The Canberra Raiders underwent a thorough investigation in their 30-24 loss to the Sydney Roosters. Every line of the application to be a finals team in 2019 was examined. Deficiencies were highlighted and strengths shone bright. In the end it was clear that the gap to the top three sides still exists but the Raiders are making real progress in bridging it.
What the Raiders found out was that their defence has improved, but that recent injuries have created real problems. The ‘play-it-smart’ attack is increasingly buoyed by a flair driven by Jack Wighton. If they can find solutions for their defensive issues, real opportunities await.
I don’t want to overstate the defensive problems. Playing the reigning premiers and nominal best-team-in-the-comp has a way of putting your weaknesses in the spotlight. While it wasn’t the first time this season the Raiders defence had struggled, the Roosters certainly took the most advantage. It started in the middle. All season we’ve noticed that early in games the Raiders pack can get physically overwhelmed. The Storm game was one example, but it’s happened in victories too. Normally the Raiders absorb the opposition pack for a period of the game, and then gradually overwhelm them.
In this game the physicality of the Roosters middle men was a struggle for the Raiders. Each tackle was a battle, and the Green Machine had a hard time gaining advantage in the ruck. Josh Hodgson fell off six tackles (one memorably where Jared Warea-Hargreaves seemed to throw him six feet back). He wasn’t alone. Canberra missed 34 tackles in total, including 21 in the first half. Points came directly as a result of this and we all had to watch Cooper Cronk do that stupid handshake thing.
The weakness in the middle also had major flow on effects. Firstly the Roosters were able to turn it into consistent penalties to piggy-back them out of their own half. Secondly, it made it harder on the edge defenders. Instead of having middle defenders pushing up on ball-players (as has occurred in the victory against the Panthers last week), the Roosters physical dominance drew the edges to the middle. This meant those left defending the Roosters attacking weapons on the outside were put in difficult positions. The results were clear to see.
Over the time we’ve been writing this blog, the Raiders edge defence has vacillated between inept and contemptible. This year the improvements on this front have been palpable. But with key personnel missing – and importantly, likely to be missing for some time – the Raiders were back to square one in this regard.
Part of what has made John Bateman and BJ Leilua indispensable parts of this side in 2019 has been their ability to make up for the fact that Williams is an over-matched defender. But with Bateman and Leilua out for way longer than is fair and decent, Whitehead and Oldfield were unable to perform the same feat.
Three tries resulted from attacking the Raiders right edge. The first try three defenders faced four on a short side and when Williams fell for the inside decoy from Aubusson and Olfield couldn’t shut down Keary, the inside cover had too far to go. Minutes later Williams also came up empty handed after Tedesco stepped inside Oldfield. Whitehead covered across but could only slow the Roosters fullback long enough for Latrell Mitchell to loom on his outside for an easy try.
The final try, moments into the second half was the most embarrassing.
This is the moment Tupouniua went through a hole so yawning the “flip top head” guy from the old Reach commercial was impressed. I’m not sure what was going on here, but whichever way you slice the blame, the result was the same as the previous two tries. Williams tackled no one. Oldfield was more interested in Luke Keary out the back. And Tedesco scored easily.
The Raiders defence has made massive strides since last year. The improvements made to line-speed and general physicality of contact haven’t gone away. The left edge held relatively firm, Cotric and Croker almost always finding the right tackle to make to keep the Raiders alive. But the right edge sans it’s two biggest and best defenders was always going to be a work in progress, particularly against the best edge attack in the competition. Without Bateman and BJ to protect Williams, that edge was revealed by the Roosters to be a genuine issue. There’s work to be done.
In attack the Raiders fought admirably. After weeks where it looked like the flair of the past had been replaced by admirable restraint, Canberra has begun to stretch its wings. Fluidity has returned, and it’s lead by the growth and develop of Jack Wighton in the six jersey.
Jack Wighton is a legit five-eighth. The first three steps he has with ball-in-hand petrify opposition defences. No one wants to tackle him, and his combination with Croker and Cotric is scary. Three dudes who can break a line running at pace at the line. It’s enough to make you believe in humanity.
Wighton didn’t set up all the Raiders’ four tries, it just felt like he did. When the Raiders needed attack they found him. With the absolute game on the line Josh Hodgson threw a beautiful spiral across three other players just to get the ball in Jack’s hands. And he nearly created a miracle. It shows how much the team trusts him. Well that they should.
The Raiders first try came because Wighton kept the ball in his hand long enough to firstly allow Hudson Young to run an under route, stalling the inside cover, giving Croker two metres to run to the line with a defence that was still on its heels. A similar opportunity went begging when Croker got over but couldn’t get the ball down. These weren’t the only chances Wighton created on the left, just the most noticeable. Later Wighton grubbered, ran around a defender and got there himself. It’s astounding how quickly his short-kicking game has become a weapon.
It wasn’t all Wighton. Josh Papalii (16 for 148m) did a cracking job in the middle. It was hard work, often coming with defenders in his face from the second he got the ball. Despite having around 200 less metres over the game than their opposition (1648 -1459), Canberra only had 10 less post contact metres (334-324), 46 of which came from Papalii. He created a try through using his strength to stand in a tackle and smartly pop a ball for Elliot Whitehead, who then found Michael Oldfield to fall over the line.
The Raiders middle third attack also looked its most fluid in weeks. Josh Hodgson used his feet more, either by running or by just taking a few steps to one side, in order to free up some space around the ruck. In this game he and Sia tried out the run-around again, again with Papalii almost going through. It will create points soon, I promise you.
Also how good is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad? Each week he is doing more and more in the line. In this week he was chipping in repeatedly in attacking movements on both sides of the ground. He passed well when he needed to, and even turned a nothing movement into points when he simply overpowered Mitch Aubusson. He is a legit weapon.
These pieces are beginning to be put together to form a proper offence. The smart football of the first six weeks or so is now second nature, and the Raiders now know when and where to break the rules. It’s a little bit exciting. A Canberra attack capable of both grinding and brilliant attack? Be still my beating heart.
This game was far from perfect. Yes there are problems that need to be fixed, and soon. There’s no way the Bunnies didn’t see what happened to the Green Machine’s right side defence. Battling a big middle is only going to be harder against the various Burgeii next week.
But much like the loss against the Storm it revealed that the improvements made in 2019 are tangible. A better defence, smarter football, and a resilience that should be noted by every Canberra observer. These are things that the Raiders are building a foundation on. They’ve added a flourishing attack to that recipe in recent weeks.
In this game they were investigated by the best the competition has to offer, and they pushed them to the limit. The gap between them still exists but the Raiders have improved and the gains are real.