The inner flutterings of my intuition told me the Raiders were going to win this game. I texted my brother, I told him “I predict an upset, same as last year!” “Not me” he wrote back. My hold on the real world has always been slight at best, but something tells me I am right and he is wrong and I serenely ignore his suggestion, and everyone else’s (except, I imagine, the lovely and ever-loyal Laurie Daley) that the Raiders will be badly beaten.
The game starts but I am making custard in the kitchen. I don’t know what I miss but it probably involves Cooper Cronk rushing around being authoritative and yappy.
Raiders post the first points, ten minutes in. Blake Ferguson does sensational athletic things under the high ball, comes up with it, slams it down, leaps up and slams the ball away. Huzzah. Croker converts. 6-0.
Ferguson is playing with two spectacular black eyes. I note with interest that he has never looked better. He looks less like a half-formed amphibian and more Tyler Durden.
Reece Robinson gets a ball to Sandor Earl and Earl gets over. It’s pronounced “Shannnndor”. Is that Celtic? Those stars on his thighs don’t look very Celtic. I remember sitting in Bruce Stadium in 2010, when he was on the wing for Penrith, staring at that star-spangled thigh and thinking it was one of the more horrendous assemblages of tattoos I had seen. This was back when Joel Monaghan was on the wing for the Raiders. It was a good time, 2010. You sat right down close to the sideline so you could hear the hits and the things that people called out to Monaghan – nice things, because Monaghan was nice – and often Monaghan, because he was right there, would turn and look and acknowledge the shout-out. Usually it was just “HEY MONAGHS!!!” but once it was “HEY MONAGHS YOU’RE A FUNNY FUCK!!” which was astute, because he was, and didn’t that sense of humour prove to be his ultimate undoing - which, as the (my) theory goes, marked the general decline in morale and cohesion at the Raiders, the results of which we are still seeing, circa 2012. But I digress.
Cameras cut to Mal Meninga sitting broodily in some lofty box. The commentators announce he has been in the Raiders dressing rooms. Doing what, I wonder? I have no time and no appetite for Mal Meninga. I would rather hear that Ricky Stuart had been in the dressing room, frankly. Croker’s conversion fails; he sends a large lump of grass a good way up into the air though. 10-0.
Play resumes and Croker gets a flick-pass away. Several seconds later Brandy Alexander says words to the effect of “Croker raced up and made first contact.” This is all very, very strange. Unfamiliar.
Fifteen minutes in the Storm get their first real chance to post points. The Storm post points. This, this is familiar. Momentum shifts and swings towards the Storm. Doom-tinged doubt creeps in to my mind. This is exactly what these Raiders cannot handle. Defensive tests unnerve them, they unravel. Earl, who has just been tossed into touch a moment prior, gets up out of the line to shut things down for Melbourne on the fifth. I exhale. Relief. After defending their own line Canberra have a good set of six. My god. Also, they’re offloading. I’ve never seen the Raiders offload en masse like this. Twenty five minutes in and their completion rate is 9 from 10. My god in heaven.
The Storm make an error. Reece Robinson passes long to Eddrick Lee, who juggles, re-gathers and crosses for a try in the corner. Croker, gaping like a hooked fish, misses by a mile. 14-6.
Next thing, while I’m occupying myself wondering whether the Raiders can get through a solid set after posting points, they are occupying themselves by immediately going ahead and posting some more points. Quick hands from Josh McCrone to Ferguson, who busts a tackle, fends like T-Rex and links with Earl – TRY!
Next, Anthony Quinn knees Ferguson in the head. It flattens him. Eventually he wobbles to his feet.
In the 39th minute Justin O’Neil gets a second try for the Storm, on Canberra’s left side. The problem side. Fun fact that is really no fun at all: Canberra has conceded 34 tries through their left hand side this year. Their left hand side defense gapes like a ripped circus tent, basically.
Halftime, 20-12. As they run off Mark Gasnier looms up and opines of Canberra “they’re actually doing a Melbourne Storm on the Melbourne Storm!” He gets this out without fucking it up and is clearly very pleased with himself. It still astonishes me that anyone would give Mark Gasnier a microphone, but at this time I’m feeling generous and find myself murmuring something like “good on you Gaz”, which is neither a sentence nor a sentiment I am familiar with. This is an unusual night all round.
Still, I’m not comfortable. To be a Raiders fan is to be in a perpetual state of discomfort. They can’t be trusted. They are famously unreliable. Also, the Storm are irritatingly reliable. And they love a strong second half. I picture them in the dressing room, being re-programmed with Bellamy’s exclusive and secret ‘retreat, evaluate, recalibrate’ software. The thought makes me feel extremely edgy.
The second half starts. A ball from McCrone leaves the Storm looking a long way short in defense and gets Eddrick Lee over for his second try. Lee was on track to becoming a basketball superstar until advice from an uncle swayed him towards football. He’s fucking massive; a big, lanky, loose assemblage of limbs and circuitry. Croker misses the conversion. No offence, but can’t someone else do it? Actually, offence. He stinks. 24-12.
Cronk kicks a 40/20. This is not good. This is very, very bad.
The Raiders hold the Storm back, but only barely. They get the ball back and advance it up the field with an ease and aptitude that I have never seen.
With 56 minutes gone Croker scores a try from a Joel Thompson one-arm offload, much to the distress of Cronk, who is screaming maniacally at Strom players to slide across, slide across! The Storm are ruffled! Less surprisingly, so is the terminally inept Mark Gasnier. He interjects to observe that “three repeat sex – pardon me – sets - for the Raiders here…” I get up to light some incense.
Next, McCrone throws a long looping ball out to Earl. Another try! Another missed conversion.
Shaun Fensom makes a bust and sets off down the field like a great thundering bison.
Robinson gets a ball to Lee, who makes it a hat trick of tries, which in turn makes a lump form in my throat. Croker, who looks like he has a perpetual lump in his throat, makes the conversion. This takes it to 40-12, the largest margin the Storm have ever been beaten by at AAMI Park. Audacious. We really have no business beating the Storm at all, let alone at their home ground, and by a record breaking margin. I relax and begin to revel in this unaccustomed brilliance.
The siren goes. David Furner winks at some unseen person from the coaching box. Such is my mood that I find this rakishly charming. Alluring, even. Winning throws a golden glow over what would otherwise be a sleazy and lowbrow gesture from a man as flinty as Furner. Ferguson and Earl do a special handshake, one with twitching fingers and pumping motions. This is also charming.
Gasnier, chatting amiably to a peevish Jason Ryles, says that the Storm were ‘uncharacteristical.’ This is not the first time I have heard Gasnier use this non-word. I can’t help but feel that the leap from leaving an absurdist 4 a.m. voicemail message to sideline commentary has been something of a stretch for Gasnier. He is far better suited to the former, I feel. I’m no expert, but surely that must be the greatest voicemail message in Australian history. The flashes of lewd, Wild-like wit are unparalleled in their excellence.
Finally, cameras cut to the Raiders dressing sheds. They’re all in a big circle clapping and hoo-haa-ing and belting out the team song and then Eddrick Lee breaks ranks, moves into the centre of the circle, drops to the floor and STARTS DOING THE WORM.