The Canberra Raiders 12-10 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs was as ugly as it was necessary. There was little flamboyance from the winning side, but a return to a robust defence, and some outstanding individual performances were enough to keep the Raiders at the front of the peloton behind the big three.
There’s big games ahead in the origin period, but there’s unlikely to be a game where the Green Machine is so depleted of talent. While they were taking on the team coming last, the Bulldogs are irritatingly committed to their task. They’re precisely the kind of team you don’t want to play when you can’t beat them with talent. To beat the Dogs normally you just have to not get in the way of the talent available to you. Canberra couldn’t rely on that.
This was always going to be a grind. Two sides, without much attacking flair due either to circumstance (origin and injury) or roster design. It would be played ‘between the twenties’ – both sides desperately trying to win field position, force an error and then find a way to manufacture points. Effort and errors. It wasn’t pretty.
It was a constant battle in the middle, and rarely did a pack get on top for more than a set or two. The Raiders did their best to embrace their 2019 plan, trying to kick to corners and win the field position battle. The middle men aimed up in defence. It felt strong. It was nice to the see the Raiders line-speed and physicality return after a week off.
The Raiders’ strong middle meant the Dogs had to look elsewhere for points and metres and they clearly had a plan to target Sam Williams. Every set momentum was sought, and often found not by winning the middle, but by attacking Williams on the Raiders’ right edge. Marcelo Montoya (19 runs for 213m) and Faitala-Mariner (11 for 91m) kept hitting the ball at Sam, with a good degree of success. It was their fail-safe when they were in trouble. It was the first port-of-call when they wanted points or a quick ruck. Even when they shifted to the Raiders’ left it felt like it was mere token effort before coming back to the right. That edge made nearly 30 per cent of Canberra’s tackles for the game (in comparison, the other edge made about 14 per cent). It held mostly, but it rarely looked air-tight.
Elliot Whitehead’s defensive effort in covering for Williams was astounding. Yes he made 46 tackles but that seems to understate how involved he was. He defended his man, and Williams’. He covered across on faster players (more than once he brought down Jack Cogger with a whiplash), and he faced down big men that Williams couldn’t. It was a sublime performance that deserves recognition.
Such was the singular focus of Canterbury on this edge that it was almost a surprise when they scored their first try on the other side of the park. It was not a good moment for Jarrod Croker. He jumped out of the line to put pressure on Cogger – something that was clearly a plan for the Raiders. Whereas Aidan Sezer routinely found his man on those forays, Croker was left dancing with a ghost, as Cogger scythed his way to the line. Moments later the Dogs scored again, this time right where we’d all been waiting of them to score, by going wide of Whitehead early. The cover from Williams and Sebastian Kris wasn’t there, and even Smelly couldn’t stop it.
It wasn’t the last time the Dogs would head in that direction. But the Raiders stiffened a little in the back twenty of the game and made important tackles – none more so than Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s stunning game-ender on Rhys Martin. A special moment must be taken for Croker’s one-on-one strip that led to the penalty that was the final margin. It was a huge, match-winning moment in what had been a somewhat disappointing night for the Captain. The Raiders made a bunch of defensive plays like this, and while outside Nicoll-Klokstad’s tackle, none were as significant, they all were crucial.
When Canberra had the ball they similarly had limited moments of brilliance. Siliva Havili did an admirable job trying to navigate the lack of space in the middle to find metres for the big men. His service is slower than Hodgson, and he’s not as creative but he provided enough quality service to keep the Raiders moving. Corey Horsburgh (15 runs for 119m) was very good. His defence was aggressive and physical, and he gets through a ton of work in offence. Hudson Young (11 for 97) worked hard, and his offload to Havili that put him in thirty metres of space was a rare example of second-phase play for the Green Machine. Ryan Sutton (9 for 68m) didn’t find many metres but he always found his belly, and Joe Tapine’s quick feet found the Raiders desperately needed momentum at the end of the game. He will be important in weeks without Josh Papalii.
Despite these good efforts in the middle Canberra found no incision in their attack. Strong control of the ruck from the Dogs robbed the Raiders of any momentum within sets. This reduced the space the Green Machine was working in, and made attacking forays feel predictable, rather than well-rehearsed.
Further, whenever Canberra was on the attack, Canterbury sold out on the edges and forced the halves to beat them with their feet. Aidan Sezer had 107 metres on the ground, and Williams 71. Sezer was far and away more threatening at the line. But he knew as well as you and I do that neither he nor Williams is the Raiders best attacking weapon. Sezer tried to get early ball to their edges to compensate for the lack of space in close quarters and Canberra made plenty of metres as a result. John Bateman and Croker routinely bent the line, if never fully cracking it.
The lack of space and momentum meant the Raiders had to find ways to manufacture points. The first try came from a simple bat-back from Michael Oldfield to Sebastian Kris. The second came after Young’s offload put Havili into acres of space. His pass to support was knocked down, and just how John Bateman managed to kick the ball twice, and beat everyone to ground the ball in the corner is beyond me. Then when Nicoll-Klokstad was streaming up the the middle of the ruck with mere minutes to go it seemed like the Raiders had their third (and the game). Alas it wasn’t meant to be, and instead Charnze won the game with defence.
Nicoll-Klokstad was among a back three that was simply astounding. While the forwards were in a battle for a modicum of the upper hand, the back three kept dragging the Raiders off their own line to prevent the Dogs from keeping what should have routinely been good field position. Nicoll-Klokstad had 296 metres on the ground (25 carries), and apart from his break up the guts at the end, he barely had a breath of space around him. Simonsson (22 for 184 metres) had his best game for the Raiders, doing similar work, and Oldfield (13 for 134m) was excellent on both sides of the ball.
It’s such an achievement that Nicoll-Klokstad and his brethren have made this season. When Wighton shifted to the halves we said the big problem was that the Raiders lost his defence and yardage work at the back. When Rapana got hurt we were worried these issues were compounded. We said similar when Cotric moved to the centres to cover for BJ. What these three displayed is that the Raiders’ have depth capable of competing and thriving in first grade. It’s a good position to have and smart roster building (shouts to Peter Mulholland). Charnze is yet to find much space or fluidity as the second-man on attacking sweeps, but hopefully this comes with time (though much of his space is eaten because teams aren’t threatened by Williams).
This game should almost be looked at in a vacuum, such was the talent unavailable to the Raiders. The ‘formula’ that they have adhered to all 2019 was there as a framework, if slightly simplified and conservative. The stilted offence and the stalemate in the middle were to be expected without six of the Raiders best. The desire to win the field position battle was constantly undermined by the weakness on the right edge. The return of a quick line and tough tackling was welcome, and kept them in the game (along with the back three) whenever Canterbury seemed to be taking control. If there is a takeaway it’s that the approach the Raiders have taken in 2019 is not just useful to get on top of games, but to keep them in them.
This was not a good victory in terms of performance. It wasn’t particularly pretty to watch. When you can only muster 12 points against the bottom side of the competition you should breath a sigh of relief and get ready for next week. But at the end of 2019 if the Raiders go deep into September, they can look back on victories like this as necessary in that journey.