Canberra is within one game of its first NRL grand final appearance in 25 years after shocking minor premiers Melbourne in a chaotic qualifying final at AAMI Park.
Second-rower John Bateman scored in the 76th minute on Saturday night to lock up the match at 10-10 before co-captain Jarrod Croker calmly slotted the conversion for the 12-10 victory.
The Raiders will now have next weekend off before hosting their preliminary final while the Storm will next Saturday night host the winner of Sunday’s Parramatta-Brisbane elimination final to keep their season alive.
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart praised his team’s composure, which he said had been key to their charge into the finals.
“You can only have composure if you have belief … you can’t have it if you’re showing poor emotions and panicking and it’s something that’s helped us through a number of tight games,” Stuart said.
“The work we’ve put into it has helped us win some games.”
Melbourne looked as if they had done enough to take the spoils but the Raiders never stopped coming.
Winger Josh Addo-Carr spilt the ball in a tackle that then found its way on to Bateman for the match-winner.
Winger Suliasi Vunivalu was then dubiously ruled to have gone into touch while taking the ball on the restart, which effectively ended their chances.
Regardless, the Raiders deserved the win.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy said his team struggled to find any rhythm.
“A few things didn’t go our way and we didn’t make a few things go our way,” Bellamy said.
We struggled with our completions and doing what we planned to do.”
There was drama before kick-off when Canberra centre Joey Leilua suffered an eye injury from pyrotechnics as he ran on to the field.
He was unable to take his place in the starting side and had some plastic removed from his eye before coming on in the 20th minute.
Stuart wasn’t pointing fingers at anyone, putting it down to bad luck.
But he thought the footy gods were on his side when Leilua’s replacement Bailey Simonsson scored in the fourth minute as the Storm were caught short out wide.
“Luck is a big thing in these big games and we had a bit of luck tonight having Bailey on the bench. It would have been absolutely catastrophic if I didn’t carry an outside back on the bench,” Stuart said.
“I’ve been sitting here many times when the footy gods haven’t been kind to us but tonight, having Bailey there and the contribution of his performance was great.”
Two Raiders were put on report in the first half – winger Jordan Rapana for a lifting tackle on Cameron Munster and lock Joe Tapine for a chicken wing tackle on Brandon Smith.
They also lost winger Nick Cotric for the match in the 20th minute after he suffered a broken nose and cut lip.
But the gutsy Raiders, who also went from an 18-0 deficit in round 22 to upset Melbourne, still managed to take a 6-2 lead into halftime.
After a slew of errors and penalties in the first half, Melbourne looked more like themselves after the break and hit the front three minutes in.
Halfback Jahrome Hughes put up a high ball for Vunivalu to score their first try.
With a penalty either side, Melbourne were out to a 10-6 lead, which against most teams would be enough but the Raiders weren’t to be denied.
Manly stays alive with big win over Cronulla
Manly pulled off one of the club’s great backs-to-the-wall wins to stay alive in the NRL finals and end Cronulla’s season with a 28-16 victory at Lottoland.
With almost a third of their top-30 roster unavailable, the Sea Eagles blitzed Cronulla to go 18-0 up early and barely let them back into the match.
Without the likes of Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau, Curtis Sironen and Joel Thompson, both Daly Cherry-Evans and Addin Fonua-Blake stood up to star in the win.
It was the Sea Eagles’ first in the finals since 2013 and books them a date with South Sydney in Friday’s sudden-death semi-final at ANZ Stadium.
The loss meanwhile ended Paul Gallen’s 348-game NRL career, with the retiring Cronulla captain spending 43 minutes of the game on the sideline.
Manly’s win was even more remarkable when considering they laid their platform in the middle against a Sharks pack littered with representative stars.
Manly’s three bench forwards – including debutant Haumole Olakau’atu – had played just 10 games between them this year before Saturday night.
Sean Keppie also got through 131 metres starting for the Sea Eagles, just a week after making his NRL debut off the bench against Parramatta.
Fonua-Blake was meanwhile immense in Taupau’s absence, topping 182 metres.
He scored a crucial try in the 53rd minute to make it 24-10 just when momentum seemed to be going toward Cronulla, pushing his way through three defenders from 20 metres out.
He also pulled off a vital big hit on Braden Hamlin-Uele moments later, forcing an error from the Sharks prop.
The Shark barely recovered from their slow start.
They missed 11 tackles in the first 15 minutes, while five-eighth Shaun Johnson had a poor first half that included no runs, an error and two kicks that went dead.