The Canberra Raiders 30-18 victory over the Penrith Panthers was as satisfying as it was emphatic. In a hostile and intense game, the Green Machine took the best punches the Panthers could throw and just smiled back. Then when it was time to throw a few themselves it was more than the Panthers could handle. This wasn’t an easy victory. It was hard-earned and hard fought, and it showed the 2019 Raiders are ready for September.
Close followers of the Raiders were nervous going into this game. The Panthers winning streak had been much lauded by anyone with a microphone or a pen this week. In contrast, Canberra’s last few victories had been patchy performances in which they were perfect with effort but not in execution. A win was made even more crucial by the victories of sides below Canberra on the ladder. Given what’s coming down the pipeline, and what they faced in front of them, it felt like September.
This game was played with a playoff intensity and won with a defence that continually absorbed the best the Panthers had to offer. Penrith managed only 18 points in this game despite camping in the Raiders twenty for multiple ten minute periods. They were tackled more than fifty times in the Canberra red-zone. They scored on their first foray, and one of their last, but in between they barely looked likely. So flummoxed were they by the Raiders goal line defence that they resorted to skipping around, sending the ball east-to-west, in vain attempts to find a hole they could exploit. None existed. They earned repeat set after repeat set but Canberra never felt like cracking. The Panthers eventually turned to chips over the top – a high risk, high reward play that used correctly is the sexiest play in rugby league. In this circumstance it felt more like the last resort of the damned, a hopeful prayer that was answered once but never felt like a sustainable solution.
The defensive effort and execution of all 17 men in green that took the field cannot be questioned. The usual suspects were impressive. John Bateman made big hits when they were needed, upending Liam Martin close to the line. He made critical tackles when the Raiders were desperate – ask Isiah Yeo where his legs went. Elliot Whitehead, Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker too held their edge down for most of the game, and Aidan Sezer and Michael Oldfield did a much better job than last week on the right edge. But you already knew this.
What was more impressive was the efforts of the middle men when the Panthers tried to use pace and dexterity to score. At least three times Nathan Cleary was isolated one-on-one opposite a big man close to the line. Josh Papalii brought him down in the 18th minute. Dunamis Lui made the tackle in the 34th minute. Then Emre Guler found himself in the same position, and with the help of Lui was able to bring down Cleary. Each of these tackles was a try-saver, if an unheralded one.
The Raiders middle men kept doing this despite long periods without the ball. They had to defend for seven consecutive sets after Tapine dropped the ball early. The Panthers scored on the first then couldn’t find a way through. It took nearly six sets before they could take advantage of frankly exhausted defence in the 69th minute.
Any watcher of the Raiders will tell you the turnaround here is astounding. In previous years repeat sets meant points against the Green Machine. This game, and this season, they continue to turn good sides with good position away. This is the sort of line defence seasons are built on.
Sidebar: The changes to the one-on-one strip law are an incredible addition to the game. While sometimes the refs get it wrong – see Nathan Cleary’s strip of Croker in the second half – it adds a aspect of competition for the ball that disappeared in the early 90s when raking was banned and the strip was severely limited. It’s incredible to see the effectiveness the Raiders use it too. Both Bateman, and Hodgson used it at different times in this game to turn it on a dime just when the Panthers were getting ascendancy. For Hodgson its particularly smart. It adds a degree of risk in running at him, which means teams have to weigh up whether tiring him out is as important as potentially losing the ball.
In my view the Raiders only made two sets of errors in their goal-line defensive reads all game. For the Panthers first try most will blame Croker for seemingly bursting out of the line and creating a two-on-one that Bailey Simonsson couldn’t handle. However, I think this try was a more nuanced than that. Josh Hodgson came out hard at Nathan Clearly to try and shut the play down early. This forced Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker to come in hard. Simonsson, forced back to the wing because it was the last, couldn’t come infield quick enough to help out. Regardless, it was the last error that edge made all game. The other error was late in the game after a weight of possession meant Lui didn’t get off his line enough, Hodgson jumped out too much to take the second-man, and James Tamou stormed over between them.
If there’s a structural criticism to be made it’s that the Raiders line speed outside of the redzone wasn’t perfect. Too often the Panthers were able to take 50 plus metres through relatively conservative play. Canberra still shut down most things they could offer. Further, given the defensive load the Green Machine had, it’s understandable they were more focused on holding the line than advancing it.
With the ball the game plan called for versatility. The Raiders played with great width in this game – not necessarily in an attempt to go around the Panthers (though they did on occasion) but more in recognition that the defensive weaknesses of their opposition lay outside the middle third. Hodgson, Sezer and Wighton all focused on getting the ball to the creative edge-runners with space. Sezer and Hodgson in particular sent passes of twenty metres or more across the face of the defense to find Bateman or Whitehead with an advantage to gain.
It’s no surprise then that for the first time in many weeks Josh Papalii didn’t crack 100 metres. As the Raiders searched wider, his opportunities were rare. He only had 7 carries all game (65m), but they were still valuable. Apart from his usual dirty work, he found the try-line again through his connection with Hodgson. Hodgson used the decoy of Sia Soliola to freeze the Panthers goal-line defence, and sent the real big Papa over between the B and C defenders. It was a big moment in the game – the Panthers had all the possession and position early, and on their first real foray into the opposition redzone, the Raiders had already taken the lead.
The width in attack meant that John Bateman (13 for 165m, 69 post contact metres and 7 tackle breaks) and Elliot Whitehead (11 for 97m, 28 post contact metres and 4 tackle breaks) had more involvement in yardage than they normally do.
They weren’t used as battering rams though. The spine identified opportunities for them to utilise their skills in a bit of space, and they took advantage. The Raiders second try came when Hodgson fired a twenty metre pass to a wide-standing Jack Wighton, who’s short ball to Whitehead resulted in points. The next points came when Hodgson fired an even longer pass to Bateman, who engaged the line, skipped to the outside and sent Rapana into space. He found Oldfield, whose grubber back inside to Sezer was as spectacular as it was accurate.
It was somewhat novel to see the forwards used in this way. Even Corey Horsburgh had a slightly evolved role. He still got through work in the middle (9 for 92m and 42 post-contact metres), but in addition to this he was used as a link man in sweeping movements. When the Raiders would shift Horsburgh was often catching the ball in the middle and finding the correct back with a well-weighted long ball of his own. It was an interesting wrinkle to his game he has developed, and it was impressive to see how unfazed he was by the challenge, especially given his relative experience.
This width was important because the Panthers were allowed to slow the ruck without penalty. This meant that runners in the middle were often met with physical and enthusiastic response. By looking wider, Canberra found its comparative advantage, and the Panthers revealed their Achilles heal.
This gameplan was executed by an organising trio that seem to improve with each performance. Sezer is performing as every Raiders fan has hoped he would since he signed at the end of 2015. His long spirals were critical to the implementation of this plan, but his running and kicking also created opportunities. One of these was turned into points opportunistically by Nicoll-Klokstad. Hodgson was also excellent. His play has been a bit more north-south than earlier in the year. It gives the forwards more space because defenders are drawn to him like me to pizza shapes and whisky. In this game he used his tremendous passing skills to also find the width the game plan called for. All this meant Wighton was given more latitude to focus on his own game, which meant a sneaky 130m on the ground, creating one try and nearly creating a few more. This was a balanced attack, with multiple players involved in creating. It’s the kind of attack that if employed consistently, is real flippin’ hard to stop.
Sidebar: A special note on the performance of Nicoll-Klokstad, Simonsson and Jordan Rapana. The Panthers kicking was on point in this game, testing their catching and positioning. That they managed one try from a kick, and that came from a trick shot, said a lot about the skill of this three. They did their yardage work too (though with less success than is often the case) and were always ready to get involved when the moment called for it.
There is no doubt this was an important win for the Raiders. They are heading into the toughest part of their draw. They now have a short turnaround combined with the long road trip. It shapes to be a hostile environment in New Zealand. When they return to Australia, a battle with the reigning premiers awaits, followed by the hardest road trip in Australia – a game in Melbourne. Every win is gold right now. The Raiders are now 7 points ahead of 8th position, and a win clear in 4th.
But beyond two points this performance bodes well for the rest of the season. These games are the ones that show the road-map to win in September. It’s cliche to say that defence wins premierships but the Raiders showed in this game that it damn well helps. They showed they have multiple facets to their ball-play and can attack from any position and any angle on the field – such variety is critical in the playoffs. If the Green Machine can replicate this performance, the competition will be worried. This is what championship football looks like.