akauola cleaned up Raiders winger Jordan Rapana just moments after the second half kick-off, things were looked ominous for the Panthers. A barnstorming Paul Vaughan run and a try to skipper Jarrod Croker followed in the immediate set afterwards as the Raiders posted an 18-0 lead. But the Panthers weren't going to die wondering.
Tyrone Peachey's try from a magic Matt Moylan ball midway through the second half was followed by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's four-pointer. Nathan Cleary's clutch conversions aided Penrith's comeback. That was until James Fisher-Harris's high shot on Raiders playmaker Aidan Sezer. Croker's resulting penalty goal killed off any hope from there as the Panthers exited the NRL Telstra Premiership with their heads held high.
The NRL's complete set
The final domino has finally fallen. The Raiders are off to the first preliminary final ever in the NRL era. It's a feat every one of the other 15 teams have achieved since the competition's maiden season in 1998. In fact, every team has featured in week three of the finals over the past eight seasons alone. The last time the Raiders featured this late in the competition was back in the Super League season of 1997 – when now coach Ricky Stuart was captaining the side.
Speaking after the game, Croker expressed both his excitement and focus when asked about the challenge that awaits his side.
"It's a massive achievement and all the boys are very excited," Croker said. "We have to regroup now and get ready for another game of footy now. That's all we're worried about."
Hardaker holds his own at late notice
Zak Hardaker will head back to England with his head held high following his best NRL performance to date. Hardaker was thrown into the mix at late notice when Waqa Blake (shoulder) failed to get through the captain's run and didn't shirk any responsibilities. The England international marked up against Croker, and while he missed three tackles, it was mainly because he was let down by his inside men.
Fisher-Harris had an unforgettable period late in the second half when his error and then penalty on Sezer led to Croker's match-sealing penalty. Five-eighth Bryce Cartwright wasn't much better – he missed five tackles and made two errors in the first half alone.
First-half déjà vu
The Raiders kicked off proceedings against the Panthers as they did against the Sharks last weekend by scoring first. Last weekend it was the influential Josh Hodgson, this week the equally-significant Blake Austin. Coincidentally the Panthers also conceded first in their elimination final clash against the Bulldogs.
But as they did the week before, the mountain men held firm for the majority of the first half by denying the Raiders time and time again. Fate would be on the Green Machine's side however. Once again they were on the receiving end of having an opposition player have to undergo a HIA test – unfortunately for Wade Graham and this week Isaah Yeo. The difference? The Raiders scored before half-time thanks to Rapana's record 22nd try of the year.
Bateman the Raiders' unsung hero
Raiders rookie forward Luke Bateman's first 11 minutes on the field should be remembered for years to come. While a head knock denied him further time in the first 40, he made the most of his opportunities when he entered the game.
Not only did the 21-year-old smash Cartwright and force an error late on in the first half, he also prevented a certain Trent Merrin try just minutes before that. Considering how the second half panned out, the Raiders should be thanking their lucky stars for having Bateman on the field.
Fellow Canberra forward Sia Soliola was full of praise for his young teammate.
"They're big plays. Things like what 'Bateo' did really lifts the team," Soliola told NRL.com post-game.
"All those things really boosted the boys. It's just those little contributions and little efforts for each other, it comes back to that old mentality of not letting the team down."