REAL AUSTRALIA

The Canberra Raiders were on the verge of a fairytale for 73 minutes in the NRL decider

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Jarrod Croker. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Jarrod Croker. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Heartbreak? Yeah, those dud calls definitely hurt. Disappointment? You bet, the Canberra Raiders were on the verge of a fairytale for 73 minutes.

But have you ever seen people happy to be in a traffic jam? Smiling, laughing and waving to others on the road even though they're doing 100 kilometres per hour under the speed limit.

Raiders fans heading out of the ACT on the Federal Highway towards Sydney for the NRL decider. Picture: Lucie Bertoldo

Raiders fans heading out of the ACT on the Federal Highway towards Sydney for the NRL decider. Picture: Lucie Bertoldo

They smiled about the green jerseys in passenger seats, flags flying out the windows and scarves draped across dashboards.

They laughed because the Federal Highway out of the ACT became an 8am parking lot. On a Sunday. Seriously.

They waved because they were on a journey together, a sea of green cars heading to Sydney and aimed directly at the Canberra Raiders' first grand final in 25 years.

The Raiders fell short of a dream finish on Sunday night, walking off the field with their hearts broken after a 14-8 win in a NRL grand final classic and the tears flowed.

A sea of green at the NRL grand final on Sunday night. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A sea of green at the NRL grand final on Sunday night. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Lime green jerseys were strewn across the Olympic Stadium turf, completely exhausted after the most absorbing 80 minutes you've seen.

A late try and controversial decisions shattered the dreams of a green army hoping for a 30-year premiership anniversary celebration.

People rate the Raiders' first title in 1989 as the greatest grand final of all time. The 2019 edition was so close to being the pearl gift from a new generation.

Fans cheering the Canberra Raiders during the NRL grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Fans cheering the Canberra Raiders during the NRL grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

They will return to Canberra with heavy hearts on Monday. They'll wonder what if a first-half charge down didn't hit a Roosters trainer. Or what if the the referee hadn't bizarrely changed his mind about a six-again call in the second half.

But their hearts should be full with pride instead of being in shattered pieces. They should be proud because they've captured a city in a way no one thought they could.

You only had to see the convoy of vehicles charging up the highway on Sunday morning, or the wave of green jerseys filling pubs around the stadium and shopping centres all over Sydney.

Fans show their true colours at the NRL grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Fans show their true colours at the NRL grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Anyone who says Canberra is a soulless city has clearly never been around when the Raiders win.

The Raiders won long before kick-off in the club's biggest game since 1994. They've captured the hearts of young ans who weren't around to see Mal Meninga win three premierships.

They've made grown men cry. They've made retired legends want to pull on the lime green jersey again.

They've given Raiders fans a reason to believe again, even after the dramatic lows of sacked players, missed opportunities and doubters who thought they've never get back to the top.

A shattered Jarrod Croker. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A shattered Jarrod Croker. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The hype of the Raiders' rise shouldn't diminish the impact other Canberra sporting teams in the past 25 years.

The ACT Brumbies were Super Rugby champions, the Canberra Capitals have won eight WNBL titles and Canberra United and the Canberra Cavalry have had their title-winning moments.

But there's something about the Raiders that makes Canberra go mad. So mad people drink green beer while eating green sausages on green bread.

Maybe it's because the Viking clap has become one of the greatest shows in Australian sport. Maybe it's because players like Jarrod Croker are genuinely nice guys.

The Raiders were gutted after losing the grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Raiders were gutted after losing the grand final. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Maybe it's because of the nostalgia and the 25-year drought between being the best in rugby league.

For 73 minutes the Raiders looked like they were going to bring the premiership trophy back to Canberra, which would have undoubtedly sparked wild celebrations.

For 73 minutes fans sat on the edge of their seat believing they were about to witness one of the greatest moments in Raiders history.

For 73 minutes they looked like the better team. Then it was snatched away in a cruel way.

Roosters captain Boyd Cordner consoles Raider Aiden Sezer. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Roosters captain Boyd Cordner consoles Raider Aiden Sezer. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

But the hope the Raiders have generated over the past 12 months won't stop at full-time. This version of the Green Machine is the real deal, not a flash in the pan.

The Canberra bubble lost some air, but it never burst. This is the start of something special, so jump on the bandwagon now or risk getting stuck in traffic.

"To all the green fans," a gutted Jarrod Croker said. "You guys have been outstanding all year. Make sure you come back next year, this is only the start for us."

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Chris Dutton

Sports editor, Canberra Times

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