In their 18-14 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles, the Canberra Raiders took a bad game plan and executed poorly. They fell into the game that the Silvertails wanted, both in tactics and in tone. That the outcome was so close is testament to the gains made in Canberra’s defence, as well as the injuries suffered by Manly. The Raiders top-four destiny looks a little shakier than before the game, and their confidence has taken a hit, but they are still a force in 2019.
This was a squandered opportunity by the Raiders. They left AAMI park last week with rare optimism and evidence that they could actually be a contender this season. The turnaround against the Sea-Eagles should have been a chance to cement this status. A damn-near painting of an afternoon in front of twenty thousand plus Canberrans, free-to-air television for the rest of the country, the Raiders had a chance to send a message. They did alright, and if you were annoyed at the “the Raiders can’t beat good teams” takes before, get ready because they’re going to be coming thick and fast.
The Raiders‘ attack played into Manly’s hands. Or more accurately the failed to adjust to what was being thrown at them. Manly sold out on the edges, sending their outside defenders out of the line at rapid speed to jam Raiders edge creators. They would get in the face of the ball players, or failing that, get in their passing lanes. Aidan Sezer and Jack Wighton routinely caught the ball with defenders already on them, and Manly took an interception the length of the field for a game-turning try on the back of this tactic. It was Belichickian in its philosophy. Take away what the side does well and see how they respond.
Sidebar: So it turns out that maybe it wasn’t the plan to try and play around the jam – Stuart said as much in the post game press conference. Regardless, if the plan was to play through them, the Raiders did it so rarely it didn’t seem like one.
The Raiders response was patchy and discombobulated. Coach Stuart called it trying to take the easy route. I call it failing to take the smart one. Either way what resulted was far too much width early in the game, pushing the ball to attack outside the edges when the gaps were on the inside of them. Similarly to the Roosters loss, Josh Hodgson took too many steps and too much time stepping away from the ruck looking for runners. When Sezer and Wighton caught the ball with no space outside them they needed to be more aggressive in taking the line on, or kick behind it. Like Hodgson, it took Sezer too long to adjust to that; and one pass sailed out of bounds as he tried to find the sweet spot. In the meantime anything remotely looking like creative play became disjointed outside of a few moments of success.
Where they should have aimed their play was demonstrated when Jack Wighton took a pass of Josh Hodgson, stepped inside the defence that had pushed up past him and went 20 plus metres to score early. It was ruled no try because people gets things wrong but it should have been the start of a pattern rather than a stand-out event. Minutes later the Raiders did open the scoring when Wighton brilliantly held up a pass to Elliot Whitehead, who in turn threw an equally excellent offload to Jarrod Croker. It was a rare occasion the Raiders could ball-play against a straight defensive line, rather than one crooked towards the outside runners. This was the last of the Raiders scoring until the 71st minute when Wighton again straightened inside the edge defenders, and put the ball through the hands until Croker scored again. In between the Raiders ran one play where Jordan Rapana ran a line on the inside of Wighton. It didn’t result in points but Canberra should have periststed with this type of approach.
It’s not that the Raiders were stuck in their own end either. Another stellar performance by their middle forwards proved that. Josh Papalii (17 for 172m and 75 post contact metres), Sia Soliola (14 for 133m and 59 post contact metres), Ryan Sutton (13 for 114m) and Corey Horsburgh (11 for 121m) showed that they were still able to make metres in the face of Manly’s aggressive defensive front. In fact the Raiders out-gained the Sea-Eagles (1648m to 1411m) on the back of this good work (as usual, facilitated by the brilliant ruck management of Hodgson).
Their failure to adjust was compounded by poor discipline on both sides of the ball. The Raiders error count matched their counterparts, but they threw them in at the most inopportune times. Hudson Young had an error as the Raiders were desperately clawing off their own line after a period in defence. Jordan Rapana threw the ball away searching for a miracle ball early in an attacking set where the Raiders would have been playing with quick rucks. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad chucked a forward pass the first tackle from a scurm. Manly scored soon after.
Manly’s other try came from Josh Hodgson’s error, and was compounded into an 8-point try by a tired BJ Leilua falling knee first into the try-scorer. The Raiders were also routinely penalised for stripping, and gave away some other silly penalties. While Manly used penalties with frustrating specificity and gamesmanship, the Raiders got penalised for stripping late in tackle counts, or running in trying to smash Dylan Walker because he still gets under their skin. Jack Wighton even squared up with Jack Gosiewski in a jack-off that could have left the Raiders without their star if not for the intervention of Jarrod Croker.
Sidebar: BJ did not have his best game in a Canberra jersey. The 8-point try screamed tiredness and his ill-discipline was very typical of ‘bad’ Joey. But I think the Raiders need him to win the competition, so here’s hoping whatever the judiciary lands in his lap in minor. In the meantime, we’re lucky to have a player of the quality of Bailey Simonsson waiting in the wings.
It’s a shame they’re game plan never adjusted and their play so ill-disciplined because their defence was exceptional in the most part. While they didn’t hold the Manly middle in terms of numbers (Fonua-Blake had 189m, Taupau 147m and Jake Trbojevic 127m), they managed to stop them from wreaking havoc with the Raiders middle (as occurred the first time they played the Sea-Eagles). Koroisau and Fainu were given almost no quick rucks to run off the back off and had less than fifty metres between them.
This was compounded by the generally excellent edge defence of the Raiders. Most teams punch in the middle in order to spread the ball. Manly tend to go the other way – they aim at the edges in order to create a bit of space for their middle to operate. Bill Walsh would be proud. The Raiders handled almost everything the Silvertails threw at them despite Manly having a weight of possession on the Green Machine’s line. Their were occasions of worry – three near tries ended in errors (one forced by a brilliant Jarrod Croker tackle) – but for the large part the Raiders defence remained steadfast, even when their attack wouldn’t cooperate. When Jake Trbojevic burst through to win the game for Manly (ostensbly because Papalii allowed him the outside shoulder but also because Hudson Young was spread too wide) it was almost a surprise. It took Manly 67 minutes to crack the Raiders line legitimately, and in the meantime they had to settle for penalty goals. If the Raiders can keep a top four side out for 67 minutes each week they’ll be well placed come finals.
This loss is gutting, and upends the momentum that should have been built from the Storm victory (if you believe in such things). The lessons we thought the Raiders had learnt in the last few weeks remain stubbornly out of reach, and the time to learn them is running out. The Raiders flinched (well, played disjointed and panicky).
But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The formula for 2019 was working here, the Raiders just forgot to implement it. Too often they got distracted from playing up the middle and kicking to corners. They tried to create before they earned the right to, and were unable to adjust their game plan to the defence they were facing. They’ve shown they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the competition, and that they can beat the best. When they stuck to this plan in this game they were the better side; but they didn’t and so here we are. They were tested over the last three weeks and the result was incomplete. They are good enough. But are they good enough when they need to be?
They’re destiny still remains firmly in their hands. Two wins over the next two weeks means top four and a second chance. Even with one win they could sneak in. They need that, because performances like this won’t be good enough to go the long way around the mountain. A smart game plan well executed – that’s what wins the big games. They know this from a week ago. They’ve proven they can win big games. Now they just have to make sure that the next time they’re in the fire, they remember how.