The Canberra Raiders lost 16-12 to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. In doing so they provided ample evidence that while there is still a margin between them and the top of the competition, the improvements of 2019 are no mirage. The Raiders have built something real, and should be excited at the possibilities and opportunities that are ahead of them.
In the past two weeks the Raiders have aimed up against the two sides widely figured to be a tier above the rest of the competition. They did it despite missing their entire right edge (though they will not have that together again this season). For the second week in a row they were basically over the line (both literally and figuratively) but small errors meant they were unable to win. Margins are small at the top of the NRL, and it shows they are oh so close. It also shows that their style of play and their plan is working and will lead to success.
The Raiders plan of course starts with a defence that remains startlingly robust, even with the absence of key defenders. Against the Bunnies they managed to hold the much bigger Souths pack to a stalemate in what would politely be described as a ferocious battle. The line speed and physicality of the defence was noteworthy.
They offered almost no space to Damian Cook, reducing his ability to affect the game with his feet. He only found 42 metres in this game (he had 110 when the Bunnies rolled the Raiders in round 7 last year). The fact that the only time he got some space he put Cody Walker in for a try highlights the importance of the task, but also the Green Machine’s effectiveness in its execution. The ability to absorb multiple sets on the goal-line, as they did in both halves, shows a maturity and sustainability of their defensive system that will be the difference in more games this season.
Sidebar: How weird is it to be relatively confident the Raiders can hold out repeat sets? I still get excited when we do it. Defintely not the ‘act like you’ve been there before’ type.
Hudson Young was a standout in defence. He provides such consistent heavy contact, and he and Jack Wighton are bash-brothers on the left edge. In the first half he made a crucial one-on-one strip to get Canberra out of a tough spot. In the second half he made a huge goal line tackle that stopped Tatola in his tracks and avoided an almost certain try. In between he battled Sam Burgess to a draw, keeping the Souths star to 80 metres and a million (deserved) penalties (he had 200 plus against the Raiders in round seven last year).
Young is just one member of a side that continues to play with startling physicality and pace. In previous years the Raiders played a defensive style that felt aimed at politely convincing attacks not to score. This year they run up and (figuratively) smack the opposition in the mouth. They demand the ball back. The rest of the competition has been struck dumb in response.
This is not to suggest the Raiders don’t have improvement in them. Both tries scored by the Bunnies were picking apart a defence that made errors when it got overwhelmed. Walker’s try came after a 7 tackle set where the Raiders were on the backfoot from the word go. The middle couldn’t hold, Elliot Whitehead rushed in to help and his backside (Sam Williams) was unable to cover Walker’s run behind him. Both Whitehead and Williams were a microsecond late. That was all the space Walker needed.
The last try came when the Raiders again were on the back foot. As the ball was swept to their left wing, it seemed they should have the numbers to hold it. Fearing his inside man had been overwhelmed, Bailey Simonsson got in a tangle, allowing Cody Walker to pass to his winger behind Bailey’s back. It was a combination of small errors across the defensive line, and a momentary lapse from Simonsson, but when you’re playing the best the margins are small.
In attack the Raiders style in 2019 has been to play through the middle third before heading out wide. Smarter footy types than me often talk about earning the right to go wide. The Raiders certainly do the work in the middle. The battled the bunnies in the middle third throughout the first sixty minutes of the game. Josh Hodgson, perhaps sensing a comparison to Cook, was as active as he’s been in weeks. He often stepped out of the ruck, holding the ball in two hands to threaten all options. His combination with Josh Papalii (15 for 164m) was again critical, and when he sent the big man on a rampaging run through back through the ruck it looked like Papa would score. Only the post got in the way – those margins! Ryan Sutton (16 for 127m) was also impressive. Young and Horsburgh were no slouches either.
Sidebar: Captain Croker said the Raiders couldn’t rely on Papa every week, and given how he’s playing that’ll be particularly true come origin. But in the meantime lets embrace what Papalii has done this season. His move to the middle has been a resounding success and the underrated key to the Raiders ability to continuously outshoot their size.
Jack Wighton was again excellent, and continues to be the Raiders ‘go-to’ when they need points. He plays so straight that his run is a constant threat (and he had over 100m on the ground in this game). It opens up the game for Croker, who in the last few weeks seems to be constantly running in open space. Croker should have scored with three minutes to go to win the game, working off a good catch-step-and-pass by Wighton, but lost the ball in the tackle. Like Cotric’s error with the game on the line last week, it showed the Raiders were 95 per cent of the way there…something something so close something something small margins.
I’d love to see Wighton play more on the right (I saw him out there two or three times in this game), if only to provide the right edge with the same north-south direction he offers on the left. Williams had an interesting game. We’ve noted in previous games that his lack of threat to the line makes it hard for those outside him. He ran more against the Bunnies, with limited success. It was pleasing to see him take the line on. He’s not found a consistent connection to his outside men on the right. I’m sure the fact that they’ve been different men each week has impacted that.
This lack of fluidity on the right meant that Nic Cotric was under-utilised at right centre, which looks to be his medium-term home. He barely touched the ball in the first half, and in the second half threatened to break the line every time he touched the ball. The Raiders only try in this game came when Cotric stepped two defenders and started a roll which led to Whitehead putting Williams in a bit of space. The diminutive half did well to outpace the trailing forwards to score. After that Cotric saw more ball, and Whitehead had more options to ball-play on the right edge.
Heartening losses are not the game the Raiders want to be in. Despite the good play across the park they still ended the game on the wrong side of the scoreboard, and suddenly their fast six-and-two start is back to a more mundane position. They have a soft schedule over the near future and they’ll have to take every advantage to make sure this last two weeks doesn’t hurt them.
But the mood in the team should be positive. They continue to display that their way of working is capable of delivering serious success this year. The team itself will get better, and there are troops that will return – John Bateman, Joe Tapine and Jordan Rapana will all return over the next six weeks. All of a sudden real questions have to be asked about the Raiders best 17 because it will include Hudson Young, might include Corey Horsburgh and maybe not more established first graders. This is a real achievement for Peter Mulholland and Ricky Stuart.
The lessons of the last fortnight show that Canberra is not far away from really taking it to the top of the NRL. They have a way of playing that means they can match it with the best. If they can find a way to make the marginal improvements needed over the coming weeks, they are going to get that opportunity in September.