The Canberra Raiders 20-12 victory was hard-fought and ugly. For too much of the game they lacked discipline with the ball. Their defence, the jewel of 2019, had real weak points for the first time in ages. Against a side that won’t play finals footy this year, they were forced to scramble in defence, and fight for every metre with the ball. It wasn’t pretty – and it won’t suffice against better teams – but scraping a victory out of messes like that is what good sides do.
This was an important game for both sides. The Raiders needed this to bank points for a difficult run in which they play 7th, 9th, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 11th and then 9th again. The Tigers were scrapping to stay in touch with the quagmire of teams that orbit around 8th position.
For so much of this game Canberra couldn’t find a way to get to its normal approach; what we’ve called the formula. The Raiders may have wanted to play smart, kick to corners and win with their defence, but the Tigers did everything they could to stop them. Wests never let a set get away from them, put constant pressure on the kickers, and had a plan to get momentum in every set they had the ball. They gave Jack Wighton no space, and forced him to be ‘only’ a runner (he still took 130 metres and 54 post-contact metres).
The Raiders helped make it hard too. Poor decisions on last tackles – they ran if 4 or 5 times on the last with little effect put the Raiders in bad field position when they needed a good kick. Combined with some uncharacteristically poor handling and outside of the early throes, the Green Machine had no dominance, and no field position. All they could do was fight.
The Tigers also had a good plan for making metres. They simply aimed at the John Bateman/Sezer/Michael Oldfield edge. Whenever they did this they got metres, either through a break or through a quick ruck. It was an achilles heal for the Raiders, and a failsafe that the Tigers exploited to great effect, particularly in the second half.
Sezer is not a bad defender, but he’s the smallest man in the Raiders front-line. He’s a natural target. The Raiders right edge has succeeded in 2019 because inside him is Bateman, and outside him has been BJ Leilua, Seb Kris or Nic Cotric. They are all solid defenders, and they make sure any edge runner is met with a physicality that slows the ruck. In this game that physical defence was missing. Oldfield is a damaging ball runner but his defence at centre is a best shaky. Other defenders have been able to help in when big men run at Sezer. Oldfield was not able to in this game.
Sidebar: One of the most recent times Oldfield played centre was against the Panthers in Wagga. I sat at the end of the ground, and watched Oldfield routinely turn his body out well before the ball got to his edge. It renders him unable to help on the inside, isolating the halfback in defence (on that day Sam Williams).
John Bateman can cover for the half next to him. But he can’t cover for the centre outside the half. The consequence was the Tigers often had a way to find metres, and particularly in the second half, they were able to ensure that almost every set ended in the Raiders half with an attacking kick.
So the Raiders had to find Plan B. A few weeks ago, these pages worried that the Green Machine didn’t have a way to win when their best got taken away from them. In this game it certainly was. What emerged was a game based on a few key personnel in attack, and a defence that had to cover for a massive weakness with incredible effort and tremendous scramble.
Josh Papalii was an absolute beast (18 runs for 201m and 80 post contact metres). This performance was stunning. Papa came off the bench after the Raiders had done all their damage to the scoreboard and the game was turning. When Canberra needed a big carry to get metres or space for a kick, they turned to him for critical metres. He delivered in one of the great middle-forward displays of 2019. The man that started in his place, Sia Soliola was also incredible (15 for 147m). Between them they were the only consistent metres and ruck speed the Raiders could find.
While Jack Wighton struggled early to adjust to the lack of space he was offered (he kicked a ball out-on-the-full and sailed a pass out-of-bounds within the first fifteen minutes), Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer stepped up to carry the offence. Hodgson did it in the way he always does. He worked the ruck, found extra metres for his forwards, and kicked well when he didn’t find the legs of the opposition (which to be fair, was a feature of every kicker in this game). He put Dunamis Lui in for the Raiders first try with a brilliant face ball while his eyes showed, and the defence thought, the ball was going out the back. I would prefer he found a grubber to the in-goal instead of focusing on crash plays so often, but three try-assists in a fortnight would suggest otherwise.
Aidan Sezer continued his recent run of good form too. He played much more at first receiver than in previous weeks. Sometimes this was to give Wighton the ball a bit deeper with some space to operate. On other occasions he was the key playmaker on the right, setting up two tries with frankly brilliant halfback play.
The first came when he saw fullback Moses Mbye in the line, took just enough steps towards the defence to keep him there, and then grubbered for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. There was so much distance between him and any Tigers that the refs sent it to the bunker because they weren’t sure what the hell happened. Mere minutes later Sezer again took the ball to the line, this time sending a cut-out ball to Jordan Rapana so perfect John Eales got jealous. It was the end fo the Raiders tries for the night.
But as we said earlier, the points came early, and then the Raiders had to fight. The Raiders never got an opportunity to attack in the second half – at one point late they’d only been tackled in the redzone once in the second forty. The Tigers used the weakness of the Sezer/Oldfield edge to get metres at will, and the Raiders were constantly scrambling in defence.
But holy shit, what about that scramble? The Raiders were always around the ball in numbers, no matter where that was. After finding metres at the Raiders’ right, the Tigers would send the ball left in the hope of finding Canberra with their pants down. Elliot Whitehead made a ream of tackles on faster players who thought they were in space. Wighton was ever present, cleaning up less than perfect contact from the other edge defenders. Jarrod Crokers’ try-saver at the very end of the game was teeth-rattling-ly awesome. Sezer’s incredible effort after a break to chase a kick, stop on a dime and bring down a bigger man who tried to run over him was inspiring. In between these incredible efforts was Josh Hodgson seemingly stripping the ball at will. Each time he pulled it off it felt seismic, like he was cradling the victory in his hands as the opposition searched for someone and something to complain about. Add to that Nicoll-Klokstad somehow beating four dudes to get out of the in-goal and you can see that these guys can make things happen even when they’re battling uphill.
This defence wasn’t perfect. It couldn’t be while the Tigers could find metres so easily. But it was physical, it was gritty, and it was determined. It showed that even when the Green Machine can’t threaten the line, they can hold theirs in return.
A word of caution though; this Tigers side is not an offensive juggernaut. Better teams will ask harder questions and the Raiders will need to do better than scrambling to hold on. Like the Sharks game Canberra held fast and didn’t capitulate. But more will be needed in the coming weeks.
The thing about being good is you can’t always play your best. This was hardly the Raiders best effort. They weren’t patient or intelligent in attack, and for one of the rare occasions in 2019 they had a proper weak point in defence. It was almost 2018. But instead of following the path of 2018 and giving up, or doing silly things that meant they lost the game, the Raiders fought. They found ways to score early, and then with the help of key personnel they found a way to keep getting off their own line.
The Raiders face better teams over the next few weeks who will have more difficult questions than they were posed in this game. The Panthers, Roosters, Storm etc won’t be so forgiving attacking the Raiders line, and the Green Machine will have to find new ways to win. But each week this side demonstrates a new facet to their game, and a effort and enthusiasm for the battle that will serve them well no matter who they face.
Because that’s what good sides do.