The Canberra Raiders 15-14 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was a victory of character over execution. The Raiders were far from their best, made a litany of mental errors, and were forced to grind their way to victory. That they made it there was a testament to their defence and their resolve in 2019. The biggest enemy on the day was themselves, and it took two periods of extra time, but they finally won out. It hasn’t been an easy month, but the Raiders are now battle-hardened for September.
This game brought to the surface Canberra’s ongoing struggle to stick to their processes in high pressure situations. It happens in difficult situations. It’s like my man Rudyard Kipling said, it’s only when you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs that you know you’re ready for finals footy.
Sidebar: Please note Rudyard Kipling didn’t say that and is also not my man.
In this game, like the victory in Melbourne, they eventually found their composure, but boy did it take a while. Like so many recent games the Raiders lacked coherence early. The formula of working off Josh Hodgson up the field, kicking to the corner and playing physical defence was rare as Canberra struggled to find their way into the match – it took until the 20th minute before a set such as the aforementioned was sighted. The style of play had more in common with 2017 or 2018 than anything we’ve seen in 2019.
Partly this was because of a sub-par Josh Hodgson performance. Hodgson’s service was unusually patchy out of dummy-half, particularly to the halves – Aidan Sezer even took the game winning field goal on the bounce. Hodgson took riskier options (such as pushing the ball right on the last when both halves were standing on the left) rather than working with his fellow creators to try and build repeat sets and pressure. Jack Wighton and Aidan Sezer were complicit, throwing passes they shouldn’t have, and playing with surprising timidity into the line early.
This was compounded across the park. The Raiders spent much of the game getting in their own way. Too many sets ended with the Raiders trying a risky last tackle option rather than getting to a kick. Even when they did find the boot, an atrocious kicking game exacerbated the matter.
Errors and poor decisions drove so much of the Sharks’ dominance early. The first try came after Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad dropped a bomb. The second came after a poor Jack Wighton kick gave Cronulla a seven-tackle set. The third came after a last tackle penalty and a repeat set. These circumstances resulted in points but they were hardly isolated.
Canberra’s errors put far too much pressure on the defence to hold the line. It’s stunning that the Raiders were only down by 12 after all this. It’s been a pattern recently for a lack of composure to put the defence in a near impossible situation. In this game the defence was impressive in the face of a possession and position disparity. Throughout the game, the Sharks were routinely held to less than 40 metres on sets by a defence that played with discipline so missing in offence. The Raiders’ middle were impressive, pushing out to reduce the space for the Sharks to attack. The English second rowers were exemplary in defence, and John Bateman made Wade Graham’s life difficult, which is the first time that has happened for Graham against the Raiders.
The defence wasn’t perfect, and the Sharks targeted the Raiders left edge as a place to score points. They scored twice here, and nearly had a third when Josh Morris couldn’t ground the ball in goal. On the first try Jarrod Croker rushed in but was not followed quickly by Simonsson. It meant Kyle Flanagan was free to exploit the miscommunication.
On another Croker rushed in again, but failed to secure the ball when he got there, the resulting second- phase play ending in a try. The combination of Croker and Simonsson remains a work in progress. In between these tries, the Sharks scored on the other side of the field, Bronson Xerri making a good run back against the grain after Bateman and Ryan Sutton over-pursued Chad Townsend across the field.
More than the individual errors in judgement, it revealed that while the Raiders’ defence is one of the best in the competition, it can’t survive if it’s constantly having to save the day. Rugby League is still a possession and position game, and too much of it was played in the Raiders half early.
When the Raiders finally started to work their way into the game it was on the back of a stellar performance by the forward pack and back five working their hardest up the middle. Josh Papalii (14 for 132m, 55pcm) was celestial, and he was ably supported by a brilliant performance from the bench. Sia Soliola (11 for 120m, 56pcm), Corey Horsburgh (18 for 168m, 50pcm) and Hudson Young (13 for 112m, 43pcm) did impressive work despite the trying circumstances. Siliva Havili barely got on (only 9 minutes game time) but his three carries were quality working off Hodgson’s shoulder.
And of course John Bateman (15 for 182m, 64pcm) was incredible, particularly considering the work he got through in defence (42 tackles, only 2 misses). He’s the Raiders non-Papalii based set-saver. When things aren’t working, the Raiders chucked the ball to him on the right and asked him to create. He used quick feet to break tackles, or surged back against the grain into space behind the ruck.
Canberra started finding metres in the middle third, working off the back of these forwards and a back five that worked their assess off in yardage. The ball rarely got wider than the tram lines, and when it did, Bateman was the recipient, burning back against the grain or through the edge. Nicoll-Klokstad (25 for 249m, 77pcm) and Simonsson (23 for 186m, 74pcm) in particular got through a mountain of work, but Nic Cotric (12 for 113m, 44pcm) was no slouch either. It bore fruit when Hodgson put Nicoll-Klokstad in after jumping out of nine, holding the ball long enough to get everyone so excited they forgot to mark up on the Raiders fullback. Even when he’s having a rough day Hodgson can still be brilliant.
It’s a chicken or egg situation but as the Raiders straightened they started to play with more composure. There was less focus on trying to win the game every set and more attention to building a set and finding a good kick. Even though they slotted three field goals, on a number of occasions they turned down a low percentage shot at goal in order to find a touch line. Sezer in particularly did this brilliantly. It infected the rest of the side. Suddenly Whitehead was making a half break and taking the tackle rather than trying the miracle ball. Croker followed suit on the other side of the field. When Cotric scored the Raiders second try what was impressive was not only Croker’s pick-up-and-run, but also the lack of panic in the play of the Raiders following.
It was a grinding mindset that the Green Machine had worked their way into. When they took the lead it was a well worked set and simple shot for Sezer. When Townsend equaled, and then put the Sharks in front the Raiders executed another field goal set up with precision. All the while they kept ending sets closer to the Sharks line than the Sharks did to theirs, driven by a forward pack that was winning the battle on both sides of the ball.
They weren’t perfect in this period. They failed to get to a kick on their last full set in regulation time. They failed to take a field goal attempt despite being in position to on the set before the winning shot. But on neither occasion did they panic. On the first Bateman simply kept driving his legs to make sure the Sharks had to go near 90 metres to score. On the latter Wighton’s grubber found the in-goal, and the repeat set that would give Sezer the third opportunity to show his cool head and excellent execution.
I’m not here to tell you the Raiders played a good game of football. There were great periods of this game that were as bad as anything they’ve offered in 2019. For a long time they forgot what their success has been built on, and if they hadn’t found their mojo when they did, they could have been on the other side of the scoreboard. If they offer up what they did for much of today they will be found wanting.
But I can’t help but wonder if so much of that was driven by an emotionally drained mind-set. Canberra were essentially playing a fourth finals game in a row after going toe-to-toe with the Roosters, Manly and the Storm. All these games were hard fought, all of them were close. In a similar position earlier in the weekend Manly capitulated. Instead the Raiders found a way. It’s what good sides do. It’s a cliche but sometimes they exist for a reason. The chips were down, they weren’t executing, and their defence, some hard running, and the character you build title attempts on kept them in good stead.
The Raiders have undergone a thorough examination over the last month, and while hardly perfect, have showed the character to tough it out. They are virtually assured a top-4 finish, and now get to take the mind-set they’ve showed in the pressure-cooker of the last month and apply that lesson to the biggest stage. Games like today won’t win them any style points, but it will ready them for September. So get ready for the big games, because the Raiders are.