The Canberra Raiders 22-10 loss to the Melbourne Storm was heartening. When you play the Storm there is no hiding. Your strengths and weaknesses are laid bare for all to see. This showed us the Green Machine’s defensive gains from 2018 are real, and the mobile forward pack is capable of competing with one of the biggest and best in the competition. But defensive weaknesses still exist, and they still need to find connectivity in attack.
The Raiders ran into a buzzsaw in this game. On another day and against a different Canberra side, the Storm might have put 40 on. As most sides are still seeking to establish themselves and their connections early in 2019, the Storm already look like the finished product. They are organised. They connect across the park, halves to backs. Forwards to forwards. They find weaknesses and they attack them meticulously and repeatedly. They did this to the Raiders, identifying a still-gelling left defensive edge as a point of weakness, and providing almost no space on the edges for the Raiders to attack.
It’s an old but effective game plan. The big Storm pack owned the game early, rampaging for 60 and 70 metres on nearly every early set. They kicked to the corners and smashed the Raiders coming off their own line. Only penalties got Canberra out of their own territory in the first twenty minutes. In these circumstances you need to hold on and play smart.
Hello darkness my old friend.
Canberra tried to hold on. The Raiders defence effort cannot be questioned in this game. These pages have pointed to poor line speed and questionable decisions for close to five years now. I can remember three of four games where the defensive line operated at this pace for the majority of the game. Yes there were points were the line was ragged and exhausted, but the most part the Green Machine remained aggressive and cohesive in defence.
Even when breaks were made, the Raiders got back in numbers and often held the line.
There was much to like about the defence apart from line speed. Jarrod Croker made two try saving tackles, and several other wonderful efforts. Jordan Rapana, who for mine looked a bit tentative with the ball in this game, absolutely smashed Will Chambers. In the middle John Bateman again got through a huge amount of work, as did his compatriot Elliot Whitehead. Sia Soliola came on and was a ballast in the middle.
When the Storm did get around the Raiders it was after repeatedly drawing defenders into the middle, and taking advantage of the short numbers it created, particularly on the Raiders left. It was pleasing that even in these circumstances the outside defenders often were acting in unison, forcing the Storm to make the hardest pass, or a difficult kick, in order to score. Unfortunately the Storm just are that good.
This defensive effort and execution was important in withstanding the Storm’s early dominance, and frankly the Raiders of previous years would have found themselves in a much deeper hole. The substantial improvement in defence doesn’t mean that it is perfect however. Canberra had to make too many second efforts in order to bring down defenders. The Storm opened up gaps in the middle of the park through good interplay between the forwards. Good defenders like Bateman and Aidan Sezer made tackling errors that lead to points or breaks. Wighton was caught in no man’s land – tackling no one – on the Storm’s third try. The structure is much improved, as is the effort. But it remains a work in progress.
The Raiders made some basic errors. Sezer had a shocking first twenty minutes, kicking out on the full twice. The first lead to the Storm’s first try. BJ Leilua had two first half errors, and even Sia Soliola made a poorly timed mistake. They were not alone.
The quality of opposition had a lot to do with these errors. It’s not great insight that against the Storm you have to be at your best. The Raiders were under the pump, and were doing all they could to get ahead of the game. Too often that meant errors in rushed play-the-balls, or pushed passes, in trying to create points.
After they weathered this Storm (*ahem*) they began to work their way into the match. Josh Papalii was again brilliant. He had 138 metres on 15 of the dirtiest carries you will see. There was rarely an inch of space for him to work in, his 50 plus post-contact metres a testament to that. Bateman and Whitehead worked hard in difficult circumstances, and Soliola and Siliva Havili were effective.
But the Raiders could find little fluidity in any of their attacking movements. They scored once from Bateman carousing across the field in order to set up Croker. Another came from Croker opportunistically picking up a Storm strip and diving over. It’s not exactly sustainable. Too often the connections between the spine were stilted, and miscommunications lead to some poor finishes to sets, where the Raiders gave up the opportunity for a repeat set in search of hopeful points.
This is not to suggest it won’t work. Each major gear of the Raiders attack has showed its capabilities through this first two games – there is plenty of potential in the ball-playing of Josh Hodgson, Sezer and Wighton. But together these parts haven’t found a connection in their work, even though it remains obvious that the potential of the individuals is there. It is clear that it can be built but it’s taking longer than Coach Stuart had hoped.
Canberra did look its best playing direct, but the space in which to play eyes up footy and ball-play before the line was rarely available. By his own lofty standards, Hodgson wasn’t at his best. He was jumping out of dummy-half in search of space and runners punching back in around the ruck but they simply weren’t there. Perhaps they were exhausted from the defensive effort. Havili was the notable exception and Hodgson look dangerous with him running off his shoulder. In the absence of middle runners he looked wider and wider, pushing the ball straight to edge runners or Wighton as first receiver.
Outside of his poor kicking early there were pleasing signs in Sezer’s play. He took the line on more. His short kicking game was the Raiders’ prime attacking weapon in the second half, even if it didn’t result in points. He and Wighton worked well with short balls to Whitehead and Bateman running off their shoulders.
For his part Wighton showed that while he’s still developing at six, he already has plenty to offer. He is comfortable operating on the left, and while the Storm gave him next to no room to ball-play, he still picked up 106m on the ground. When the Raiders needed points late they often went in his direction, a sign that the people around him already trust him. A late intercept was his only real error in this game, and it’s clear that between him, Croker and Whitehead there is plenty of poke in the Raiders left edge.
But the Raiders had little activity on the right. Joseph Tapine didn’t play after twenty minutes and only had one carry (and three missed tackles) in that time. Leilua and Rapana barely got the ball in space. Partly this is Sezer’s fault – through two games he’s yet to establish this connection. Partly this is a result of Wighton only playing one side of the field, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad still developing as a ball-playing option as the second man on the right. There are also suggestions that Tapine is still struggling with a hand injury.
Sidebar: Nicoll-Klokstad was exemplary at the back. His positioning for kicks was almost perfect and he worked hard in yardage, using his quick feet at the line to get a bit of momentum. His ball-play has to develop for the right side attack to work properly, but it’s pleasing to see him offer so much so quickly.
There is a need for more ball-play on that edge. Perhaps that role can be played by Bateman, who showed his ability to create in this game on many occasions, most notably when his cross-field foray resulted in a try for Jarrod Croker. On occasion he’s already provided a useful fulcrum that Leilua and Rapana can function around. If Tapine isn’t hurt then it’s important whoever fills this role gets him involved. He’s a potential game changer and could really open up the space on the edges.
There is plenty to work on, and we all knew that the problems that were facing this side would be made transparent by the Storm. That the Raiders managed to compete despite the relentless Melbourne side needling their weaknesses should hearten. They are not perfect. They are not yet a finished product. But they are much better than previous iterations, and there’s improvement in them yet.