After a kidney stone of a season, the Canberra Raiders have found something to believe in. In the last two weeks they have beaten most commentators’ predicted grand finalists, doing so with intelligent attack and resilient defence. In the latest installment, a 24-12 victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Green Machine wore down their opposition, showing for the second week in a row that they were capable of mixing it with the best of the National Rugby League.
This was perhaps a more impressive victory than the previous week. The Rabbitohs came to play, and thoroughly dominated early. Canberra found themselves in a 12-0 hole, and if it wasn’t for some desperate defence it could have been more. The Bunnies defence looked impregnable, turning away the Raiders again and again over the first half. South Sydney looked every bit the premiership favourite.
They were overwhelming the Raiders’ middle. The Burgess’s (Burgei?) were thumping, physically overpowering the Canberra middle defenders. Rampaging runs and quick rucks meant that defenders got dragged into the middle. Even though they only had 42 percent of the first half ball, the Bunnies out-gained the Green Machine by 120 metres in the first half. They seemed unstoppable.
And this put the Raiders’ edge defenders in the spotlight. As defenders were dragged into the middle to help stop the Burgess overload, edge defenders were forced into one-on-one situations. Blake Austin was made to look silly by Cody Walker for the Bunnies first try beause the middle of the defence had been overwhelmed. The lack of line speed and the defenders dragged to the middle left Austin looking like a tree in the Nullabor. He never stood a chance.
Austin struggled even after this whenever he was isolated on the hard running Angus Crichton.
Similarly, the Rabbitohs other try came when BJ Leilua was forced into a one-on-one situation with Greg Inglis. BJ is strong, but on this occasion Inglis was stronger, and the Raiders looked like they were in trouble.
They hung in because of some helpful handing from the Bunnies*, the HOLY-HELL-HE’S-AMAZINGNESS of Josh Hodgson, and the hard work of the forwards in attack, in particular Josh Papalii (18 runs for 173m and 79 post-contact metres).
In addition to finding the usual easy metres for his big men, Hodgson took on the role of creating literally everything useful the Raiders could muster in attack. This was beacuse for a good portion of the game the halves continued their recent less-than-impressive form. Sam Williams and Austin both played too diagonally, sliding across the field and putting no pressure on the defensive line. Before this game I’d never thought “I wish Blake Austin would run the ball more”, but then 2018 has gotta 2018.
Neither could connect with the backs and there was no penetration from the Raiders attack at the edges. This meant that all of Canberra’s sweeping movements were eaten alive by a defence that could cheat off the run, putting pressure on the fullback to create as second man. Brad Abbey was presented with no space, and he doesn’t have the running game of Jack Wighton to make something out of nothing. It wasn’t helped by some pretty average kicking from Williams.
So instead Hodsgon did all the best work in the middle. He created a try for Michael Oldfield with a smart grubber. He nearly put Josh Papalii and Junior Paulo in from short passes close to the line. He found Oldfield again in the 52nd minute, a brilliant read to identify a gap in defence on the shortside. This shortside last play is as risky as it is excellent. If you get it wrong it’s a wasted set. On this occasion Hodgson’s decision-making was only matched by his execution.
Sidebar: Shouts to Michael Oldfield. Dude knows how to score tries and he doesn’t shy from yardage work. He is going to be critical backs depth for the Raiders in 2019. His ability to cover multiple positions across the backline is invaluable.
Despite the Bunnies early dominance the Raiders remained resilient. As possession began to turn (again, ta Bunnies) Canberra began to work themselves back into the game. The Raiders’ pack begun to turn the tables on their tiring coutnerparts. Junior Paulo (17 for 191 and 67 pcm) had his best game for the Raiders this season. He targeted Adam Reynolds relentlessly, going so far as to run wide of Blake Austin at second receiver just so he could get a clear run at Reynolds. Emre Guler (12 for 117 and 49 pcm) showed his first week was no fluke. It’s hard to not be excited by his play. He finds his belly in every ruck, so Canberra gets the benefit of a quick ruck as well as the metres gained. His defence has also been solid.
As the Raiders began to own the middle, the Rabbitohs went wider. The Burgess boys were taken out of the game, and Souths began to ask its edge attack to do the work. Inglis (199m), Sutton (123m) and Crichton (142m) made plenty of metres, but they couldn’t find a way through in the second half. It’s worth noting how important Elliot Whitehead and Sia Soliola were in defending this. Throughout the second forty they provided crucial covering tackles that snuffed out attacking movements that looked ominous.
A second ramification of the wrestling control of the middle was the improved play of Canberra’s halves. Perhaps because of helpful coaching at half time, they began to take on the line much more, and played much straighter as the game wore on. Austin ended with 142m on the ground.
This culminated in Austin’s brilliant ball for Soliola’s try in the 64th minute. Everything about this ball was perfect. The touch, the decision, the line from Soliola, and the way Austin dig into the line. It was a beautiful moment for Canberra people to remember him by.
Nic Cotric provided the cherry on top when he rampaged through the Bunnies exhausted middle. It was brilliant from Cotric, but as much as anything it was testament to the work the Raiders pack had done for the back sixty minutes of the game, wearing down a class defence with patient, intelligent, hard-work.
So the Raiders took their second win over the class of the NRL in as many weeks. The victories are so impressive it’s hard not to play ‘what if’. There’s a risk of getting carried away though. The Raiders have been playing without pressure the last few weeks and it has seen them play a much more relaxed, controlled and less frantic, brand of football. It didn’t make their weaknesses disappear. They were overpowered in the middle. They were weak in edge defence. They managed to give up an overlap when they had an extra man. The major difference was this time they were able to overcome these obstacles, with the help of a Souths team that beacme more ragged as the game wore on.
It’s also hard to not think about the fact that many finals teams use this period to up their training intensity to build for September. This is often a big part of late season swoons from the big teams. In fact, Souths experienced a similar drop in form in their premiership season of 2014. Canberra are facing teams with an eye, and their bodies, trained on the finals.
Regardless, it provides the Green Machine with something to build on. There’s something to be said for the fact the Raiders now know their defence can hold up to a side as dominant as the Bunnies. They should be happy they could find the discipline to stay with their plan in the face of genuine pressure. Josh Hodgson has again proven he is a genuine difference maker and part of the absolute class of the competition. There is even excellent signs for the Raiders depth and youth movements.
Frustration? Yeah I can understand people feeling that. It’s been a pretty rough year. Josh Hodgson said as much postgame about the missed opportunities of 2018. But I tell you what. Tomorrow I’ll be a little happier because of this win. And that’s a damn sight better than most other weeks this year.
* The Bunnies twice dropped the ball close to the try-line with the Raiders scrambling in defence