The Canberra Raiders 30-12 victory over the Penrith Panthers was a triumph of resilience. Faced with difficult circumstances the Green Machine doubled down on their systems and their game plan to grind out an important victory. They are now well placed for the big test of the coming weeks.
Resilience is not a word most think about when talking about the Green Machine. Losing Jordan Rapana this week was a big deal for this side. Combining that with the game day withdrawal of BJ Leilua should have been disastrous. When John Bateman went down 25 minutes into the game, the Raiders entire right edge was in the medical ward, and Canberra shouldn’t have been able to win. Add to that the already existing ghosts of country games past, and a pair of referees with some intriguing interpretations and previous Canberra teams would have been primed to capitulate. Instead this team thrived.
The methods by which they do this are well-worn in 2019, and it all begins in defence. The small pack has to meet those opposite and battle them to a stalemate. The edges can smother the opposition, but only when the middle can stop them from getting quick rucks. Line speed and physicality are crucial to do this.
The Raiders’ middle fought the whole game for dominance. What was a fight in the first 60 minutes became a decisive victory for the Canberra pack over the back end of the game. Their line speed was consistent – and went from holding the Panthers early, to bullying them late. When the game was on the line mid-way through the second half, the Raiders made sure the Panthers were starting their sets in their own twenty, and then crushed them repeatedly. They made critical tackles when they had to, like Elliot Whitehead’s brilliant one-on-one takedown of Isaah Yeo. The line speed was instrumental in making life difficult for James Maloney and Nathan Cleary by removing the space available to them. More than once a Panther half got caught by an aggressive Raiders defender. And even when things didn’t go well, the middle forwards kept helping across to the edge to cover. Josh Hodgson’s try-saver on Villiame Kikau’s run in the first half was a good example.
The result was that the Panthers attack looked insipid. There is no doubt the Panthers contributed to their own malaise – in both strategy and execution. But watching from the goal-line behind the play, you could see that the Raiders handled every variation on the Panther’s set plays easily. The sweep plays all went at the Raiders left, and Nic Cotric and Jarrod Croker rarely looked troubled. Even when the numbers weren’t right, they were able to make reads to rush in and shut down plays before the Panthers could exploit them.
The only times Canberra were threatened was when Waqa Blake or Kikau could win their individual battle. This was the test for the Raiders edge defenders, and on the right both Bateman, and after his injury, Whitehead did an excellent job limiting Kikau’s impact in particular.
Sidebar: It’s a pretty good state of affairs that when an incredible edge defender like John Bateman goes down you can simply switch another incredible edge defender into his place. The Panthers became increasingly reliant on Kikau and Blake for any penetration as the game wore on, and Whitehead’s defence was critical in repelling it.
Even when Kikau or Blake did break a tackle the Raiders almost always were able to cover across (like the Hodgson example I mentioned earlier). In fact, such was the control that the defence had over their opposition, that even when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin it barely raised the blood-pressure. Still the Raiders corralled the Panthers easily. Still the only hope for the Panthers was their powerful edges. Still the Raiders found a way to bring them down.
Keeping the Panthers quiet should’ve taken a lot out of the Raiders forwards. After 80 minutes Josh Hodgson had made 47 tackles (with only 2 misses), Elliot Whitehead 42 and Josh Papalii had 31. But they didn’t shirk their task with the ball. Josh Papalii (16 for 144m) was incredible as per usual, and Sia Soliola (17 for 143m) continues to lead from the bench.
I know he didn’t have huge metres, but Hudson Young (8 for 62m) was noteworthy playing 50 plus minutes on the left edge. He showed quick feet at the line and earnt the Raiders a quick ruck often. He broke four tackles, and even showed a good bit of passing when he needed to. That the dynamic left edge attack didn’t miss a beat with him taking the role of Elliot Whitehead shows this man has a future in the top flight. His only error for the game was rushing up only to create the hole that Tamou would run through to score a late try.
Josh Hodgson worked well with the forwards around the ruck, particularly with Ryan Sutton (16 for 139m). The crash plays they run together show an understanding that Hodgson has only shared with Papalii in the past. They will make sweet point scoring love soon. I promise you. He chipped in with a good kick for a repeat set, and a barnstormer that should have been a momentum changing 40-20 if not for a cruel bounce.
These guys did a lot of the hard work, but it was the performance of Jack Wighton at six that should scare the crap out of the league. Eight weeks ago it was a risk for him to be playing in the halves. Now, with Josh Hodgson, he is the Raiders dominant ball player. In this game he made so many intelligent plays, both with ball in hand and with his kick. His short kicking game has been a revelation, and suddenly the Raiders get heaps of repeat sets, something that has been a foreign concept in years passed.
Wighton was increasingly unstoppable marshalling a left-side attack that looked slick, even after injury forced a reshuffle. With Whitehead at his side he created the Raiders first try, putting a good ball to the Englishman to get him between defenders, crashing onto the return ball moments later to score. In the second half he combined routinely with the left edge to torment the Panthers. Starting with Wighton, early ball across the line put Cotric in space and resulted in Nicoll-Klokstad scoring from acting-half. Later, after the Panthers had what seemed like 19 tackles with the ball, the Raiders swung left, Croker went through off Jack, and found him again. Wighton was tackled close to the line but Hudson Young picked up the quick play the ball, backed himself close to the line and sealed the game.
For the first time all season it seems the Raiders have established a coherent attack and it all starts with Wighton. His ability to threaten with the run creates space for those around him, and he trusts the talent of those outside to make the right plays. In this game he made the right choice at every post, sending it early when it was needed, taking the line when he should, kicking for repeat sets or position at the right times. He is increasingly comfortable making complex decisions, and even used Sutton on an inside shoulder late in the game. Even though the pass was ultimately ruled forward, it showed that he’s moving beyond running simple shifts on the left. In the last few weeks the Raiders have scored with him running, with outside-in movements, and now adding more complex operations to their attack. It’s a very positive sign.
I also thought Sam Williams had one of his best games in recent times. His kicking was excellent all game, finding grass on almost all his long kicks. His grubber for Michael Oldfield for the game’s first try was a potential solution to the problem caused by his lack of threat to run.
In between all that the make-shift back five was good. Cotric and Toots were brilliant and are starting to show their partnership can be the focal point of the Raiders attack. Nicoll-Klokstad was superb both defusing kicks and in yardage. He’s starting to get involved in the set movements in offence, and he’s connecting with Wighton. I was pleased to see him take on the line in attack this week. Simonsson got through yardage work, even though this is hardly his strength, and with Oldfield they kept the Raiders right intact.
Sidebar: How good is actually going to the footy? So freaking good is the answer. TV is great, and you get a better idea of what is happening if something strange happens. But you can’t understand the physicality and brutality of the game without actually hearing the slap of skin from sixty metres (or so) away. You can’t understand how easily we were handling their sweep movements without standing behind Toots and Cotric as they basically yawned watching them develop. It was rad. I love footy.
So Canberra showed resilience where they previously have failed to do so. They bested a forward pack with defence, patience and hard work over the whole game. They have developed an attack that is beginning to resemble what they have produced in previous seasons. They are actually, demonstrably, good at football.
But how good? Of their six wins, only one side currently resides in the top half of the draw. The next two weeks give them the opportunity against the cream of the competition. They’ll be doing it without Bateman, and possibly Rapana. If they are going to compete in those games, they’ll need the resilience they displayed in this game. It only gets tougher from here.