The Canberra Raiders 46-12 victory over the New Zealand Warriors was meant to be a trap game. Instead through a mixture of the Raiders brilliance and the Warriors timidity, it was a glorified training run. Canberra simply owned the middle from the start, and the competition ended there. It bodes well for the Raiders, but tougher tests await.
These sorts of games have been hard for Raiders sides of the recent past. The Raiders were coming off a huge victory over the Panthers – probably their best game of the year. They were on a short-turnaround and heading into a different time zone. They were playing a team that was in all likelihood playing for their season the week after a heartbreaking loss, with a fan-base that was being riled up by the club CEO in an attempt to create a hostile environment.
The Raiders had a plan this week. It was strikingly different to last week. Whereas in the Panthers game the Raiders had played with great width from the get go, this week the ruck was the focus. Then when they got to the end of sets, the goal was to find a way to make sure Tuivasa-Sheck and Ken Maumalo couldn’t beat them. Kicks had to be perfect, the chase enthusiastic, and the defence robust. You know how that plan worked out.
Sidebar: Even before this was a success, it was a victory for the structure of the side this year. The Raiders have the ability to play multiple styles, and Ricky Stuart is utilising this flexibility to tailor game plans in recent weeks while maintaining the ‘core’ identity of the side. It’s impressive and exhilarating.
If you’re going to target the other team’s middle it helps to have someone that can make that happen as well as anyone in rugby league. Josh Hodgson simply incapacitated the Warriors defence. He sent markers one way with his eyes, and a forward the other with his pass. He jumped out of dummy-half and took truckloads of metres (17 runs for 112 metres). He took a step to get markers interested and got forwards over the advantage line.
And didn’t the forwards love it. The Raiders out-gained the Warriors by 800 metres. For real. Eight-hundred-flipping-metres. It was a dominance more reminiscent of packs that included Boyd/Paulo/Vaughan than the more nimble, mobile version of 2019. Whitehead (11 for 92m) and Siliva Havili (6 for 43m) might get teased this week at training for being the only forwards in green that didn’t crack a 100 metres. Josh Papalii (174m), Sia Solioa (106m), Emre Guler (112m), Corey Horsburgh (147m) and Dunamis Lui (112m) were all great working alongside Hodgson. John Bateman (144m) and Whitehead played tighter early, Bateman in particular often catching the ball coming in off the edge towards the middle, bouncing off the arm tackles of the Warriors middle men to create quick rucks and easy metres.
But I want to give special recognition to Joe Tapine (18 for 172m), who is starting to find a role to play in this side. He started 2019 expecting to be an edge runner, but the success of Bateman forced him back into the middle. It’s a different game; on the edge he got to use his speed and power to run over small people (I always think of when he ran over Luke Brooks repeatedly in the loss to the Tigers at the end of 2018). In the middle it’s a tougher right, and his comparative advantage is his quick foot work. In this game he used those feet to perfection, turning multiple carries into 15 metre jobs with defenders hanging off his back.
The Raiders middle dominance directly translated into points. It’s comical and proof of how useful the try-assist statistic is that Josh Hodgson ended this game with zero (0) try-assists. The Raiders first try came when he jumped out of dummy-half, engaged two defenders and put Sia into a bit of space. Watching Sia hit the gas and ‘outpace’ Tuivasa-Sheck was as beautiful as anything in the Uffizi, and he comes at a fraction of the cost. It came after a good run and quick play the ball from Tapine. The second try came in similar circumstances. A won ruck from Tapine, a ball to Papalii in a bit of space close to the line and the Warriors couldn’t bring him down.
Then late in the first half, the game was iced (holy shit when do the Raiders ice games in the first half!) when Hodgson spotted the second-rower had made the tackle and was behind the play because of a quick ruck. He took off, found the gap the second-rower should have filled between the half and the centre, got a ball to Croker who found Simonsson and it was 24-0. It was such intelligent and brilliant play that even permanent pessimists like myself were breaking out the victory whisky.
And Hodgson didn’t stop there. Minutes later, a brilliant team try that went through multitude of hands (and offloads) all started with Hodgson jumping for a run and creating absolute chaos with the middle defence. A few good balls later and Joe Tapine was getting well deserved rewards for his efforts.
Oh, and Aussie Josh got his own try late in the game because sometimes we are allowed to have nice things.
After dominating the middle it made the second part of that game plan much easier to implement, but the Raiders’ kicking game still did a tremendous job. They kept the ball out of Roger and Maumalo’s hands as much as possible, and when he absolutely had to get the ball they made sure it was in a corner, and surrounded by an enthusiastic chase. They could then stop the Warriors damaging yardage game.
Hodgson kicked early routinely, searching for grass (and the threat of a forty-twenty) and making the Warriors bring it out of the corner. Wighton used his mid-field bombs to make it hard for the Warriors to get any momentum early in sets. Aidan Sezer kicked well too, and even added a forty-twenty late. It took 33 minutes before the Raiders had an even marginally bad kick, one that Maumalo took on the full and rampaged back into the defence. He got a quick ruck and a penalty, and it underscored how important this part of the Raiders plan was.
The long kicking game was matched with a brilliant short kicking game. It wasn’t so much that the Raiders got repeat sets, it was the manner in which they came. When nothing else was on, Canberra rolled the ball into the in-goal and simply went again. It was a calmness and patience that has been a hallmark of the Raiders this year. In this game it led to points, either on the repeat sets, or in the case of Sezer’s perfect grubber for Michael Oldfield, on the kick themselves.
With all this perfection in the middle and from the halves’ kicking game, there wasn’t much for the backs to do but score points. That’s not to say they didn’t do their part. The left edge always looked threatening, and could have added two tries before the Raiders actually got on the board if Croker hadn’t had the ball kicked out of his hands on one foray, or slid into touch before grounding on another. Bailey Simonsson did score twice, once after Hodgson’s good work and again when Wighton ran it on the last, and trusted him to find the line – which he did, through about six defenders. Wighton then later did it all himself when the game was done and dusted, leaving Tuivasa-Sheck in his trail on his way to the try-line.
The Raiders showed some fun combinations too. It was interesting to see Sezer pop up as second receiver on the left on a few occasions. It’s reflective of the flexibility I was talking about earlier. The Raiders are building layers into their attack as the season rolls on and it’s exciting. On the right edge it was all about early ball to John Bateman, and giving him options off that. He too kicked well on a few occasions. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad popped up on his inside shoulder more than once, a play that threatened more than it succeeded. And Oldfield and Rapana were damaging when given the opportunity.
Oh yeah, and the Raiders had to play defence too. They showed good line speed and good physical contact to control the middle. When the Warriors shifted wide, the edges generally made good decisions – though this is easier when you’re rarely under stress in the middle. They played off Tuivasa-Sheck to avoid his step when he had the ball, or made sure he was met with plenty of defenders on the catch. The Warriors points came from brilliant, high difficulty passes that said more about the robustness of the Canberra defence than anything. In the meantime while the Warriors got some good yardage on a few sets, Canberra routinely shut down anything serious they had to offer. Croker had a try-saver on Beale in the first half, but it was met with such a business like response from the Raiders that it gave you the impression that they now expect to make these massive plays. What world is this?
This world is one in which the Raiders are deeply ensconced in the top four and playing some very good football. They’ve been impressive in recent weeks, and their professional and clinical dissection of the Warriors was no exception. But while beating up on the Panthers and Warriors has been fun, there’s a real challenge ahead. Roosters, Storm, Manly.
If the Green Machine can find a way to take some scalps of the big sides over the next few weeks not only will it build their confidence, but it will ensure them a double chance in September. But based on these last few weeks, and more broadly this season, the Green Machine are ready for this test. Strap in people. It’s about to get big.