The Canberra Raiders 24-20 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles was a reality check. The Raiders defence was overwhelmed in the face of injuries and a forward pack it couldn’t corral. An opposition without its best player was able to exploit the weaknesses on Canberra’s edges the Raiders spent the off-season trying to cover. The attack was often insipid, unable to build anything substantial, particularly in the red zone. The game brought into question the very formula of 2019.
Many commentators will jump off the bandwagon after this game, but the Raiders model remains workable. There will be more days like this: when the Raiders lose it will because their forwards are simply exhausted from the size deficit they are working from. Although Manly’s pack is hardly gargantuan, I can’t help but think this has been building over time – Coach Stuart noted as much last week. Canberra fell apart in the middle of this game, much as they had against the Broncos. Unlike last week though, they were unable to recapture the game.
Until a Jordan Rapana’s injury it had been a different story. The forwards hadn’t found big metres early in the game but the formula the Raiders have used to such effect this season was working. Work it up, kick to corners. Trap them there. Repeatedly Manly had to come off their own line, taking three and four tackles to get off their own twenty. The Raiders used this field position and some smart play from Jack Wighton to build a 12-0 lead. It should have been a sign of things to come.
Instead the Rapana injury threw the Raiders into chaos, particularly the right edge. One of the reasons Canberra’s defence has been so effective this season has been its ability to utilise John Bateman and Elliot Whitehead to hide the sins of edges past. Sam Williams is a willing defender, but his size disadvantage means he often runs out of the line to avoid having to make a tackle near the goal line. John Bateman knows he has no help to his outside, and BJ Leilua knows he has to help on his inside shoulder. For six weeks they made that work.
When Rapana went down the Raiders initially moved Leilua to the wing, Bateman to centre (outside Williams) and brought Jack Murchie into Bateman’s position. The result was Martin Tapau getting past on the outside of Murchie while Williams watched on, having overrun the play. Murchie is strong, but he doesn’t have the lateral mobility Bateman has. Tapau made light work of him.
Fifteen minutes later Lachlan Croker went in because Bateman tried to help in on a tackle that was Williams’ responsbility, and was unable to stop the ball. Leilua has been notably incredible at helping Williams deal with bigger men this season. Bateman, new to the role, was a touch late. An offload shot out, Williams didn’t have the pace to cover across, and Canberra’s brilliant start was for nought.
As the Raiders tired, more and more penalties crept into the game and they struggled to keep the Sea-Eagles from gaining quick rucks. Then when Daly Cherry-Evans went down with an injury, the Sea-Eagles turned to second-phase play. In the first twenty minutes of the second half they had eight offloads (out their ten for the game). The Raiders had five for the game. This tired defence, unable to muster the necessary physicality or numbers to bring down the attackers missed 51 tackles.
When Lachlan Croker scored his second off the back of a series of offloads in the 52nd minute, the Green Machine was sputtering. The Sea-Eagles were at halfway by the third tackle of the next set, then Manase Fainu went straight through the middle. Moments later the Sea-Eagles scored in the corner when Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton turned a 2 on 2 into an overlap. It could have been three in three sets when Manly took 77 metres on the next set and Bateman and Croker couldn’t clean up a bomb. Wighton’s try saver was as impressive as Rapana’s earlier in the match and it kept the Raiders in the game. Ultimately it wasn’t enough.
Despite being overwhelmed for great periods of this game, the defence wasn’t the tyre fire that summary suggests. Particularly early the Raiders were effective in their line speed and their attitude. The goal-line defence looked solid (outside of the Williams issue), and there were efforts of two and three sets on the line that the Raiders looked effective. Bateman and Whitehead were impressive on the edges, even as they were trying to fashion new combinations on the fly. Individual efforts like Whitehead’s tackle-and-strip of Cherry-Evans, or Wighton and Rapana’s try-savers, would have been the story of the game if the Raiders had won. Jarrod Croker and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad were also impressive.
In attack Canberra looked best when Wighton operated on the left edge in space. He scored the first try of the game slicing through after a good dummy. He got early ball to Whitehead for a good outside-in movement with Croker that resulted in a second try to Wighton.
Sidebar: Wighton and Cotric continue to build a combination. My favourite play they are running is Cotric coming off his wing inside Wighton. I love this play – it gets the ball in Nic’s hands with a bit of space and allows him to pick a gap (or defender) to take advantage. It will work in the future.
In the second half when Bateman had swung around to the left, Wighton got him early ball and let him work with Croker on that edge. The Raiders’ last try, coming from an opportune series of kicks from Bateman and ending in Nicoll-Klokstad’s hands, was borne from Bateman having the space to play before the line.
When he and the left edge had little space Wighton had a tougher time. This lack of space partly came from the big men having a tough time getting consistent metres. Josh Papalii (12 carries for 109m) took so many carries from positions of disadvantage he must have forgotten what space feels like. He ‘only’ had 32 metres post-contact. That this was the most of any Raiders’ forward illustrates how the Raiders weren’t winning the physical battle in the middle. Siliva Havili (13 for 115m) was again impressive, and I was really excited to see Emre Guler’s (7 for 92m) size and foot-speed combination back in first grade.
Here again they missed Rapana. While the back five of Cotric (13 for 154m), Nicoll-Klokstad (19 for 166m), Leilua (9 for 87) and Croker (12 for 152m) did their share of yardage work, Rapana’s carries were missing and not made up for. It meant that after tough defensive sets the forwards had to do more work. In this game they needed the break.
Hodgson had his second quiet game in as many weeks. Again he was operating with no room, but he didn’t do as much as he can to create space. His deception out of nine was uncharacteristically unsuccessful. He was unable to muster any creativity on the crash plays early in red zone attack. These plays only work when defenders are forced to make choices between the forwards to tackle. Hodgson reads the defence, and isolates the bigger man in the best position. When it’s simply a single attacker – which it was too often in this game – there’s little to hope for other than the forward overpowering those opposite. If they are already bushed like they were in this game, it can be a wasted play. His kicking in close quarters was little better. He found legs more often than the in-goal. Hodgson made 44 tackles in this game, leading the Raiders for the 176th time this season. It seems like teams are trying to wear him out. The last two weeks they’ve succeeded.
The red zone attack suffered as a consequence and Sam Williams couldn’t make up the difference. Williams offered a brilliant forty-twenty and a great kick early in the second half, but little else. His abject lack of threat on the run makes it hard for the men outside him. Defenders can simply run up to their opposites, satisfied there’s no need to help on their inside. He’s not been able to muster anything substantial with Nicoll-Klokstad coming off his shoulder, nor has he found a way to involve Leipana. It’s hardly worth panicking about in round seven, but it’s something that must be fixed. The goal line attack will not be effective until they can solve this.
As I said earlier, the Raiders’ formula should not be under threat after this game. Canberra has established a way to win in 2019. Rapana’s return, or even the injection of Michael Oldfield into the side to allow the rest of the side to return to their rightful places should solve a lot of the issues identified in this game.
But it shows that the foundation is a bit more precarious that the Raiders would admit. It will work when Canberra have their best players available. It works when they can battle sides to at least a stalemate in the middle. It works when the back five is able to save the energy of the forwards by doing extra yardage work. There is a need for another forward who can turn a poor set into a good one with the kinds of hard runs Papalii offers.
Next week is hopefully better than this week. However, the Raiders now have a battle on their hands. Panthers-Roosters-Bunnies follows, and the it’s critical that 5 and 2 doesn’t end up 5 and 5. There will plenty of people outside of Canberra ready to call them pretenders after this game. They’ve got the next few weeks to prove them wrong.
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