The Canberra Raiders 26-22 over the Brisbane Broncos victory was measured, calm and resilient. It was everything that 2018 was not. In the face of a fast-finishing Broncos side they stood up and made a statement that they are to be taken seriously in 2019.
Part of what makes this victory so incredible in the situation in which it occurred. The Broncos have endured a painful start to this season which should have made the timing of meeting them favour the Raiders. But a ten day break, and a Queensland outfit primed with a ‘nobody believes in us’ mentality was clearly ready to roll in this game. Add to this referee Matt Ceccin’s incredibly slow ruck (the average ruck speed was four seconds for both sides in this game), and you had a situation that wasn’t the easy victory that many were predicting (including us). Canberra didn’t flinch. They were ready to earn the victory.
As the game wore on and the Broncos forward pack began to take the upper-hand it became clear that the Raiders were going to have to do what they have barely done. They were going to have to regain control of the match through hard graft, smart play and a bit of old-fashioned will-power. This was a game the Raiders of 2018 would have lost.
So how did they do it?
For starters the forward pack, facing the fifth biggest forward pack in the competition, battled them to a draw. With little ruck speed on offer from the officials, Canberra rarely got much space to utilise their pace through the middle. Every tackle felt like an ending, rather than part of a set of plays. The bigger pack was given all the time it needed to physically dominate the smaller Raiders’ forwards. Josh Hodgson had his quietest game of 2019, partly because there was simply no space or pace in the ruck. He had to run the ball more than he normally would (7 runs for 46m) because often there was simply no advantage line for him to put forwards over, such was the ‘pace’ of the ruck.
But the forwards still worked hard and earned field position. What Josh Papalii (13 for 131m) is doing this season is a revelation (I say that in full knowledge that it’s hard for a rep forward to be a surprise). So often in this game he turned a rubbish situation into a good run, carrying defenders for extra metres (47 of them) after contact. Every week he is the raiders’ failsafe, the person with the physical ability to salvage a trash set. We will miss him during the Origin period. Ryan Sutton (12 for 109m) was also good, and Sia Soliola (11 for 112m) and Siliva Havili (8 for 98) have become a critical injection of energy and power off the bench.
The Raiders’ middle won the game but they didn’t win every battle, particularly in defence. The Broncos size and pace often overwhelmed, dragging more and more defenders into the middle. The sight of an entire Broncos attack against three Raiders’ backs was stunning in a brace of second-half tries. It reflected the challenge Canberra was facing in the middle.
Canberra also had some poor moments in goal line defence. Jack Wighton made a poor read and then slipped, allowing Kodi Nikorima to waltz in unimpeded. Sam Williams jumped out of the line on a few occasions – if John Bateman wasn’t such an exemplary defender it could have created bigger problems.
But to suggest this represents a regression to previous form is unfair. The Raiders line-speed stayed consistent, even if they couldn’t always corral the big opposition. They defence stood up in crucial moments. With the Raiders up four in the 66th minute it was the defence that kept the Broncos to just 37 metres on a set. Instead of starting the set on their line as they’d done all half, the Raiders started on the forty. At the end of that set they scored the winning points. It’s a small thing, but to have a defence that can turn the momentum of a game like that is so vastly different to previous years it must be applauded.
The Raiders didn’t just do it with forwards and defence though. Jack Wighton had his best game as a six, having a hand in every Raiders try. He focused on getting earlier ball to his outside men, rather than trying to find the ‘hero’ pass. It worked immediately when Jarrod Croker did what he does, poking his head through the line and flipping an excellent ball to Nic Cotric to score. The Raiders second try came when Wighton again spread the ball early, Croker and Cotric again combining to take fifty plus metres. That set ended when BJ Leilua crashed over. The third try the Raiders scored also had a role for Wighton – his brilliant kick was taken into touch by the Broncos, and the Raiders scored on the next play. And it was Wighton’s clutch forty-twenty that gave the field position Canberra desperately needed, and John Bateman crashed over as a result to put the Green Machine ahead for good. And while it wasn’t deliberate, his noggin played a role in the last try.
Even this litany of moments undersell just how important and composed he was in this game. He directed the left side attack with aplomb, rarely forced anything and calmly kicked to the corners when the Raiders needed. He did yardage work when it was needed (though he had an error late in the game doing that), and his defence (outside of his one costly read) was brilliant – Matt Gillett was made to look pedestrian on several occasions by Wighton. Wighton has improved every week at six, and while there’s plenty of development left in him, the gains he’s already made should relieve any anxiety people may have about him as a full time ball-player.
Performing a similar if slightly different role on the other side of the field was John Bateman. He’s become an important fulcrum that the right side attack operates around. He set up BJ Leilua’s second try with a strong run and offload, a prototypical ball-player forward movement. Drifting across the middlem he nearly put Elliot Whitehead through a gap with a pass ayou’d expect from a quality six. Then he scored a crucial try from dummy-half with a run that made use of his quick feet and strength close to the line. All the while defending his edge brilliantly, helping out Sam Williams and also making Anthony Milford look silly on multiple occasions. His ability to perform multiple roles at once is a big part of the Green Machine’s success.
Bateman is quickly forming a combination with BJ Leilua. Leilua was a standout in a back five that were utterly brilliant. He scored twice, once when there were plenty of defenders there to stop him. He did yardage work (14 for 125m), taking hard carries at difficult times and turning sets around. We’ve said it before, but he doesn’t receive enough plaudits. Similarly Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was again excellent, despite playing half the game with what seemed like a painful knee injury. It’s good to see him chiming in on both sides in attack. As the spine connections develop he will become more and more dangerous.
As a group this back five was critical to the Raiders success. They are equal of any grouping in the competition, brilliant in yardage, mostly safe with kicks (though Nicoll-Klokstad had a bad miss in this game) and capable of turning nothing in points.
We’ve mentioned before that the Raiders have developed a formula that can win games. This mobile but hard-working forward pack led by Josh Hodgson. The development of Wighton. The brilliance of Bateman, and back five as good as any in the competition. They have the capability to make it to September. In this game though they showed not only do they have the talent, and the game plan, but now they have the resilience and the mindset needed. Things got tough, and the Raiders thrived.
And that was quite the statement.
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