The Canberra Raiders 22-18 loss to the Sydney Roosters was an adventure in impatience. Canberra fought their worst instincts in a game they desperately wanted to win. Instead of implementing the formula that had served them so well in 2019, they played with no patience, infused by a desire to prove they belong. In the end they proved that while they couldn’t win this game, a more tested outfit will be ready for better teams down the track.
This game had been built up as the Raiders coming out party. Everyone was ready for them to show that this competition was more than a two-way affair. Canberra wanted it to be that also, and tried to assert their dominance on the proceedings. The outcome was an erratic display, in which they played well but were too quick to abandon the intelligent football that has served them so well in 2019. They were constantly behind the game, impatiently trying to make it all happen at once, unable to wait for the game to come to them.
What actually worked for them was playing up the middle. All the best moments the Green Machine had came after they played straight through the middle and created off the back of quick play-the-balls or second-phase play. Sia Soliola (16 runs for 147m) and Josh Papalii (17 for 173m) were the best for the Raiders, but Joe Tapine had another solid outing (16 for 112m). John Bateman (17 for 112m) did similar but on the edge. They got the ball and overwhelmed the Roosters defenders with quick feet (Tapine and Bateman), power (Soliola) or a mixture of both (Papa). The offloads they dumped created both early tries the Raiders’ scored.
Josh Hodgson was at his best playing off the pace and space these forwards provided. No better was this demonstrated in the Raiders third try. Sia took a big hit up close to the Roosters line, barged through some arms defence and earnt a quick ruck. Suddenly Hodgson jumped out, and had three or four seconds to decide what to do. What he did was perfectly layer a grubber into the dark space behind the defence for Elliot Whitehead to dive on.
But too often the Raiders forgot that this was where their best work happened. Hodgson routinely held the ball too long as dummy-half, trying to find someone in the middle willing to take an under run, or searching for an edge foreword or Aidan Sezer on the right to create out wide. He played wide to Bateman in particular, searching for an edge on the edge, hoping that what individual brilliance had created early in the game could be recreated. It seemed he was desperate to impose himself on the game, but instead it allowed the Roosters defence the time they needed to cut off any space the right edge attack wanted.
Hodgson wasn’t alone in chasing the game. Players kept getting the ball and heading east-west across the field trying to find a chink in a disciplined defence. It was the error the Raiders had drawn from the Panthers and the Warriors in recent weeks, and instead of being the cool, calm defence waiting for the attack to show its hand, they were on the receiving end.
It meant that on the right they looked clunky, or haphazard; unable to find anything anything that threatened the Roosters defence without Bateman or Nic Cotric forcing a missed tackle (the Raiders had 45 tackle breaks for the game) and then proceeding from there. Charnze-Nicoll Klokstad got the ball in his hands earlier and more often than he has, and it showed that even after all that has been achieved this season he has room for improvement in his game.
It also meant that they got away from what had worked so well in 2019. Instead of working sets through the middle and kicking to a corner they instead went jumpily bouncing through the edges trying to score every set. It was not the game plan. The Raiders first three sets of the second half started how they had intended the rest of the game to go. Working through the middle, kicking to a corner, and smashing the attempts to get out of there. But after that they routinely forgot that process, instead trying to create every time they had the ball, rather than having the patience for the right opportunity.
The only person immune from this was Jack Wighton. It seems a whole season of learning what he can and can’t do as a six has lent him a unique ability to pick and choose where he involved himself. In this game he ran the ball a lot, even when there was space outside him. He wasn’t perfect – too often he pushed the ball on his left when there wasn’t space or more patience would have sufficed. But more than the other ball-players, he was willing to trust the process that had brought them this far. He kicked to corners, lead the chase and tried to drag the Raiders back to the formula, but so often they got sidetracked.
Part of the reason the 2019 formula didn’t work was because the defence couldn’t provide the routine stopping power it has so far this season. That’s not to say it didn’t prevent points – the Raiders felt as stout as ever defending their own line. But on many occasions they couldn’t prevent the Roosters from making metres. Be it with big metres after a good Raiders kick, or with ill-discipline at the end of a Roosters set, too often the Raiders couldn’t find a way to keep their opposition in the other end.
Each Roosters try had an element of un-defendability to it. One try took a pinpoint kick from Luke Keary. Another a brilliant pass from James Tedesco to Daniel Tupou. A third required Tupou taking out Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s legs. None of these could have been defended better. But the Roosters kept getting into positions to take advantage of the situation because the Raiders couldn’t corral the Roosters in any meaningful or consistent way.
The other try was the most instructive. The Raiders middle fell apart, Wighton and Croker rushed in and Simonsson banked on Jarrod to cover Tedesco. He couldn’t and Victor Radley scored. It was the only time Canberra’s inability to stop the middle third of the Roosters led directly to points, but it was a threat that existed all game. Mitch Aubusson, Victor Radley and Tedesco were the biggest threat on the back of this.
Things didn’t go the way the Raiders wanted in this game. They rarely showed the patience that has served them so well in 2019. They went wide when they needed to go straight. They played to score on each play instead of playing with the patience they needed to win. In short they played like a team that hadn’t been through the fire before, trying to overcome a more seasoned opponent who knew they would find points when they needed.
It puts the Raiders in an interesting position. A close loss to a quality side would have been worth noting in other years. But this team is ready to take on the best of the best. Such impertinence in their play won’t cut it against the uber-professionals in Melbourne next week. The Raiders were built up to a point that anything other than a win feels insufficient. But even in losing they showed they have what it takes to beat the best in this competition. They just need to remember what brought them this far.
This side has a style all of their own. Yes they have the talent on the edges and outside to find points at almost any opportunity. But they have to remember that points won’t come every set, and instead of trying to force the play they need to remember what brought them this far – a surprisingly efficient middle third, smart play from their halves and brutal and efficient defence.
This game was their first test. The Raiders unequivocally came up short. The coming weeks require better performances than that, and even in losing today Canberra showed they are well-equipped to improve, provided they play with more purpose and patience than they displayed in this outing. It is not a matter for worry because in the brief moments they played to their plan in this game they showed they could dance with the best of them. However moral victories are of no use, and the Raiders need wins in the next few weeks to best prepare them for the finals. But they showed they are ready. Melbourne, Manly et al await.