The Canberra Raiders 12-10 victory over the Melbourne Storm was a testament to the change the side made in the off-season, and the character of the men that made that change. The Green Machine won with defence. It won with resilience. And it won with just enough attacking flair to get the job done. It wasn’t pretty but that doesn’t matter. The Canberra flipping Raiders are going to be hosting a preliminary final in two weeks.
Much has been made about the Raiders improvements this off-season. An improved defence, a deeper roster with some world class talent, and a new found resilience in the face of adversity. They needed all three to win this game.
The defence itself was outstanding for the most part. How could it not be? The Storm – the best attack in the competition and a twenty win team – has now scored a single try against the Raiders across 133 minutes of football (shouts to twitter genius @Mesut_Ausil for that gem). Melbourne threatened more than once, but the Raiders mostly had everything under control.
Canberra started and ended the game with brutal contact across the park. The Joe Tapine hit that forced Josh Addo-Carr’s late error was not a outlier. Throughout the game the Raiders contact on the ball carrier was fierce across the park. So often (but not always) when the Storm got a quick ruck from a good Nelson Asofa-Solomona run (and there were a few), the Raiders were able to end any momentum in the set simply by smashing the next guy that got the ball. This physicality was particularly important on the goal-line, where the Raiders survived a cavalcade of crash balls from these big forwards, always seeming to find enough power to hold them out.
They weren’t perfect. Nelson Asofa-Solomona only had 119 metres but it felt like the defensive line bent every time he took a carry. He always created quick rucks that the Raiders had to recover from. It was his carries off kick-offs early in the second half that set the Storm up with momentum in those sets. But the Raiders did find away.
Often they relied on their excellent edge defence to cover when the Storm tried to take advantage of their success in the middle. John Bateman and Aidan Sezer have developed such a symbiotic relationship in defence that it almost always seems like the Raiders have any sweep to their right under control. Bateman is brilliant at identifying where the ball is going, and his motor is unquestionable. In this game he constantly swallowed Cameron Munster’s space.
The Storm sent a lot of traffic at Aidan Sezer. He and Josh Hodgson are the smallest players on the park, and teams look to gain advantage by running at them. Hodgson just has to hold the line. Sezer has to add difficult decisions about which player is going to end up with the ball. Sometimes he gets that wrong, but more often that not he’s there, taking down bigger or faster men on the regular. He did so in this game despite the fact he had up to
three four three different defenders on his right shoulder.
Sidebar: What’s that, four different defenders outside Sezer? When BJ got hurt, Simonsson spent the first set defending at centre before switching to the left wing. Cotric defended there until he broke his freaking face. Then BJ did until he got absolutely gassed late in the game and needed to stand on the wing for half a set getting his shit together. Rapana filled his spot then.
That doesn’t mean the Storm didn’t get down that side. They got around the Raiders when Jordan Rapana got involved in tackling off the post-try kickoff, spreading it wide and going 70 metres in a second. On another occasion they made a break, but Sia Soliola helped across, taking down Ryan Papenhuyzen (I think, it was a fair way away) with classic cover tackle because it’s normal for your 32 year old prop to be able to be capable of covering across from the middle to the wing.
On the other edge Elliot Whitehead and Jack Wighton were brutal. Wighton seems to take pleasure in hurting people, and his tackles reverberated through the opposition. Whitehead was always in the right spot, and with Wighton they rendered Jahrome Hughes mute in this game, taking away any space and options for him to play with. So often Hughes turned back inside because Smelly and Jack made going wider so unappealing. On the one occasion they found a near chance, Simonsson and Croker headed in together, picking the perfect time to act in combination, with Simonsson laying a good hit that ended with a Will Chambers error.
This doesn’t mean the defence was perfect. They’ll likely face a big forward pack in the preliminary final and will need to find a way to better corral bigger runners. They also continue to show frustrating tendency to give away late-set penalties (one a very silly lazy high tackle on the kicker from Hodgson). They did this on the first two sets of the second half. The Storm scored a try and a penalty goal and suddenly the lead the Raiders had fought the entire first half to earn was up in smoke. I’d say you can’t afford to do that against sides like the Storm but I guess you can, but may be you shouldn’t.
For a team that only scored 12 points, and only then through some well-earned fortune, it’s weird to say that I thought the Raiders attack actually looked pretty interesting. The attack look balanced, and more in-sync than it has a long time. It was a grind – the Storm are a brilliant side and so often they forced the Raiders into hard sets that couldn’t find space or metres, but when the Raiders found a little of either, they looked threatening, only faltering at the final pass or close to the line.
For the large part they played with patience. They consistently kicked to the corners, testing the Storm with high balls but more focused on trapping them in corners. When they got closer, Sezer and Hodgson earned repeat sets, and late in the game kept their heads in a way they’ve not displayed all season.
Success started in the middle. Josh Papalii started off the bench but that didn’t limit his importance. He had 163 metres on 15 carries (53 post contact), constantly turning hard sets into productive ones because he is the hero we need. He was supported by Corey Horsburgh, and the hard yardage work Bailey Simonsson (19 for 182) and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (15 for 141m).
It was exhilarating to see the Raiders push right. When they threaten on this edge it makes them so much harder to defend. Aidan Sezer had a terrific game, constantly digging into the line and running when the defence offered. He rightly got Tapine and Bateman early ball on the right, and even though it didn’t result in points, it created opportunties. Tapine was a handful pushing into space around the edge. Bateman was a terror across the game bouncing outside defenders, constantly threatening to create with ball in hand. Both turned back into the middle as well, keeping the defence honest and winning quick rucks. This play wasn’t structured – it was just about getting good footy players in space and letting them do what comes naturally – no better was this displayed than BJ Leilua’s casual flick-pass to put Bateman in for the game winner. That’s not to say they played without structure – the try called back because of a Nicoll-Klokstad forward pass was a typical, well-run and structured back-line movement – but rather this was less about creating opportunities through where you have numbers, and more about who those numbers are.
Heading left the Raiders showed more tactical variety. It was really interesting to see how much deliberate variations that I haven’t seen this season. On the Raiders first try Hodgson took the ball at second receiver, dug into the line, found Wighton who read the play perfectly to find Simonsson unmarked out wide.
Later, Wighton snuck behind Whitehead to essentially create a typically second-man play. Whitehead hit Croker on the face-ball and he nearly went through. I’d love to see this become a staple to build off. This was not the only time that Wighton and Whitehead got creative, and they were a constant threat on that edge. Croker nearly found his way around the defence a few times, and Simonsson would have found the line again late if not for a brilliant Vunivalu tackle.
The attack didn’t create a lot of points but it was enough. We now enter the unfamiliar territory of a week off. This is a blessing for the Raiders. It will (hopefully) allow Nic Cotric to heal, and get more rest into those who the coach decided needed last week off. It’s a shame BJ Leilua won’t get more time on the field – he needs the run – but he showed in this game that he’s capable of performing and contributing against the best in the competition, even if he desperately needed a break close to the end of the game. And we are planning for a preliminary final. At home. In front of 25,000 thousand Canberrans, in the knowledge that the Storm and the Roosters will likely be beating each other up in the other big game.
This was a rare victory, one that was started last November and built on the resilience and robust defence installed then. The Canberra Raiders took all the best attack in the competition could throw at them and ate it up. They used creativity and clever tactics in attack to add enough variety and execution in attack to find the points they needed. Sure it could have been different – Vuivalu’s arm wasn’t out late but the Raiders had held the Storm for much of the game so it’s more likely than not they would have again. The Storm will argue they left points on the ground, but so will Nicoll-Klokstad, Jack Wighton and Jordan Rapana.
What we learnt was the Raiders have the defence to beat the best in the cauldron of finals football. They have the character to withstand losing a player before the match in what can only be described as bizarre circumstances. They have the wherewithal to withstand losing another within twenty minutes, and then face everything that a final against the best can offer. They faced up to the Storm in trying circumstances and showed resolve and character. And when the moment demanded it they took it.
And now a chance at a grand final. Is this even real?