Raiders Review: Winning Ugly

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 20-6 victory over the New Zealand Warriors was a perfect demonstration of winning ugly. The Green Machine should have put 40 on a lacklustre Kiwi side. Instead they played down to their competition in an error-riddled game. Luckily the Raiders defence was excellent, repelling set after set of red-zone football that their attack gifted to New Zealand. The foundation set last year shone through, and Canberra tackled their way to victory. It’s what good teams do when things aren’t clicking.

Every win in what will likely be a truncated season is critical, so let’s start with that fact. In a season that will lose games, you need to bank games early, because there might not be time later to make up ground. This is particularly important given the Milk are still getting their best 17 back in order, with John Bateman and Hudson Young still watching from the bench.

This wasn’t a pretty victory. You might even say it wasn’t a good one. The Raiders were up against a side that is stuck in a foreign country, separated from their families and not sure if they were even going to be in the competition after this weekend. They had spent much of the week uncertain how they would survive shifting players back across the Tasman to see their families. If ever a team could be excused for not having their mind on the game, it was the New Zealand Warriors.

Of course the Raiders won because their defence was, for the most part, indistinguishable from 2019. The middles moved up and out, particularly early in the game, sending the Warriors attack to Canberra’s aggressive edges. They forced plenty of errors, often with physical contact, and sometimes just with the threat of it. The Warriors had plenty of opportunities to score, particularly early, but the Milk’s stellar goal-line defence, a key part of the foundation of 2019, was equally brilliant today. By my count New Zealand had 8 attacking sets in the first 20 minutes, and not for a second did they look like scoring. Safe for a few small contact errors, the Raiders barely looked worried.

The two edges had their moments but rarely looked troubled. It’s been heartening to see how quickly George Williams, Curtis Scott and Nic Cotric have gelled on the far right. When the middles did fail, (and occasionally Joe Tapine pushed in came up with nothing-quite-everything), they routinely made the right reads to push in to help, and more than once one of the three stopped the ball dead when there was an overlap outside them. On the left, Jack Wighton’s aggression was sometimes over-eager, but Elliott Whithead’s defensive master-class routinely cleaned up any errors that were made . Outside him Jarrod Croker and Bailey Simonsson were barely asked a question.

Sidebar: Elliott Whitehead’s defence was stunning in this game. It may not get mentioned in the after match media, but he’s second to none in his ability to cover up others’ mistakes. Every flippin week. Love the guy.

For the large part the Warriors didn’t threaten and there is much to be liked about this defensive set. Better teams will require better execution and effort, but this game was a further demonstration that the days of leaky edges is confined to the past.

If the defence was solid and a confirmation of everything we thought we knew, the attack was an exhibition in frustration. It felt like the Milk struggled to put together an effective set. The Warriors defence was full of holes, and the Raiders found them when they needed to, but they left more scoring opportunities on the table than a closed bordello. Sets would start well and end with errors; throughout the second half it felt like the Raiders barely made it to half way because every time they got close someone dropped the ball.

Particularly early it seemed like they were stuck in the mud, unable or unwilling to hit the ball at pace and play with anything approaching intent or intensity. It was nearly twenty minutes before the Raiders got an effective set in, topped with a good kick. They smashed the Warriors and scored on the next set – a brilliant piece of creating something from nothing by Jarrod Croker for Whitehead. I assume the lack of the crowd, the preceding week and the fact society is caving in make it hard to get excited for footy, and it told.

When they weren’t dropping the ball the attack looked slow, and only Josh Papalii, and later Sia Soliola and Siliva Havili, felt like they had any penetration through the middle of the ruck. In the middle Josh Hodgson was creating; his combination with Big Papa threatened the line every time they were close, and on one occasion when Hodgson jumped out of the ruck and put Papa into a bit of space, when they weren’t. With Siliva Havili he had a partner in crime who saw what he did and was willing to follow up off his shoulder. Sia played his heart out, making every carry a winner, and being the man who Hodgson saw was ready to dive on a grubber and the Raiders second try.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad did a mountain of work to the tune of 232m on the ground, including taking his share of dead-set hit ups. Not yardage work when the forwards were still coming on side; just old fashioned, brutish hit ups. In between he was safe under the high ball. He still hasn’t quite perfected chipping into the line as a secondary ball player, and preferred to hang around the middle.

His back-three partner Nic Cotric was simply astounding, breaking 17 tackles and the line twice for the game. He routinely busted the Warriors apart. So many of these carries set up the Raiders best attacking forays. It was a shame that he bombed a try in the first half, but perhaps we should focus more on the fact that he took a bomb and ran through 43 different defenders rather than the fact he couldn’t find either Scott on his right, or Croker on his left. Passing remains a work in progress, and why he is best suited to the wing at this stage.

Cotric was also part of what interestingly became the Raiderse most threatening side of the field. It took until the second half, but George Williams, Curtis Scott and Cotric started to find a bit of sympatico. Suddenly it felt like the right side could score at any opportunity, and while two tries went begging when Williams’, and then Scott, threw gorgeous passes to Cotric that were called, it was a thrill to think the Raiders may have started to work this side of the field out. It seemed only fitting when Williams’ kick was collected by Scott for a garbage time try. Throughout the second half they were spaced perfectly, Tapine standing on Williams’ inside shoulder, and Scott and Cotric ready to tear the world apart. I can’t wait to watch this develop.

On the other side, Jack Wighton’s quiet-to-poor game was masked by Croker’s excellent secondary creativity. Having him and Whitehead sniffing the same things is a gift to Jack, and in this game Croker turned a fluffed sweep movement into the Raiders first points just because he was smarter than the Warriors, and Smelly saw the same thing. Wighton dropped the ball multiple times in this game, but it was good to see the Raiders can win without him being stunning.

68 per cent completion rate shouldn’t win you many Rugby League games, but here we are. The Canberra Raiders are now a ‘good’ team; able to win games they barely turn up for. They can’t do it every week, but it’s heartening to see that they can find the points without having to be perfect. That’s normally the province of the Storm and the Roosters.

They have a tight turnaround before facing a very beatable Dragons outfit next Thursday. Every game at the moment feels like a bonus before a Coronavirus shutdown comes, so it would bode them well to focus on getting what may be the last two points on offer for the next few months. They’ve shown they can win well, and they’ve shown they can win ugly. The important word there right now is win.

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