Closely contested Grand Finals are often decided by the bounce of the ball, a moment of concerted effort, the flash of magic from a special player, the unknown and the unexpected. Sydney Roosters have won back-to-back premierships on the back of a monumental defensive effort, repelling wave after wave of Canberra Raiders attack, even while down to 12 men for 10 minutes of the second half. But there were two decisive moments that clearly turned the game in their favour.
The defending premiers had a lucky break in the early exchanges, thanks to a rarely-ever-seen incident that rule makers may have understandably downplayed. There is a rule that states referee interference in a play will result in a scrum feed to the attacking team. It's a strange rule in itself, but apparently it also includes trainer interference.
Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary drilled a kick from 40 metres out and Raiders forward Sia Soliola charged it down. It rebounded straight into the head of the Roosters trainer. He was the last line of defence for the Roosters, with Raiders speedsters streaming through in pursuit. The ball flew back into the middle of play and the referees had no choice but to pack a scrum with the feed going to the Roosters.
With the possession that followed, with another set of six from a drop-kick restart, Sam Verrills crashed over to open the scoring. The Roosters had all the momentum and when Latrell Mitchell kicked a penalty goal to take them to 8-0, things looked ominous for the Raiders. But the Green Machine didn't come all this way to lay down.
The Roosters lost Mitchell Aubusson to a knee injury and Victor Radley was taken off for a HIA test, and the tide started to turn. The Raiders kept pounding away up the middle and turning to Clive Churchill Medal winner Jack Wighton to create something on the edges.
A fresh set of six well inside Roosters territory saw their scrambling defence rattled and a long pass from dummy half Josh Hodgson saw Wighton in space. He stepped and crashed over for the Raiders' first points. The roar from the Raiders fans, a sea of lime green viking clappers, rocked the stadium.
The Roosters attacking weapons James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell and Luke Keary were being contained by the Raiders defence. They continually kicked to winger Brett Morris, preferring the veteran's returns to those of either Tedesco or Daniel Tupou. Morris was peppered all night with high and long kicks and responded brilliantly.
The tide had turned green and the Roosters were looking tired as the halftime break came with them holding onto a narrow 8-6 lead. The second half started as the first had finished with the Raiders moving the ball up the middle before spreading it wide. Each time the Roosters scrambled to shut them down.
Then nine minutes after the break, with the Raiders threatening again, Cooper Cronk anticipated the danger that a Josh Papalii charge from 10 metres out represented. He jumped the gun on the tackle, Papalii dropped the ball and the referees sent the call to the bunker to decide whether or not there was a penalty try in it. The bunker decided that it was a professional foul and Cronk was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes. Jake Friend came onto the field for the first time as Jarrod Croker levelled the scores at eight. The resolve of the Roosters would be truly tested.
"We had to fight hard, really hard," Roosters coach Trent Robinson said after the game.
"We started the second half under the pump again, but as Cooper went off I felt as though we gained the ascendancy, I thought if we could hold them, that we would get on top when Cooper returned."
The game slipped into an arm wrestle with the Raiders having the better of the half-breaks, but the Roosters defence held on. When Cronk came back on, they lifted, but still they looked stunted in attack.
Then with the scores still locked at 8 and under 10 minutes remaining, a Raiders kick deep inside Roosters territory was contested by Tedesco and Croker. As it bounced back to the Raiders one of the referees clearly signalled six more tackles. The ball was passed through the Raiders hands as the referees corrected themselves and started yelling that it was still the last tackle. Wighton saw the signal, but clearly did not hear the call, as he went to ground with the ball instead of putting in another kick.
The shocked Raiders were forced to hand over the ball on the Roosters 20 metre line and in the very next set of six tackles, Keary picked up the ball from dummy-half and took off down a short left-hand side. He passed the ball to Mitchell who flicked it on to Tupou who drew the fullback before setting Tedesco on a run to the try line. It was the lethal combination which hadn't been seen all night and they had their chance on the back of an awful piece of officiating.
When asked about the six again call, Raiders coach Ricky Stuart refused to be dragged into it.
"You all saw it, none of us will be commenting on that tonight," Stuart said.
"It is not the time to be talking about it. The Roosters achieved something monumental tonight and we won't be taking anything away from that.
"Instead of me telling you what I think and you all writing about my unsportsmanlike behaviour, you write what you think."
Roosters fans will argue that Cronk didn't deserve to go to the bin. There were three big calls made during the game, all of them technically correct, but the biggest two proved most costly to the Raiders.
The Roosters were deserving champions, but the Raiders can't help feeling that fate was not on their side. They just weren't meant to win that one, despite their best efforts. It's once again a pity that the main talking points will be referee related.