It started with a phone call from the Canberra Raiders’ Fan Engagement office.
“The final home game of the season is Members’ Appreciation Day, and we’ve selected 40 members who have attended every home game this season to form a guard of honour as the team runs out onto the pitch. Would you like to be one of them?”
I would, but I hesitated, because I knew someone who’d like to do it even more.
“Absolutely,” I said, “but would it be possible for my son to do it instead?”
And that’s how it started. Very simply really, but then it went from simple to astonishing.
A few emails went back and forth. Sure, Mini-CBRbound could join the guard of honour instead, and they sent me instructions for where to meet on the day. In response, I sent my thanks and a “by the way, I recently wrote a blog post about joining the Raiders family of fans, I thought you might like to read it?”
Then another phone call: “Would you mind if I shared your blog post around the office?” Of course not. Then another: “Would you mind if we republished it on the Raiders website?” Again, no.
“And as a thank you, we’d like to invite you to enjoy our ‘18th Raider Experience’ at the final home game. “Do you know what that involves?” Erm, no.
It turns out that the 18th Raider Experience is a bit like becoming fan royalty for the day. The only question I had was – you’ve guessed it — can Mini-CBRbound tag along too?
“Sure,” came the reply, “but he might hear a few words that he shouldn’t repeat.” That’s okay, he’s seen me putting together IKEA furniture, so he’s probably heard them all before anyway.
“Great, then meet us under the Mal Meninga statue at 5pm,” I was instructed.
We arrived early and, since the statue is next to the players’ entrance, we saw a few players as they arrived for the match, a few, including Kurt Baptiste, were kind enough to stop for photos with us.
“Hi,” said Angus. “You must be Mark?” He shook my hand and greeted Mini-CBRbound.
“Before we start, let’s get you some goodies from the merchandise stand. And you’ll need these,” he said, handing over ‘Access All Areas’ passes to both of us.
Between us, Mini and I bagged a baseball cap (for his brother, sick at home), a polo shirt (for me) and a replica players’ shirt (for Mini). Mini wanted to wear his straight away.
We started with a tour of the stadium, including all the behind the scenes areas that you’d think they’d want to keep guests away from on match day. But not a bit of it, Angus explained a bit about the history of the stadium and the club, and how the Raiders really value their fans and want them to feel part of the whole setup.
We stopped by the TV commentary boxes, the camera gantry, and then we were dropped at the coaches’ box – a viewing gallery high in the stand from where the head coach can watch the game and communicate with the bench via an intercom.
Cool enough, you might think, except that this was while a game was in progress – the National Youth Competition match that acts as a curtain-raiser before every NRL game.
We were privy to the coaches’ insights, instructions and witticisms as well as their frustrations as the Raiders’ youth team was beaten 38-8 by Penrith Panthers. “At least we won the second half,” concluded the coach.
Angus collected us and took us down to the pitch where we were given free-rein to walk along the touchline while the senior squad completed their pre-match warm-ups. Then, after they had disappeared down the tunnel, it was time to join the guard of honour to welcome the boys back for the real thing.
Mini looked like his eyes would bulge out of his head. There were TV cameras, lines of team mascots, a troupe of cheerleaders (actually, that probably explains the bulging eyes), and then, bursting through the tunnel’s curtain, the Canberra Raiders, high-fiving every fan in the guard of honour.
“Okay everyone, let’s get off the pitch,” called a steward. “Not you,” said Angus, “you can sit in the dugout if you like?” Seriously? “Sure, those passes will take you anywhere you like. You decide where you’d prefer to watch the match from.”
Actually, we wandered. Up to the very top row of the main stand, into the corporate hospitality area, round to where we usually stand with our friends and Mrs CBRbound (whose birthday it was. Oops), and then, for the second half, into the dugout with the players and coaches.
The Raiders delivered a convincing 34-18 win against the Panthers, so the stadium was buoyant. And this being the final home game, there were presentations galore at the end. Farewells to departing players, a signed playing shirt from each of the day’s squad to a randomly selected season ticket holder, and then every single player walked along the pitch perimeter to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans.
Star player Blake Austin, despite his arm being in a sling from an injury, was the last to leave the field. His hanging wrist too sore to sign autographs, he had chatted and stood for selfies with fans instead, pausing for a chat with Mini and teasing him about his English accent before heading back to the changing rooms.
Mini is a canny lad, and he stood at the tunnel entrance, a rugby ball in hand, asking each player to sign it as they passed him. Angus made a point of getting him a pen and starting him off with the signature of favourite player Josh Papalii.
So there we were, standing among the team we’ve cheered all season, watching them celebrate a win, hearing Head Coach Ricky Stuart pay tribute to the performance before taking a moment to add a final signature to Mini’s rugby ball.
And then we were heading home. An exhausted Mini-CBRbound cuddling a ball signed by every player to thrill and exasperate us during the year, wearing his new shirt, eyes about to droop closed.
The truth is, as first time members, I’d felt a little fraudulent about accepting the 18th Raider Experience when so many have followed the team for so much longer. But we haven’t missed a home game this season, which apparently puts us in the limited company of just 400 people. Nevertheless, I am very aware of what our day would have meant to anyone else given a similar opportunity.
For what it’s worth, what we saw and the welcome we were given confirmed a few things to me. First, that the team responsible for connecting the Raiders with their fans are first-rate and completely passionate about making the club feel like an extended family – just take a look at all the community activities that the Raiders undertake outside of match-days. Second, that the players at the heart of all of this and who wear the badge every week are both supremely committed and utterly humble in equal measure – and as someone who is also a fan of Premier League football where such qualities are in doubt, that was inspiring to see.
As for Mini, his final conclusion was altogether more heartfelt.
“Daddy,” came the last few words before sleep.
“We’re Raiders for life now, aren’t we?”
Yes we are, son. Yes we are.
With grateful thanks to Jake, Sharna, Angus, Ben and the rest of the Raiders staff for making our day possible and for securing the lifelong support of a mini-Raider through such an unforgettable experience. Particular thanks to Ricky Stuart and the players for being so gracious and generous in their interactions with their little fan.