The Canberra Raiders 22-20 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was imperfect, gritty and deserved. Against a forward pack that physically overwhelmed them, the Raiders utilised a fast start and a gutsy end to hold on for what was a well-earned victory. In between they struggled, but the way the absorbed the difficult period and managed to hold on is indicative of the gains of 2019.
This was always going to be tough game to win. The Sharks are one of the best sides in the competition, and most intelligent people’s favourite ‘other’ team to win the competition. They’ve been in red hot form and we’re coming to Canberra unafraid of Bruce Stadium. There success is built on one of the best forward packs in the competition. To beat the Sharks you have to find a way to bring down men that are big (Fifita), hard working (Gallen, but not Fifita), and skilled (Graham and Fifita but not Gallen). Earlier in the year we said this small forward pack was going to have its hardest days when they came up against big packs that could overwhelm them. This game was an example of that.
For a period the Raiders found the best way to do this was simply by having all the ball – over the first 25 minutes the Green Machine had 75 per cent of possession and led 20-0. It was a stunning display, and critically they didn’t squander this early bounty. The Raiders props were working their asses off to compete in the middle. Josh Papalii (20 carries for 184m) had multiple sets early with multiple carries. Similarly Joe Tapine (13 for 111m) was very active early – he had 90 metres in the first half. But they weren’t rolling through the Sharks. Instead, Cronulla gifted the Raiders position and possession through errors and penalties.
The Raiders capitalised. Aidan Sezer showed that his renaissance last week was not temporary, going over for the Raiders‘ first try when he smartly identified that Moylan, previously in the defensive line, had dropped out to field the expected kick. Sezer stepped inside him, and the inside defence couldn’t get across in time. Moments later Jack Wighton threw a ball so beautiful I wanted to paint it to set up the second try. He saw that a Sharks defender was helping in on Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad out the back. Wighton’s ball cut-out Nicoll-Klokstad and found Croker, giving him a two-on-one with the Sharks winger. Bailey Simonsson’s finish – somehow suspending his feet in the air – was as incredible as Wighton’s pass. Minutes later, Wighton’s short ball fooled a defence expecting anything but that, and Croker waltzed in across the line.
It was exhilarating play from Wighton. He is playing at such a high level at the moment that the Raiders must be pinching themselves. A few months ago only the bravest were sure that Jack would succeed as a six. In these pages I argued he could succeed, but only if the offence could be structured to utilise his strengths and avoid giving him too much to do. Now the offence revolves around his ball-playing, and the Raiders are better for it.
Even with this dominance you could see the Raiders‘ middles were working hard in every single tackle to win the ruck. Aided and abetted by refereeing that allowed a slow ruck and a *ahem* very tight ten, the Sharks forwards were ready to be dominant. When possession evened up the big Sharks men kept coming, and it put pressure Canberra’s relatively smaller middle to hold the line.
For a period they couldn’t. The Sharks found metres everywhere. It was a formula we’ve all seen before against the Raiders. A couple of hit ups, a quick ruck, the ball spreads to the edge and the Green Machine defence was in reverse. The tries came in a bunch.
It highlighted every marginal and minor weakness in the Raiders‘ defence. That’s what happens when you come up against proper sides. Without the middle gaining dominance, the edges were constantly under pressure to make difficult decisions in isolation. The left edge defence felt the pinch the most. The first try came there when Chad Townsend’s well-placed early grubber landed behind Bailey Simonsson in Josh Dugan’s hands. The last try came after a miscommunication from Croker and Simonsson meant that one stayed out while one jammed in. Josh Dugan has never run through such a big hole. Even the Hamlin-Uele try, ostensibly the fault of John Bateman failing to react to his outside-in run, came after the Sharks had nearly gone over outside Croker. Croker and Simonsson were by no means poor in this game, but other sides will see what the Sharks did. They will have to be ready.
The Raiders other edge felt it too. A conga-line of giants were sent at Aidan Sezer. It was heartening to see him mostly deal with it, with the able help from John Bateman, and also Joe Tapine. But late in the first half Wade Graham got over Sezer, and in the few steps it took Bateman to clean up the mess, Graham got an offload that fell into the hands of whichever Morris brother that is. Suddenly the defence that had held them in so many games in 2019, was rehashing every bad memory of 2018.
The Green Machine buckled between the 25th and 55th minutes not just in defence but also in decision making too. Even in their periods of dominance they were unable to look threatening in the goal-line attack. The pace of the Sharks line, and the relative slowness of backup hooker Siliva Havili’s service meant there was little space for anyone to operate in. When the Raiders were dominant early in the game points came because Sezer and Wighton made spectacular plays in the attacking twenty. When the middle was exhausted, there was no space to operate in, and the Canberra red-zone attack looked insipid. The Raiders sorely missed Josh Hodgson’s ability to create space and set momentum where none previously existed.
It wasn’t aided by tired players making poor decisions. Sezer passed it to a forward on the last. Havili twice sent the ball to the blind on the last for no result. Once may have been a good idea but Simonsson was having a break behind the line rather than pushing up next to Croker. Wighton, desperately trying to get the Green Machine some field position sent a ball for a 40-20 that almost landed in the stands. The ball seemed stuck on the left edge, and Sezer couldn’t get his hands on it. Canberra were reeling, and they needed to find a way back.
It’s weird to say that a team locked at 20-20 fought their way back into the game, but that’s exactly what the Raiders did. If you’d plopped 2018 me at the 55 minute minute mark of this game I would have been in full ‘sad Dan getting ready for a Raiders loss’ mode (it involves petulance and gallows humour). But like so many times in 2019 the Raiders stiffened, and made a bunch of plays. Sezer and Wighton found desperately needed repeat sets, Jack almost single-handedly willing his into being with one of the great kick chases you will see. After battling unsuccessfully for metres in the middle Canberra got Bateman early ball, put Cotric into a bit of space and the Raiders got into the other half. Whitehead expertly charged down a Shark grubber, got the ball to Wighton, who didn’t panic and the Green Machine ended up getting a penalty, taking the two for what would end up being the winning points. None of these plays were necessarily pretty but they showed the Raiders would not give up.
Most of all the defence tightened. It’s the story of 2019. The Raiders defence has for so long buckled under pressure. And while they did for a period in this game, they also found a way to dust themselves off and fight their way back. They kept coming forward. They stayed physical with the bigger opposition. They held the line and found ways to make the right defensive plays. Croker and Simonsson held one edge, seemingly solving their communication issues of minutes early, and happily the game ended with Croker making an excellent, if opportunistic, defensive play. Tapine, Sezer and Bateman held the other edge, throwing their bodies at the attack of Fifita and Graham. They held the line when the Sharks had all the momentum, and despite every fifty-fifty call going against them. In the end the two points they scored in the last 50 minutes of the game were enough.
Look, it wasn’t pretty. At least not after the first 25 minutes. But if anything displays the gains the Raiders have made in 2019, it’s taking a potential top-four side’s best punches, wiping the blood from your face and going right back at them. There was plenty to like and not like in this game, but that the Raiders coughed up a lead and still had the resilience to win the battle should hearten any fan of the Green Machine.
It was well timed in the grand scheme too. The Raiders now go into the bye week well positioned. Tired bodies get time to rest. The week off allows the return of Josh Hodgson in the next match, and gives Jordan Rapana’s body more time to heal (seriously, he couldn’t jump in this game. He got next to no yardage (8 for 66m). He’s not healthy.) It may allow Nic Cotric enough time to return from an injury he suffered late in this game.
Canberra needed this victory to prove they are serious in 2019. They got it and showed they are. They also showed they are far from perfect and will spend the next three weeks (hopefully) interspersing the Parramatta game with reflection on how they can make sure they don’t get into a situation like they did in this game. They can also take heart. When the chips were down, in a big game, they found a way to crawl to victory. That’s what the best teams do.