The Canberra Raiders were clearly hurting after Friday night’s preliminary final loss to the Melbourne Storm.
With their hearts set on avenging last season’s grand final loss to the Sydney Roosters, the Raiders became the underdog favourite heading into the match - but their hopes were quickly dashed when the Storm smashed them over the first 25 minutes of the game, opening up a 24-0 lead.
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The Raiders bravely battled back in the second half but the damage had been done, as the Storm earned their spot in the NRL grand final with a 30-10 win.
Despite the obvious heartbreak - distraught Raiders coach Ricky Stuart answered only one question before walking out of his post-game press conference - coaches of both teams had time to see the bigger picture.
In keeping with a tradition the pair have kept since their playing days, Storm coach Craig Bellamy joined Stuart in the Raiders rooms after the game for a quiet drink - much to the delight of observers.
Rugby league great Peter Sterling said the gesture represented what was great about the game.
“Two great mates and former teammates, now coaching opponents. You’d love to know what the conversation is. It wouldn’t be an easy one I wouldn’t imagine,” Sterling said on Channel Nine.
“That’s our game. That’s our game right there. You go out for 80 minutes and you rage.
“There’s smiles there, but they are unbelievably competitive individuals these two. He would be hurting now, Ricky Stuart, and Craig Bellamy understands that.
“He knows. So he wouldn’t have to say much. But that’s what our game is all about.”
Ricky Stuart walks out of NRL press conference
Eyebrows were raised when Stuart didn't make himself available to media until almost an hour after the loss that snapped Canberra's five-game winning run and ended their brave quest to book back-to-back grand finals.
Yet there was no indication that the sometimes volatile Stuart had been simmering when he finally emerged post-match.
He appeared composed when he answered the opening question, showering Melbourne with praise for the win set up by a point-a-minute 24-0 first half blitz.
Which made his sudden exit while reporters attempted a follow up query all the more surprising.
There was plenty to discuss after Canberra's season ended.
Could Stuart expand on the Raiders' gutsy effort to overcome a heavy injury toll and a nightmare travel regimen to become the first fifth-placed team under the new finals format to have made a preliminary final?
The Raiders had made a grand final qualifier after spending almost 50 hours in transit since the competition's resumption in May - close to double the time taken by the next NRL team - due to overnight hotel stays being banned under COVID protocols.
And what were his departing words for English import John Bateman, who is bound for Super League club Wigan in 2021 after two influential seasons at Canberra?
Raiders fans will have to wait after Stuart's only post-match insights were that he was "very proud" of his side and that they didn't start their preliminary final well.
"We were passive in defence (in first 25 minutes)...it was not us," Stuart said.
"I can handle the loss...but I'm just really disappointed we did not have one of our better games."
Stuart even dipped his hat to Melbourne as he expanded on the opening question.
Ricky Stuart press conference honest & accurate. Raider disappointing tonight. Disappointing to qualify for such big game & not play to best. Raider never really hit peak all year. He wished Storm well. Sent best wishes to Bellamy & Cam Smith for GF. Impressive press conference
— PhilGould15 (@PhilGould15) October 16, 2020
Ricky Stuart really committed to the siege mentality bit in that first half, but it's probably time for the Raiders to turn up now. #NRLStormRaiders
— Jon Healy (@JonHealy) October 16, 2020
"To our character and the resilience in the team, we hung around and tried to turn it around but Melbourne just wouldn't let us and it made it a tough night," he said.
"I'm very proud of where we got to but I'm disappointed in not going one step further.
"You can't take it for granted getting to this position in a season because you fight so hard to get here and put so much work to get to this stage of the season. For us to let ourselves down like that in the first 25 minutes is the disappointing part."
He added: "I genuinely wish (Storm coach) Craig (Bellamy), (captain) Cameron (Smith) and the team all the best for next week."
And with that he was gone.
As a reporter tried to ask a follow-up, Stuart simply said "cheers" as he stormed out.
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