The Canberra Raiders 22-18 victory served warning to the rest of the National Rugby League – their best is as good as any side in the competition. In an admittedly mixed performance, they overcame their own ill-discipline to dominate the best side in the competition. It was a stellar performance that showed room for improvement, even while handing Melbourne’s proverbial to them. The world wanted proof Canberra are a contender – here it is.
Much had been made this week about the Raiders’ inability to put a top four side away (including in these pages). They don’t give you points for moral victories, and the Milk needed the points and to prove they were worthy. It was somewhat a lazy narrative – the Green Machine had shown they could dance with the best, but just hadn’t turned a series of 50/50 outcomes their way. But the pelaton was coming for them (and still is – Manly, Parramatta and the Bunnies are just one win behind them) and they had position and status to lose. In response they took the an absolute lemon of a scenario and painted that shit gold. Someone tell Gus Gould his analysis is shortsighted (that sentence was much more ‘pointed’ in my mind but we’re a family show people).
The difficulty of the scenario – down 18 blot after 27 minutes was mostly of their own making. Jack Wighton and Joe Tapine managed to spend two non-overlapping periods in the bin in the first 26 minutes. The Storm scored twice in this period. We flagged earlier in the week that the Storm like to score points on their left, which is exactly where they went. At the beginning of Wighton’s stint they scored through an early kick and an unhelpful bounce. At the start of Tapine’s spell the Storm scored when the Raiders edge defenders were aggressive, but unsuccessful in trying to shut down a raid. They were only momentarily ‘whole’ when a stray pass from Josh Hodgson was kicked by Nic Cotric into the hands of Vunivalu. It was already feeling like that kind of night. It seemed like a a hotly anticipated contest had quickly become a debacle.
All these tries came essentially from a lack of discipline. The errors of Wighton and Tapine to get binned in the first place. The first two tries essentially came from the Raiders running out of troops on their right edge. They compounded this by failing on several occasions to get a useful kick away, either to get field position or to get a repeat set. Either would have burned some sin-bin time off the clock. The Raiders didn’t touch the ball for the first 8 minutes, and it didn’t get much better over the next period. They only had about 35 per cent of the ball after 27 minutes, but so desperate were they to be in the game they pushed imperfect passes that resulted in errors in inopportune places (including but not limited to the Vunivalu try).
The Raiders only stayed in the game through a robust defence. They forced errors with physical tackling, particularly on the edges, scrambling well to keep the Storm out for the last 53 minutes of the game. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had a brilliant try saver on Kenny Bromwich. Nic Cotric and Jarrod Croker combined to put Vunivalu into touch. Josh Hodgson’s strip late gave the Raiders the field position they needed to score the winning try.
Once the Raiders had their full cattle back, it became obvious that they had a fair measure of what the Storm were throwing at them. For the last fifty minutes of the game Melbourne tried a lot, but the Green Machine remained robust. The middle kept pushing up, forcing the Storm wider and wider, and the physical edges, reinforced by BJ Leilua’s return were able to smother what came their way. That last fifty minutes of defence does as much to furnish Canberra’s premiership credentials as anything they did in this game.
The panic that had infected the attack in Roosters game and the first third of this game dissipated as the possession and participant ledgers began to even up. They worked tightly in on the middle third – Josh Papalii (11 for 101m) and Corey Horsburgh (18 for 167m) pushed through the middle, book-ended by Elliot Whitehead (13 for 101m) and John Bateman (13 for 118m).
Bateman, Papalii and Horsburgh in particular were critical in getting the Raiders some quick rucks to ball play off. Bateman continually made mini line breaks, finding the smallest holes to turn into space and quick rucks. Horsburgh just kept coming in the second half, matching it physically with the massive Melbourne middle. Papalii’s game sealing try was everything that his 2019 season has been; brutal, brilliant and timely.
In behind this Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer ran the show. Hodgson was brilliant as always, dragging the Raiders through the middle third. It’s always a privilege to get to see him work the ruck in person. A head-on view gives you such a better understanding of how he engages those defenders just long enough to create space for the forwards. His kicking was astounding. So often in the second half he kicked smartly from the ruck, dragging the Raiders out of their own half and forcing the Storm into there’s. On one he effectively forced a 40/20. He was instrumental in the Raiders second try, brilliantly stepping out from the ruck, dragging defenders eyes towards him as he drifted and perfectly dropping a kick behind the defence for Croker to score.
It was a try born through patience. It can be confusing when the Raiders focus on crash plays close to the line. And in the first half the Green Machine sent big forwards back at the posts rather than spread it wide on several occasions (including interestingly as a option on the ‘Hodgson to a prop’ run-around in the attacking twenty). But again, there’s a reason they play the game and not me, because when it was needed, it meant that when Hodgson stepped across, defenders were looking at Horsburgh coming back against the grain, and lost sight of Croker rushing through.
Sezer too was brilliant. He worked on both sides of the ruck, running the ball at the line with ferocity. Again, this was a mark of patience as much as opportunism. Yes he saw holes and nearly went through, but his willingness to take on the line meant inside defenders on both sides had to stick to him rather than sliding. It was helpful on the Raiders first try when he and Wighton both set up on the left, dug into the line, Wighton finding Whitehead, whose excellent offload resulted in the first of Croker’s double. He was so often involved on the right, getting early ball to Bateman and BJ it was a surprise he didn’t start Canberra’s third, when Bateman took a long pass from Hodgson, found Nicoll-Klokstad with perfect timing who dumped a brilliant ball to Rapana. The Raiders’ right is sometimes unheralded, but if Sezer can keep to dig into the line and draw defenders, if Bateman and BJ can form a bond, and if Nicoll-Klokstad can continue to develop his passing and ball-play skills, it could be a weapon into the future. Sezer kicked brilliantly too, terrifying the Storm backs with soaring torpedo bombs.
It was a much healthier attack with Sezer and Hodgson driving it. It allowed Wighton to pop up on the left edge, taking on the line without needing to force the issue. He took 170 plus metres on the ground, terrorising the Storm right edge defence. At least twice he went close to scoring as the game wore on, and he too showed patience, taking what he read rather than trying to make something happen. On one occasion he ran I would have preferred to see him pass. On another I would have preferred to see him go long than short. But this is quibbling. As the game heated up he remained collected, probing on the left, nearly cracking through. He’ll have more productive days in terms of points in the future if he goes about his business as he did in this game.
All this gushing praise suggests the Raiders played a perfect back half of the game, and while they were very good there was still room for improvement from this game. Too often Canberra played short sides on the last, trying to find a inch of space instead of a repeat set. Hodgson was brilliant, but he still pushed a few passes that either went to no-one (see the Vunivalu try), or put pressure on people to take catches under attention – one such pass aimed at Bateman nearly resulted in an interception that could have ended the game. As mentioned earlier, the discipline for first thirty minutes was atrocious, and was the second ‘big game’ the Raiders almost seemed to pumped up for; more toddler with red cordial early in the game than they would have wanted.
Sidebar: Nothing demonstrated how the Raiders became smarter as this game wore on that Bailey Simonsson jumping for the short kick-off with moments to go, only to realise mid-air it wasn’t going to go ten, pull out of the catch and earn his side a penalty. Smart play.
But that they weren’t perfect is almost the best bit of this game. The Raiders put themselves in an absolute shit of a situation against the best team in the world and dragged themselves out of it. They played to the plan that has worked so well in 2019, kicking to corners, earning metres between the tram tracks before utilising their ball-playing edges. They didn’t panic. They trusted the process. It’s the ultimate verification of their status. There are now three teams that can win the grand final, and the Canberra Raiders are one of them.