This article is part of our series reviewing the Canberra Raiders 2018 National Rugby League season. You can check out Part I here and Part II here.
The thing about Rugby League is you can’t keep the ball forever. It’s a big part of the game.
You might even say distinctive.
This is not a scientific fact, but it seems to me that good sides overcome adversity. Most adversity in Rugby League is based around not having the ball. It’s not shock that Sunday’s Grand Final featured the two best defences in the competition. The ebb and flow of the game goes against you occasionally. You gotta hold the line.
For the Canberra Raiders, their style of play was predicated on scoring way more than the other team. In Part II we outlined the high velocity but also high variance attack they pursued that goal with. Much was made of the fact that the Raiders almost finished the 2018 season with the ignominy of being the first team to lead the competition in scoring but not make the finals. Souths spared them that embarrassment, but the discussion highlighted that while the Raiders offence was fine, their defence was not.
Unfortunately, because you can’t keep the ball forever, the Raiders were often a good defensive set away from winning games. In 2018 they failed often, and spectacularly. And when it did, only perfection on the other side of the ball was enough to carry them to victory.
Sidebar: Pick you ‘favourite’ close loss and it has an incredible defensive lapse in it that turned the game. Giving up a 16 point lead in Brisbane only happens because of Blake Austin’s shenanigans on the right edge. The Panthers comeback in round 21 is based on three tries in eight minutes. Or my personal favourite – the Warriors running the almost exact same set twice in a row. Hit up left, hit up left, sweeping movement right, momentum play-the-ball, big hit up, field goal. It was no one players fault. It was a fault of structure, of enthusiasm, of coaching and playing. It was so awful it was almost beautiful.
Why Plan A Failed
The Canberra Raiders had the fifth worst defence in the competition in terms of points across the season. At a macro level that’s a bad sign for your chances of making the finals. In the NRL era the only side to win the competition with such a leaky ship was the 2005 Wests Tigers, and outside of that year only the 2006 Raiders, 2007 Cowboys and 2009 Broncos have made the finals. In 2018 The Raiders conceded 0.61 points per set, good for equal 3rd worst in the competition. For comparison the Roosters averaged 0.19 points per set in the finals (shouts to Cleartheobstruction.com…again).
Sidebar: If you ever get bored, go look at the 2005 and 2001 season ladders. Truly bizarre. No one played defence in 2005, and the 2001 Eels scored over 900 points which is insane and a good reminder that Brian Smith was an underappreciated genius.
It’s not really a mystery in terms of the specific as to what went wrong. Every week the defence collapsed in the same way. The middle was put under pressure, forcing the edges into decisions they got wrong too many times. Big defenders like Shannon Boyd, Junior Paulo and Josh Papalii are fine when Canberra are dominant in the game and the set. But when possession turn, none of these men were capable of wresting it back through their defence.
It reflects the fact that a quickening of the nature of play across the NRL. ‘Eyes up’ football is back in style, with the best sides seeking to win the middle with pace. Big men like Papalii, Boyd and Paulo are quickly becoming a luxury rather than a necessity. For example, Papalii is below average defender in the middle on many metric, making 17 per cent less tackles than average for a big-minute, middle-defender, and having 26 per cent more ineffective tackles than average.
Paulo and Boyd would unlikely to fair better on such metrics. These men have trouble with quicker forwards, let alone dynamite middle spine-men like Damien Cook or James Tedesco. It’s no surprise the Raiders most defensively efficient middle-forward was Sia Soliola.
So as the middle began to heave under the pressure of quicker oppositions, the edges were forced to be very good in order to cover for them. You don’t need to reminded what happened there. Blake Austin is one of the worst edge defenders in the competition. This isn’t so much because he misses tackles – he was actually a very efficient defender when he made the right decision (81.6 per cent tackle efficiency, and average defender for a half according to the advanced stats). But he so often sold out the men on both sides of him because he either ran out of the line, helped in when he didn’t need to, failed to help on his inside shoulder, or simply tackled no one.
No better was this demonstrated than in the Raiders second half capitulation against the Broncos. His poor decision-making led to three of Brisbane’s four second half tries. He unnecessarily pushed in on the ball for one try, over-committed on an inside runner for a second, and then failed to keep inside shoulder support for the third. You can see the last two below.
Sam Williams offered a whole set of new problems with similar results. Williams simply was not physically able to hold out the edge runners that targeted him. Teams would start sets by sending traffic his way, comfortable in the knowledge that they could get a quick play the ball. Aidan Sezer was the best defensive half, but that’s like being the soberest man on a bucks night. It’s not a high bar.
It put even more pressure on the edge forwards to cover for them. Elliot Whitehead is consistently one of the Raiders best defenders, but his efficiency suffered for having to cover his spot and a weak edge defender. Joe Tapine similarly spent much of his time covering for a weaker defender next to him. It should surprise no one that they lead the Raiders in penalties conceded in 2018 (Whitehead 22, Tapine 18), so often trying to slow down a ruck that had been sped up by the defender next to them.
Perhaps this unfairly singles out the halves for this morass. Indeed this individualises a collective problem. The Raiders’ defensive errors, while more noticeable on the edges were made across the park. Sliding on their goal-line, sliding while the ball was inside them, failing to keep their inside-shoulder discipline, slow line-speed. These were characteristics of all defenders in green in 2018. Yes they were more pronounced on the edges, but they were as much a part of Raider football as the high energy, high variance offence they failed to support. As many questions need to be directed to the coaching staff as the players.
And so as soon as the Raiders lost momentum or possession, this is why they felt like a shaky damn about to break. This was compounded by a line-speed across the park that could best be described as anaemic on most occasions. Opposition ball-players waited for the middle to collapse, then had all the time they could want to target the weakest parts of the Raiders defence.
Sidebar: What then stands out is the defensive performances against the Bunnies and the Roosters late in the season. The Raiders held them to 12 and 14 points respectively. Both games come with caveats – the Roosters were without Keary, and the Bunnies were utterly dominant for twenty minutes before losing interest. These games present a question as to whether they can be replicated in 2019.
This debacle of a defence was compounded by a series of injuries to first team players, particularly in the backs. The absences of Josh Hodgson and Jack Wighton hurt the most, but Jarrod Croker’s absence was also strongly felt and Coach Stuart never found an adequate replacement at centre.
Moreover though, the real problems with personnel were created by Stuart. The decision to play half Aidan Sezer at hooker to start the season remains as baffling as it was damaging. Siliva Havili was as good a replacement you could hope for – given the money and timing of his recruitment. Sezer was, plainly, not a good hooker. And given he was the Raiders best half this seemed like something only worth pursuing if a better option wasn’t available. It was.
Equally confounding was the trying to square Ata Hingano into that same round peg later in the season. Hingano, a half by trade, found the same problems that plagued Sezer (slow service and an requisite increase in energy spent on defense). Instead of finding out if Hingano is a potential half of the future, perhaps an option to replace Austin, the Raiders found out he is not a good hooker. What a waste of a season for the young man.
These frailties meant the when it came time to win games, the Raiders had to be perfect with the ball. That is simply something that didn’t gel with the high variance offence they played this season. And if they don’t fix this, it will happen in 2019 too.
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