Even though the Canberra Raiders’ mascot and arguably the team’s greatest supporter, Tony Wood, won’t be at the preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm in Brisbane on Friday night, he’s got a very good feeling there will be one more chance this year to cheer the team he loves as much as life itself.
“I was bracing myself for missing out on the preliminary final and a lot of supporters are in the same boat, so it’s very disappointing, but if you’re a firm believer, you know you’re going to get one more crack at it in Sydney at the grand final,” Tony told Region Media near the end of his 38th season as Victor the Viking.
“And we’ll paint the town green when they defeat the Storm!”
The Queensland branch of the Raiders’ supporters club will be on hand to cheer the lime green on behalf of the faithful who can’t travel due to Queensland’s COVID-19 travel restrictions. Supporters in Canberra and Queanbeyan will also make plenty of noise at home and at pubs and clubs across the region.
Tony admits that with travel restrictions for most of 2020, this year has been one of the hardest since his first game as Victor on 16 April 1983.
“Because of the COVID situation, I can’t be with the supporters like usual. I can have a photo taken, but it has to be at a distance. I can’t high-five the fans and that’s probably the hardest part,” he says.
“I just hope the supporters realise that it’s not me, it’s just the current situation that we’re in.”
Tony, who’s a client liaison coordinator with BaptistCare in Queanbeyan when he isn’t suited up, is a firm believer the Raiders’ structure is as strong as it’s ever been, with coach Ricky Stuart at the helm to steer a team that believes in each other.
“Ricky really makes the players believe in themselves. It’s something I heard him say when they won their first game against Newtown by a point in 1982. Ricky reminds me a lot of Don Furner who also instilled that same instinct in the players back in the glory days,” Tony says.
“There’s no individual players in the team. And when you see Ricky on the sideline like he was last week, you’re just waiting for him to put the jumper on and run out with the fellas. You don’t see that with any other coach in the NRL.”
Tony is also very confident the Raiders can repeat last year’s preliminary final win against the Storm to make back-to-back grand finals.
“I’m confident because of the way players have that will to win. You look at the last 10 games, they’ve always come back, and if they’ve been in front, they’ve stayed in front. Five years ago when we’d be in front at half-time we’d lose by 20 points.
“You can’t call them the Faders anymore.
“I think we’ll beat Melbourne by at least 12 points, only because it’s the whole team coming forward when players like Papa (Josh Papalii) and Jack (Wighton) do the things they do.”
Like the Raiders, Tony has had his own ups and downs, having overcome a stroke and a quadruple bypass during his time as Victor.
“I’m very lucky because the stroke and the bypass operation happened during the off-season, so I don’t miss many games. You’d think sometimes that watching this team would give you a heart attack, but I build the pressure up and let it go during the off-season,” he laughs.
Tony says Raiders fans have also overcome their struggles but should embrace the team in what has been a defining season.
“What strikes me the most is the difference of Raiders’ fans to other NRL teams is that because we’re a one-team town, we’ve had to endure those struggles ourselves,” he says.
After almost four decades, Tony is still passionate about the job and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
“I’m there to make people smile and it’s what I’ve loved most about being Victor since I was 17. I’m 55 now and I often say they’re going to have to give me one of those wheely-walkers so Victor can walk the sidelines. As long as I can keep making people happy, I’ll continue forever.”