I’m known around my friends as an extreme pessimist. When you ask if the glass is half full, I normally say ‘that glass is probably leaking’.
On Friday Josh Papalii burst through four tackles in front of me to send the Raiders to their first grand final since I was a pre-teen and it changed me a little. Maybe I’m not a complete optimist, but as the great philosopher Gabrielle said, “dreams can come true” and I now believe her.
The Raiders can win on Sunday.
Admittedly they face a near impossible task. The Roosters are perfectly placed for a second title tilt in a row. They had the second best attack and defence in the competition, and it could have threatened the Storm on both fronts if not for a ‘down-turn’ during the Origin period which seems goddamn quaint now when you think about it. They’ve beaten the Raiders twice this season, including one victory at Bruce Stadium. They have such a collection of talent that you’d might name five or six players before you mention the New South Wales captain. It’s enough to make me anxious.
The Roosters aren’t just a collection of talent. They are as well drilled as any team in recent history. Their sweeping movements are so precise that they seem impossible to stop. They defend with vigor and discipline and are guided around the park by experience and talent that can match any spine in the competition.
In short, they are really good. So good that the lovely folk at Statsinsider.com.au put the Raiders chances at just 28 per cent. I don’t know what goes into their statistical model, but it shows Canberra will have to perform one of the great upsets in modern history to win.
But hey, like Gabrielle said, dreams can come true. So how can the humble Milk win it?
Attack the middle
“Winning the middle” is an easy thing to say. When you middle you win most games. Last week we said the Raiders need to hold the middle against a Souths side that built attack off the pace of a quick play the ball. The Raiders enveloped Damien Cook because he rarely had a dominant run from his middle forwards to build from. This was quite the achievement from the Green Machine’s defence given the weight difference between the two packs, not to mention the possession disparity.
The Roosters can also turn quick rucks into lightening points, with Tedesco (and sometimes Radley) hanging off the shoulder of a ball-player or an offload. All they need is a sniff of a quick ruck. The pressure is on the Raiders to control their opposition to stop any pace coming off the back of rucks or second phase play.
That’s only half the battle. You don’t beat the best side in the last two years by battling them to a stalemate. You have to take even if glimmer of a weakness and pound it for all it’s worth.
The Roosters concede most (more than a third) of their points up the guts. Through 19 rounds they’d conceded a higher proportion of tries in the centre third than anyone else in the competition (per statsinsider.com.au). In both games against this season Canberra’s middle men actually made metres with relative ease. Perhaps it’s because they’re the second-lightest pack in the competition (behind the Raiders), but if there’s a weakness there the Raiders must exploit it.
Luckily for Canberra they have the personnel to make this happen. Josh Hodgson and Josh Papalii (the latter in particular) have been in fine form recently. Hodgson will need to play north-south, pushing his big men into gaps in open field, and at the goal-posts in the twenty. The Milk have added some variety to their in-twenty big man plays recently, and that could be put to use here (though not much beats Josh Papalii on the angle running right at the opposition hooker…hose me down i’m going to lose it again).
Aidan Sezer can help by tipping John Bateman back behind the ruck. Joe Tapine and Corey Horsburgh can help by creating second phase play (Horsburgh) or putting those quick feet to work (Tapine). Emre Guler’s middle twenty in the second half also has to be big. Dunamis Lui can’t make the offensive mistakes he’s made recently. The bench forwards were quiet after getting through a mountain of defence against the big Souths pack. They’ll need to offer more.
If Canberra can pull off a famous victory, here is where it will begin.
Hold the Right Edge
The Roosters can score in a lot of ways, but they way to do most is on their left edge. They scored more than 52 per cent of their tries down that side through the first 19 rounds of the competition (per statinsider). This is built in a variety of ways – early ball to Latrell Mitchell, face-balls to Boyd Cordner, James Tedesco as the second man, and also kicking for Daniel Tupou to simply be taller than everyone. It’s quite the array of options.
The only way you can stand up to this is the same way the Raiders have handled effective attacks this season. The middle must push up the reduce Keary’s time and space with the ball. BJ must present a physical problem for Mitchell, and get him moving east-west rather than north-south. And the Raiders must hope that John Bateman can help Aidan Sezer handle the weight of Cordner and Mitchell that will be coming his way.
The good news is that the Raiders right side has been their best edge (even though it wasn’t last week). There’s a season of work that suggests they have what it takes to combat with Roosters’ strength.
In both games against Canberra this season the Roosters scored in the 4th minute of the match (as well as the 6th minute in the first game in Magic Round). It was a debilitating way to start a game. Canberra haven’t been the only side to suffer this fate against the Roosters, who scored plenty early (32 tries in the first twenty minutes of games they won – about 30 per cent of their total tries).
Sidebar: Before we get carried away, you’d expect teams to score early in games they win, and not in games they lost simply because you score more in wins and less in losses, so the statistical significance of this is likely meaningless. But boy do I have feelpinions about this.
In both Canberra losses it reflected a pace that the game would be played, and that it was a step up. One might argue the Roosters slowed down as the game wore on. Of the eight tries they scored across two games only two came in the second half. Maybe if the Raiders can keep the door shut early, they can win late.
Run that ball Aidan
If there was a weakness in the Green Machine’s game last weekened it’s that Sezer was relatively quiet. He barely ran the ball (just three runs for 21 metres) and as I pointed out that really had an impact on the space available to Bateman, BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana. Sezer must run the ball to keep the Roosters defence honest. If he does it opens up the variety in the Raiders attack.
Keep it away from Teddy
Again this is hardly a revelation but the Raiders kicking game will have to take a step up from last week. On long kicks they need to find grass away from Tedesco, or defensively bombing at him, so he can’t get a good return or get easily involved in yardage work.
The Raiders will also need to be pinpoint with this short kicking game, and supported by a faultless chase. Any grubber that hits the ground can be turned by Tedesco into broken field glory for the Roosters. Canberra must get some repeat sets, but if their execution is off it could be a problem.
As we said earlier, the Roosters are the overwhelming favourites for a reason. For the Raiders to win it will take an upset that would pit them alongside ‘89, ‘03 and other instant classics.
I think they can do it. Hold on people.
Dreams can come true.