The Beautiful loss

"There are some defeats more triumphant than victories." ---Michel de Montaigne

For the legion of Raiders fans out there, it is a common question that arises over a thermos on a chilly Canberra Stadium evening ? what has been the most memorable Raiders moment, out of all the wonderful moments past? For many, the answer is simple ? the 1989 grand final. For sheer significance it will always be right up there in the minds of Canberrans, not only for the victory but the way in which it was achieved ? the ?back from the dead? stuff that legends are made of, seemingly more impressive over time. But personally, it is not my favourite Canberra Raiders moment. Mine, strangely enough, is a loss ? something that most fans try and remove from the memory bank as quickly as possible.

This, however, was no ordinary loss. The stakes were high, the circumstances heartbreaking. Yet leaving the ground that day was probably the most satisfied, proud moment of my time supporting Canberra ? and it unfolded on the night of the 20th of September, 2003.

The occasion was a grand one ? the Warriors and the Raiders fighting it out for a spot in the preliminary final. The would-be premiers, Penrith, were awaiting the victor. Winner takes all, loser goes home. The form of the two combatants could not have been more different, with the Green Machine coming off a disappointing home loss to the Storm while the Kiwis were scintillating in their destruction of the high-flying Bulldogs. During the week, as was predicted, Canberra was written off ? as we had been all season. After all, this was the team who was predicted in the official NRL season guide to finish 12th ? yet were playing for the minor premiership on the final weekend of the season. It had been a dream season for our fans, yet it was all on the line that night.

The atmosphere, in one word, was electric. Two ?unpopular? teams in front of 32 000 screaming fans, including plenty wearing lime ? but we were still badly outnumbered. The roar as the players emerged from the tunnel was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, while the tension built as the smoke cleared from the fireworks.

Kick-off and the Raiders silenced the partisan crowd the best way possible as Mark McLinden made a clean break on the third tackle. Screaming and cheering at the top of our lungs as Simon Woolford darted over for a try under the posts. 11 minutes gone and it?s 10-0? were we on our way to the preliminary final?

Possession starts to even up and the Warriors claw their way back into it. Toopi makes a break and scores near the posts as the ex-pats find their voice. Logan Swann is on the end of a sweeping backline movement before half-time and the lead is gone? has the curse of the ?Faders? returned?

The second half is only three minutes old and Fa?afili scores off a bomb, and I must admit that heads began to drop in the stands. The Warriors were coming home with a wet sail and we seemed helpless to stop it. This team was made of stern stuff however, and only minutes later Luke Davico levelled the scores again. Hopes rose. Game on.

The final twenty minutes of the game remain somewhat of a blur as the noise from the stands reached a crescendo. Two weary prize-fighters slugging it out to the end, looking for a critical moment. The field goal was an option but the Green Machine wanted the kill ? and it was literally inches away? but went slipping through our fingers.

Sadly, the Warriors being the class team they were took their chance when it came. A calmly potted field goal by Stacey Jones led to delirium in the stands, but for some of us it represented sheer, utter despair. Tears on the field, tears in the crowd as we all slowly comprehended what just happened, the end of a journey ? the destruction of a dream.

While the season ended that night, it was a victory of sorts. The never-say-die attitude of the team was something to behold and made us all very proud. This was a team low on football skill but high on football heart. The pride in the green jersey had been restored not in victory, but in defeat ? and for this reason it will always be ?the beautiful loss.?

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