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Some days, some moments, transcend being a ?normal? supporter. Sometimes it?s as if the result doesn?t even matter at all, being there is memorable enough. Some are moments of elation, some are earth-shattering. Some make you so proud.
Three of those happened in 2004, one of the Raiders? most forgettable seasons in recent memory.
It was the 10th of July, what should have been like any other day as the Raiders took on the Cowboys at Bruce Stadium. But for Green Machine supporters, their world came crashing down around them 24 hours earlier.
Ruben Wiki was leaving the club.
Numb is probably the best word to describe what many of us were experiencing. It was well publicised that the Raiders would struggle to match the offer that the Warriors had put on the table for the inspirational Kiwi captain, and that the Wiki clan was experiencing a family crisis in Auckland, something Ruben wanted to be closer to. However until the announcement was official, there was always a glimmer of hope he would stay. Hope that the Raiders would remain stronger for his presence. Sadly, it was not to be.
It was an exciting match that night, full of great tries and spectacular football. But that night, the result didn?t matter at all. The lasting memory from that trip down to the capital was the scene at the post-match function. I?d never seen a crowd like it, and everyone was there for only one man. Everyone desperate for a glimpse of their hero, one of the last opportunities they would have to do so. None of the talk that night was about the match, it was about the man.
Somehow I managed to make it to the front of the queue to speak to the man called ?The Muss.? Ruben Wiki is an imposing figure, someone you wouldn?t want to run into on the mean streets of Otahuhu in southern Auckland. But he has a heart of gold and always has time for the fans. I wasn?t quite sure what to say, but both of us had tears in our eyes. Anyone who claimed he ?did it for the money? would have been proven wrong then and there.
I shook his hand, as strongly as I could ? no match for those massive Polynesian arms of his. ?I just wanted to say, thank you so much ? for everything? was all I could fumble out before giving him a great big hug. I?m not one for hugging footballers ? but Ruben is no ordinary footballer. From a skinny centre lining up next to ?Big Mal? in 1993 to the greatest second rower the club has had, ?The Muss? is a leader among men. An inspiration. The Raiders were losing a hero.
Several weeks later, and the Raiders were fighting for the semi-final survival. A victory against Souths would jag the Green Machine an undeserved finals berth ? yet once again the football was not the main subject of the night. This was Ruben Wiki?s final home game at Canberra Stadium, and a big celebration was planned to mark the occasion. This was the reason I made the trip down ? not to see us demolish Souths, but to see the great man again. One more time.
The Raiders won by 60 that night, but it could have been 100 for all I cared. Just before half-time Ruben twisted badly in a tackle and limped off, not to be seen again. Word filtered around the ground that he had done his ankle. The Raiders had made the finals, but it was the most pyrrhic of victories, as their fearless leader would not be there. The post-match scenes were even more devastating, as Ruben, complete with crutches, made his way around the ground to the adoration of the crowd. The tears flowed freely. This was not how it was meant to end.
The following week, against the high-flying Roosters, the biggest cheer was reserved for a replacement wearing jersey 21.
Against all odds, ?The Muss? had defied medical logic for ?one last game in the jersey, to be with the boys.? Canberra were thrashed but no one cared. For 74 colossal minutes, Ruben said the most emotional of goodbyes. The tears of the week before were replaced by smiles, and again the adoration of the crowd.
One of Canberra?s greatest warriors, now a Warrior, had been afforded the exit he deserved. And once again, the result didn?t matter at all.
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