The Canberra Raiders 22-16 loss to the Parramatta Eels was a good example of what happens when ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work. When the game and possession was in their favour, the Raiders looked like world beaters. But when the tables turned, they found the game-plan they have used to much success in 2019 nonviable against a side that out-muscled and out-hustled them. They relied too much on specific players, and when they couldn’t deliver, Canberra looked bereft of ideas. The Raiders can be a serious side in 2019, but they need more ideas when things don’t go their way.
This game will be used as ammunition by those that think the Raiders are not a top four side. Everything that can go wrong in Raiders’ games did. Throw away a big lead? Check. Calamitous edge defence? Check. Comical errors at inopportune times? Them too. Combine it all with the 2019 specific “when small packs get tired out by big dudes” and you can see why people are sceptical of the Raiders. Plan A was shown up today.
The Raiders were wore down on both sides of the ball by a bigger pack. With the possession flowing like champagne for the first thirty minutes (largely thanks to some poor Eels handling), the machine in green did what they’ve done in so many other games this season. They burst through the middle at pace, got some quick rucks and played conservatively but intelligently. The Raiders completed their first nine sets.
In this period of dominance the Raiders managed sixteen points, almost exclusively heading left. First Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad continued his stellar year by stepping inside some tired defence from big forwards and scoring. Then Jack Wighton did the opposite, sizing up Mitchell Moses and Reed Mahoney as markers tiny enough to barge over, which he did. Finally the Raiders scored on the right, but only after Hodgson and Wighton combined, Wighton streaked down the left, and sent a floater to Bailey Simonsson who smartly took the tackle. The kick from Aidan Sezer was perfect, the catch and grounding from Seb Kris equally so.
The curious thing about this opening stanza was the focus on the left. Aidan Sezer barely touched the ball on the right half of the field. All his early touches came from jumping in as first receiver on the left. It was an approach that potentially contributed to the timidity of the right side attack as it tried to drag the Raiders back into the match later.
It was also a pleasure to see Josh Hodgson back conducting the ruck like a maestro. The Raiders looked quicker in the middle than they have since he last played, and he was busy creating for forwards, putting them over the advantage line. His kicking game was excellent for most of the game, finding space and repeat sets with smart shots. It was noted on the coverage, but his ability to pass long gives the Raiders attack a width it can take advantage of. It means Wighton has more space to run, and his 125 metres in this game are testament to his willingness to do just that.
But as the Eels held a little more ball the possession and position of the match began to change and there were consequences on both sides of the ball. Canberra’s previously physical defence was found out as first contact was met with indifference by the Eels bench forwards who shrugged them off. Bigger forwards ran over the Raiders, not for the first time this season. David Gower, Shaun Lane, Kane Evans, Junior Paulo, Nathan Brown and Tepai Moeroa all had over 100 metres on the ground. They overpowered the Raiders.
It’s a real problem for Canberra. They have relied on their ability to use enthusiasm and contact to win the battle of the middle. They’ve used this to win good possession, which has allowed them to kick to corners, smash the opposition again and continue the cycle. But the kick and smash game-plan became irrelevant when the people they tried to smash refused to lie down, or when the Raiders were kicking from their own thirty. The ineffective contact lead to offloads, of which the Eels had six across the game but it felt like sixty. It lead to breaks, which early on ended in errors for the Eels. Canberra wasn’t so lucky after that.
But offloads weren’t the only issue. It was particularly galling to see the return of some problematic edge defence. No better was this exemplified by the Manu Ma’u try late in the first half. He simply ran across field and then stepped between a slow Corey Horsburgh and an out-of-the-line Aidan Sezer. Comical. Frustrating. Brittle.
It was everything that we’ve complained about Raiders’ edges in times past. There is clearly a strategic decision to have the halfback jump up outside the ball to force the attack back into the middle. I don’t agree with it but both Sezer and Williams have done it all season. This approach only works if the middle is continuing to push up and out to the ball. Horsburgh wasn’t alone in middle forwards who weren’t moving up, but he was the one that was sized up and beaten.
And while the Raiders couldn’t corral the big men, the Eels took pleasure in doing that to Canberra. Josh Papalii (14 for 142m) was excellent as always but wasn’t provided with much support in the middle beyond Joe Tapine (11 for 107m), who looked best when running over Dylan Brown. The Raiders became reliant on the yardage work of the back three. Nicoll-Klokstad (27 runs for 290m), Bailey Simonsson (21 for 151m) and Jordan Rapana (16 for 141m) were exemplary in this regard, but were simply doing more work than they should have been. More than once in a set that started near halfway Nicoll-Klokstad was taking carries that should have been taken by Sutton (7 for 66m), Soliola (3 for 29m), Havili (3 or 19M) or Lui (10 for 88m).
The fight in the middle was being lost, and the Raiders became increasingly desperate for a new way forward. Wighton and Hodgson desperately tried to get back to Plan A. Kick to the corners, work througb the middle, attack on the left. But the tired middle couldn’t get the rucks to earn space to attack, and the Raiders began to look desperate.
Jack probably tried to do much, and what resulted was five errors. He was literally trying to do everything. As the game wore away late (partly because he lost the ball in some comical ways), the Raiders still turned to him to create, which he did, forcing repeat sets off the back of the most anodyne sets. It added to the amazement and irritation that the Raiders were so reliant on him. When they went right in the second half that entire edge looked like they had the wrong studs. They looked timid, they looked confused, and slow. Part of that is because they barely saw the ball in the first half. Part of that is a weakness in the connection and the desperate lack of a threat like Nic Cotric or BJ Leilua at right centre.
This wasn’t a season-defining loss for the Raiders but it did mean they need more than Plan A. When the pack and Jack got overwhelmed they needed more than they had in their deck. I think Hodgson would like to get more involved, but it’s hard to ask him to create when there is no space around the ruck. Sezer would like to get involved more, but Hodgson has to trust him. Bateman can also be used to ball-play on the right. But all these things require more from the middle. The Raiders simply can’t win with a pack that is this overwhelmed.
The Raiders enter the bye in a better position than any sane person thought they’d be at this point. If the forwards performance was simply tiredness they’ll have time to rest up (except for Papalii). The next few weeks for the Raiders become near must wins against sides below them on the table.
Then comes a big test against the Roosters, Storm, Manly and Sharks. If the Raiders want to compete with them, they’ll need a better answer to the question of what you do when Plan A isn’t working. Those sides will do their utmost to make that plan untenable. So the Raiders need a Plan B, and the rest of this season might just depend on it.