The Canberra Raiders 22-16 loss to the North Queensland Cowboys revealed cracks in their 2019 plan. For the first time this season the Raiders looked like an also-ran team, instead of one seeking to bridge the gap to the ‘big three’. The plan, or style if you will, established early in this season was nowhere to be seen. Instead of establishing themselves as the main challenger to the top-class, Canberra now has to prove they are better than the broad middle-class they now reside in.
The difference between 2019 and the previous iterations of the Raiders was always about a new plan. Gone were the days of running sides off the park with impeccable football one week, only to be thoroughly dismantled the next. The Raiders were going to play smart football. They were going to kick to corners and play physical defence.
This plan relied on their undersized middle to hold against the best. It required middle defenders pushing up with pace to reduce the space available to opposition attackers and reduce the pressure on the Green Machine’s vulnerable edges. It necessitated a back three that could do the yardage work to help out the tired pack. It required an attack that could be led by Josh Hodgson, to allow Jack Wighton to develop as a ball player and Sam Williams or Aidan Sezer to play smartly around this. All of these parts of the plan came in for a hammering in this game.
Most obviously the Raiders were pummeled in the middle. It was utter destruction. Canberra simply had no answer for Jason Taumalolo, who chipped in a cool 251 metres on 20 carries. Good god. There’s no shame in being dominated by the best forward since Bradley Clyde, but this demolition extended beyond JT. Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Gavin Cooper all cleared 100m, and Matt Scotts 61 metres look a lot more damaging when you consider they came in about twenty minutes before he left with an injury.
The Raiders simply couldn’t stick a tackle. In a devastating first half they missed 29, nearly all of these by middle defenders. Hodgson missed four, as did Lui. Sutton, Whitehead, Sia and Young missed three. The physicality of this season disappeared. They couldn’t win a ruck. The line-speed, such a notable change from previous seasons was gone. Even the kick chase, an underrated part of the Raiders improvement this season was below standard. The Raiders have made a habit this season of ending a set by kicking to a corner, and then smashing a side with robust defence. In this game, even when they got a good kick in, the Cowboys forwards simply began rolling through them again. It was heartbreaking.
The consequence of this retreating middle was the return of the flimsy edge defence. It all felt so 2018. Forget helping Sam Williams defend the right edge, the Raiders forwards were flat out getting JT to the ground. The consequences were dire. The defence was constantly being drawn inwards to try and make up for the Cowboys dominance. It meant the Raiders numbers out wide were whacked all game. It felt like the Cowboys were going around them at will. Two of the Cowboys three tries came after the Raiders middle was destroyed for a set. On one occasion they couldn’t push across after the Cowboys stepped inside from the wing. On the other the wing (played by Bailey Simonsson on this occasion) was so far in that a kick had time to bounce, sit up and fall into the waiting Kyle Feldt’s hands.
The Raiders right edge also got exposed in defence. Earlier in the season John Bateman and BJ Leilua made Sam Williams’ small frame feel safe as houses on this edge. Their absence was felt in this game. So much of the Cowboys attacking play early was sent at this edge. Nic Cotric came rampaging in to snuff out one raid by jumping Morgan. On another Morgan got through but couldn’t find a teammates hands with his pass. Finally Granville saw Sam Williams standing in the ‘A’ defensive position on the blind, jumped out of dummy-half and Hodgson was too slow from marker.
In the first half the Raiders big men at least retaliated with some big metre sets of their own. Josh Papalii (16 for 147m) did everything and frankly looks like he needs a break rather than heading off to Origin. Corey Horsburgh (17 for 178m) had good runs. Sia Soliola (12 for 105m) came on after twenty minutes and provided energy and effort because he’s a gift and I love him. Havili’s shift to hooker saw him find some useful metres from dummy-half, not to mention a smart try.
But as the game wore on they had less and less penetration. In the second half when the Raiders have normally begun to roll-over teams, the opposite occurred. Sixty metre Cowboy sets were met with a struggle to 40 by the Raiders. They were searching for points but they spent more and more time in their own half. The back three endeavoured to do their best to get the Raiders off their line but they were merely good when they needed to be excellent. Simonsson and Oldfield are excellent backups, but the Raiders needed a Rapana or a Cotric to be doing that work. We should all be desperately watching the squad announcement this Tuesday, and whether Cotric is required for Origin next week.
Part of the reason for the decreasing effectiveness of the attack was the injury to Josh Hodgson. The Raiders were a little clunky but effective until that point. They created two tries, and should have managed two more had Michael Oldfield, Sam Williams and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad been able to execute as they have in the past. The middles made metres, and while the Raiders defence was being torn apart, at least the old way – let’s see who gets to 30 first – was still an option.
After he went off injured the Raiders attack looked like I do after a night of waking to take care of my infant son – dishevelled. Havili’s move to hooker started well, but once the Cowboys worked out he could run, or he could pass (and never both at the same time), they simply reacted accordingly. Havili couldn’t create around the ruck and the walls closed in.
The Raiders looked elsewhere. Nic Cotric had a bright start to the game, repeatedly pushing Tom Opacic off and breaking tackles. It was his palm and go on Opacic that should have created a try that Oldfield and Williams conspired to fuck up. This just encouraged the Cowboys to focus more on him. As the game wore on he either got no ball, or awful ball from Sam Williams.
For his part, Williams’ grubber that sat nicely for Michael Oldfield was about the only offering he made to stop the men outside him being rendered useless. He tried to run the ball but was smothered. He found no consistency with his outside men, and even on set plays was unable to muster anything close to functional. It meant that Cotric and Oldfield spent much of the game as spectators. It was not Williams best game, and calls for the return of Aidan Sezer will be louder this week.
All this made life much harder for Jack Wighton. He was playing with a million defenders keyed on him and no space. He ran the ball more in this game (11 for 87m) because he had little other options. His pass for the Raiders first try was impeccable because it had to be. He kicked a brilliant 40/20 when the Raiders desperately needed it. At the back end of the game he was the only Canberra player that threatened the line, and he made a few half breaks that could have resulted in points if people had pushed up around him. He was one of the few bright lights in an otherwise dark universe.
The result was that the Raiders redzone attack, already a ‘work-in-progress’ was downright abysmal in the second half. When they managed to get into a scoring position, they barely looked capable of breaking the line. Canberra had more than a full set on the Cowboys line to end the game, still with the opportunity to send it to golden point. They never looked like scoring, and Williams ‘kick and hope’ ended with a meek Raiders error. It was fitting.
Make no mistake this was a poor performance. Hands down the worst of the season. The Raiders have quietly lost four of their last five and have downright struggled without Bateman/Leilua/Rapana. Now Hodgson will miss at least a month with a broken thumb. If you had a list of players the Raiders couldn’t afford to lose and remain competitive, only Wighton (and maybe Whitehead) remain on the pitch.
A lot of people will be asking if the Raiders are tiring – if their small pack spent all their energy performing the impossible for the first eight rounds of the season and is only going to struggle more. Others will ask if the fast start was just well timed against opposition at their worst. Some will see a side that is now putting most of its offence in the hands of a guy that has played a handful of games at his current position. These are all fair points to raise.
I’ve been clear in these pages that I think that the improvement from 2018 to 2019 is real. I’ve seen the Raiders defence line-speed be first-class in 10 of 11 games this season. I’ve seen them play intelligent football for the majority of the games and push the best sides in the competition to the brink. I’ve seen a minuscule forward pack go toe-to-toe with better forward packs than they faced in this game. Wighton has shown he’s the real deal as a six, and good enough to be a lead option on a good side.
Canberra got demolished in this game and learned a lesson that the forwards can’t take a moment off. I hope it stings like the losses to the Roosters and Souths didn’t. The draw will help them until their stars return, and a full strength side is capable of so much more than was offered in this game. But the next month is going to be incredibly tough. They can’t afford more games like this if they are serious about playing deep into September.