The Canberra Raiders 44-10 loss to the Melbourne Storm was what happens when you come at the king unprepared. The Green Machine needed a win in this game to remain any realistic chance of playing finals football, and their effort showed that this game mattered to them. But effort is only a part of football. You have to be able to perform, to execute and accomplish. All the Raiders achieved in this game was to learn they have to be better. All hope is gone for another year.
A good heart and enthusiasm are not enough to beat the Storm at their home ground. AAMI Park curls up around the crowd, making every person in attendance sound like ten. Music constantly blares, only interrupted by a ground announcer whose babble is so constant it almost feels as though he’s scared that if he’s quiet the people of Melbourne will decide they don’t like league. It’s a suffocating environment.
To beat the Storm you have to be more than good. You have to be near perfect. You can forget getting help from the referees here. They feel the maelstrom of noise sweeping over them just as the opposition players do. This is compounded by the Storm, a well-drilled side that can make an opposition feel like it has no space to move.
The Green Machine were not perfect in this game. More often than not they were the architect of their own demise. A pre-game injury to centre Michael Oldfield led Coach Stuart to name a second-rower to start at centre, put a prop there instead, and combine him with a fullback switched to the wing. He put this pair in the place of the Raiders elite right-wing and centre combination, who he moved to the left-side. It was a odd decision. It had no discernible long-term benefit, substantial short-term risk for a must-win game, and if it surprised the Storm they weren’t showing it.
The Storm were happy to attack the Raiders’ new combination on the right wing. Once they overcame their own profligacy with the ball – both Slater and Josh Addo-Carr made errors when the try line beckoned – they mercilessly exploited this edge, scoring on this wing in the 39th, 43rd and 63rd minutes. Only a heartless person would solely blame Sia Soliola or Brad Abbey for this. They were both playing out of position and struggled. They were the symptom of the problem as much as the cause, and were put in an impossible position.
The Raiders could have supported their new backline make-up by keeping the ball out of the Storm hands. But instead their twelve errors meant they only completed 71 percent of their sets for the game (and only 67 per cent in the first half). No Raiders’ forward covered 100m with the ball, reflecting the deficit they put themselves in. After 20 minutes they had already been outgained by close to 100 metres.*
But it wasn’t just that the Green Machine dropped the ball, it was where they did it. Errors coming off their own line immediately led to tries for the Storm in the 31st (thanks BJ) and 40th minute (thanks Liam). In between an Abbey error was generously ruled as a dead ball when it should have been a try.** Things didn’t get better in the second half. Another Abbey error led to a Storm try in the 43rd minute to make it 30-4 and even the Raiders don’t give up leads like that.
Dropped balls weren’t the only errors that helped the Storm. Luke Bateman and Junior Paulo were embarrased by Cameron Munster in the middle of the park for the Storm’s second try. Joe Tapine and Blake Austin were overpowered by Nelson Asofa-Solomona for their second-last. This was a shame because prior to this moment it was one of Austin’s better defensive efforts of recent times. The Raiders also conceded 14 penalties (to only 4 for the Storm) which simply compounded the pressure they were already facing.
This error plagued effort was frustrating because the Raiders did piece some good work together. It was rarely a full set of good work, but bits and pieces that they tried to string together like flimsy excuses I make to drink whisky and eat poorly. Josh Hodgson was exemplary as always. It’s really a rare pleasure to watch the man work close up. Even with the Raiders’ runners getting dominated in the tackle, Hodgson still found ways to manufacture metres and points. The Raiders lone first-half bright spot came from a well worked crash-ball that he gave to Sia Solioa. At least Sia got to play prop in attack.
The Raiders struggled for fluency more than one pass wide of the mark, but that was to be expected given they were playing a prop at centre.*** Of the halves only Blake Austin really created good connections. He dug into the line before making a play, and it created space for the men outside him. Sam Williams had a good inside ball to Bateman close to the line in the 13th minute, but after that he created little with ball in hand. He barely tested the line and consequently the Storm were able to smother him and the men around him.
When the Raiders managed to hold onto the ball, the halves and Hodgson had a tremendous game with the boot. Williams’ short attacking game nearly earned Jordan Rapana two tries, Hodgson kicked short and long well, and Austin combined a well weighted grubber with some impressive bombs. The Raiders earned at least 3 repeat sets by my count (one each from Hodgson, Williams and Austin’s boots). All season we’ve been waiting for skilled kicking to allow the side to build pressure close to the opposition line. One time that resulted in a Paulo error, while Hodgson created Sia’s try after another. I’m sure there’s a lesson there somewhere.
Another positive was how the Raiders stuck strong for the majority of the game. Even when the game was beyond their reach they were enthusiastic in defence and attack, and kept trying to overcome the suffocating and frustrating environment in which they found themselves. It was a good sign that despite a horrific evening they were still willing to continue to try and build something.
But hamstrung by their own injures, discombobulated team-alignment and errors, both handling and defensive – it was everything the Raiders couldn’t afford to be if they wanted to win this game. They needed to be perfect to beat the Storm in their own environment, and instead they were far from that.
The long off-season is now being chiselled into the stone. Like this game, the Raiders have nothing to play for (in the finals sense) but the opportunity remains to build something for 2019. The Raiders showed in this game they’re capable of the work if not the execution. Now they’ll have plenty of time to work on that.
* per ‘at the ground’ stats so grain of salt.
** Well it should have been a penalty for a Tim Glasby strip.
*** did you know that traditionally, props play at prop and not at centre?