The Canberra Raiders 24-20 loss to the New Zealand Warriors was a frustrating and disappointing affair. The Green Machine performance was uncharacteristic, combining a unenthusiastic defence with a conservative and patchy attack. The result is largely meaningless for their finals schedule, but was an imperfect and unnecessary obstacle in their pursuit of a premiership.
Ostensibly the Raiders had nothing to play for in this game. A top four spot was already confirmed, four of their best were rested, another two regular starters were out with injury (Joe Tapine) and suspension (BJ Leilua). With the Storm and the Roosters so held-and-shoulders above the competition for much of this season, there was little strategic value in trying to ‘pick’ a side of the draw to be in. But after three less-than-ideal performances following the win over Melbourne, Canberra would have been well served to establish consistency in their work, and prove the processes developed, and successes had, in 2019 were personnel proof.
For the second week in a row the Raiders seemed suprised by a team out-enthusing them in the opening stanza. New Zealand came out with enthusiasm, almost as though they were the team looking forward to the finals and the Raiders were readying for Mad Monday. In contrast, the Raiders seemed to be content that they could wait for the Warriors effort to subside.
Ground zero of the Raiders lack of enthusiasm was their defence. From the get-go Canberra lost rucks and the Warriors found metres. Any lack of line speed this season has been made up by physical first contact. In this game any physicality in defence was negligible. Combined with an opposition free of any consequence to their actions, this meant that not only did the Warriors get quick rucks, but they also got an unending litany of offloads (15 in total, compared to 5 for the Raiders). Often these came in tackles with three defenders draped of the ball-carrying Warrior. All this meant the Warriors rarely had trouble getting metres, and constantly put the Raiders ruck under pressure with second phase play.
There were also ‘spot’ problems in defence. The first two tries for the Warriors both came attacking the Raiders right edge. On the first Sezer pushed up and Hudgson Young held back. The resulting gap was yawning enough Lachlan Burr to stroll through. Later, Nic Cotric pushed up beyond the play, leaving Aidan Sezer isolated on Adan Pompey. Sezer did admirably to hold Pompey up in the hope that help would arrive. Unfortunately Cotric and Young were too late.
It speaks to the importance of John Bateman on that edge. Hudson Young is a fine defender, but the relationship that Bateman has built with Sezer, combined with the skill and tenacity that the Englishman plays defence with. The right side has been the Raiders’ best defensive edge, and suddenly it looked very vulnerable.
Sidebar: Hudson Young. Brother. That wasn’t good. You’re done for this season. Here’s hoping it’s the last time you need to learn this lesson.
Further, when Michael Oldfield left the field after scoring in the 55th minute, it forced another reshuffle, putting Elliot Whitehead at right centre in defence. This compounded the already reshuffled lineup, meaning the Raiders two best edge defenders (Bateman and Whitehead) weren’t in their usual positions (or even on the field). While it did not have a direct connection to the last two tries, I’ve seen Whitehead shut down the exact run that Blake Green scored the match-winning try on many occasions, even though it would have likely been inside his responsibilities and positioning.
Losing the rucks and spot problems are bad. But then add poor discipline to the package and you could see why the Raiders were struggling. The number of penalties the Raiders gave away late in sets were debilitating. Dunmis Lui was penalised on multiple occasions for having hands in the ruck. One occasions gave the Warriors the field-position they needed to score their first try. Another penalty preceded their second. Josh Hodgson knocked down a kick chaser, and that became the game-winning try.
With the ball, the Raiders should have had more success. The Warriors have leaked metres around the ruck all season. After initially dominating the ruck on both sides of the ball, Josh Hodgson and Josh Papalii began to find a bit of space and some momentum. Papalii’s was dominant, his 21 carries for 205 metres (78 post-contact) being responsble for Canberra weathering the Warriors early defensive enthusiasm and pushing into the advantage over the middle of the game. He scored the Green Machine’s second try of the match, in a back-against-the-grain run in which it seemed he simply decided he was scoring and everyone just agreed it would be better if he got his way. Papalii was ably supported by a Emre Guler (12 for 142m) and Corey Horsburgh (15 for 127m).
On the back of this the Raiders playmakers did some very good things. Hodgson, as well as playing a role in creating the metres, and scored a try when he smartly spotted the Warriors overloading on a Canberra field goal opportunity just before lunch. He zigged when everyone else zagged, the blind side defence too late to tie in as he found the try-line. On the back of a quick ruck he brilliantly put Young through a gap, who showed brilliant footwork and nearly scored. His kicking game was the weakest part of his game – in short situations he found legs, in long situations he found Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Neither are ideal.
Wighton and Sezer did well running the ball, and both broke, or threatened to break the line on multiple occasions. Sezer’s ball that put Cotric in the space that ended in Oldfield’s try was a perfect example of seizing an opportunity and executing perfectly.
But again ill-discipline got in the way. Dunamis Lui had three errors in attack too, at least two of which occured while the Raiders should have been on the attack. Corey Horsburgh threw the ball away as the Raiders entred the Warriors twenty. After Bailey Simonsoon took a kick 80 metres the other way, Nic Cotric decided to take a hit up rather than spread the ball, and compounded that by losing the ball. Earlier, Simonsson tried to dive over from dummy-half after Young nearly scored and turned the ball over. That’s a least five errors, all occurring when the Raiders needed to be building pressure or points.
While the Raiders’ ball-players did their best to take the right options, it’s hard to play intelligently if the rest of the team isn’t following suit. There’s only a limited number of opportunities in a game. Sezer, Wighton and Hodgson tried to be patient – something we’ve asked of them in recent weeks. But there’s no point being patient if the next opportunity is a dropped ball.
The good news is these issues are not endemic. The reasons the Raiders lost this game are largely confined to this game and not indicative of some structural weakness in the Raiders set-up, either in offence or defence. Many are solved by the return of the Raiders rested players and the circumstances of the coming weeks. I can’t fathom the Raiders starting a finals game with such poor line-speed or enthusiasm for the battle in the ruck defensively. Sia Soliola, John Bateman and Joe Tapine will likely improve the Raiders’ ability to control the ruck. Bateman and Sezer will be reunited on the right edge, and it will feel so good. If Dunamis Lui or Corey Horsburgh loses the ball in attacking position against Melbourne they’ll likely find themselves sitting next to Sticky rather than playing 55 minutes.
Sidebar: The only issue that is outstanding is how the Raiders redzone attack will go against the best sides in the competition. Canberra can score points, but their lack of structure in attack means they rely more on the individual brilliance of a Hodgson, Papalii and others rather than any slick set plays. It means when the defences get tough, the Green Machine will need to be patient and build opportunities. So, you know, not drop the ball repeatedly.
Canberra have built a resume over 25 rounds. Questions have been asked around about their legitimacy all season, but they’ve proven they can stand up to the Storm and the Roosters and be counted. They are fully capable of beating either side, home or away (though on this season’s record more likely away for some reason). That they are playing Melbourne to start with should largely be irrelevant. To take the premiership back to its rightful home in Bruce, the Raiders will have go through Melbourne and the Roosters anyway.
Should the Raiders fail in the next few weeks people may point to this loss as the canary in the coal-mine. But it’s just as likely that they succeed from here. They are not the first good team to lose in the last round of the season. Melbourne lost in the last round last year and still made the grand final. The Cowboys lost in the last round of 2017 and made the grand final from 8th. Cronulla lost to Melbourne in the last round of 2016 and beat them in the grand final. The Broncos lost in the last week of 2015 and lost a classic grand final to Jonathon Thurston. This is not indicative of how the Raiders will go. The finals are a completely different season. One that Canberra are well-suited to succeed in.
So why was it so infuriating? It’s as angry as I can remember being after a game – and it wasn’t in the top 10 worst losses of the last three years. I think this is mostly driven by the fact that the turnaround in 2019 has been so dramatic that sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s real. It became real so quickly, it could be taken away with equal haste. This is more about us as a fanbase than the make-up of the side.
The Raiders would be well placed to burn the tapes of that game. There is nothing to learn they don’t already know. Yes they need their best players in order to compete with the best. They need Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and John Bateman, Sia Soliola and Jordan Rapana. Yes they need to be physical in defence and quick around the ruck. They need to be smart in attack and not make needless errors. This has been repeatedly proven to us over the season, in every win and every loss. I may be less confident than I was before this match, but the reasons for that confidence still exist and haven’t changed.
Canberra has shown their best is as good as any team in the competition. Can they produce it over the next month?
Only time will tell. See you in Melbourne.