The Canberra Raiders’ quest for legitimacy took its first defeat last week. Another battle against a top-tier side, another ‘moral victory’. And in a week the Raiders have gone from everyone’s darling to “they’re just beating up on out-of-form sides” (thanks Phil Gould).
Rugby League is funny game like that. A four point loss to the reigning premiers was enough for some to put a line through the Raiders. Hardly a disgrace but it did bring up a theme that has plagued the Raiders since their back-to-back losses to the Roosters and the Bunnies earlier this year. Near enough isn’t good enough if the Raiders want to move beyond being a warm and cuddly story to proper premiership contenders.
An optimist might say it’s hard to beat the Roosters and the Storm multiple times in a season, so why not wait until the business end to do it? And if we could trade one victory for another I’d be fine with that. But the Raiders need a win against a top tier side. Their 0-5 record against the other top 5 sides stands out like me at the gym: it doesn’t look pretty.
The challenge goes from really hard to almost impossible when the Raiders try to throw the shackles of “can’t beat anyone good” by taking on Melbourne in Melbourne. This road-trip isn’t so much difficult as it is strutting into Mordor and trying to play Sauron’s head like a bongo.
In short you don’t come to Melbourne and win through chance. You have to take what has worked in 2019 and execute perfectly.
This will be a frustrating game, for both the players and the fans. The Storm try to slow the ruck to the full extent of the law and beyond. It’s a deliberate strategy of committing a penalty on near every play in the knowledge that the refs won’t be able to call them all. The Raiders can’t and shouldn’t expect the referees to help them this week.
If the Raiders lose this weekend the remaining supporting pundits will likely draw a line through them. That doesn’t mean the Raiders can’t win the competition if they don’t win this weekend. The Raiders haven’t forgotten how to play football in a week. They still have the 3rd best attack and 2nd best defence according to cleartheobstruction.com ratings (and on the old fashioned measurements). But they learn lessons in each game against these big name sides – last week they learned they needed to be more patient. They’ll never have a better time to implement that lesson.
The Storm have named Brodie Croft at half and Jahrome Hughes at 1. Ryan Papenhuyzen is on the bench, and when he comes on and Croft goes off will be when the Storm are at their most dangerous. Brandon Smith is also missing from the lineup. That’s a big out for the Storm. When things aren’t going right for Melbourne, he’s the exact kind of people fort and energy that turns the game for them.
The Raiders have finally named BJ Leilua and I trust that he is ok. He will offer power and pace on both sides of the ball, and a connection with Jordan Rapana that hopefully unlocks what has been a quiet year for the winger. The ramifications of this has been Cotric back to the wing, and Bailey Simonsson moves back to the bench.
We’ve said it a few times in this space, but it’s worth noting just how impressive Simonsson has been this year. If Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and John Bateman are the best signings of 2019, Bailey is a close third. It says a lot of his progress that Coach Stuart still found space for him in the 17. He played this role once in round 9, which some success. It will be interesting to see if he’s there to take hard carries as a bench utility, or if it’s a cover for BJ’s match fitness. It’s entirely possible it’s a bit of both.
The man missing out is Siliva Havili which is just gutting. It’s a new thing for Canberra to be leaving players out that could and have played serious roles. I’m going to miss the option of his interaction with Hodgson around dummy-half.
Head to Head
The left side of the Storm attack is prolific. They score 43 percent of their tries on that side (per statsinsider.com.au). When you think that side you probably think Cam Munster palming people off and creating off the chaos that ensues. But Kenny Bromwich has been a huge part of their creativity on that side. Bromwich loves to take the ball to the line and find the runners outside. The presence of Munster keeps defences honest, but Bromwich is also a talented ball player. He has 8 try assists in 2019, which is the same as Jack Wighton and Aidan Sezer combined.
It’ll be a challenge for Sezer, John Bateman and the newly returned BJ Leilua to shut down this side. They can do this by removing the space they operate in as much as possible. Easier said than done when your middle is getting pounded by Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Jesse Bromwich.
One thing that might take a bit of sting out of their attack is what the Raiders might do with the ball. They too tend to be left side dominant (as do most sides – turns out even professionals prefer passing to their strong side). But the men in green have looked their best when they’re pestering sides on both sides of the ruck. Sezer will be delighted to be able to get early ball to Bateman and BJ, but shouldn’t forget how much good stuff comes from him running it too.
Green Star Award
Joe Tapine started 2019 ready to have a coming-out party of his own, punishing small defenders on the edge. His pace would allow him the space to isolate the little men, his power to run over them.
Then John Bateman happened and he was pushed back to the middle to play with the big boys. He uses his quick feet to create space and quick rucks. In recent weeks he’s started to find form – it’s wonderful to see him finding his feet (literally) with such proficiency.
Raiders by a BJ try because who doesn’t like a comeback story.
Raiders by 4