If we learnt anything from the Canberra Raiders 22-6 victory over the Melbourne Storm, it’s that the Green Machine are ready to build on 2019. They took the same formula they used then, ratcheted it up a notch, and showed they are capable of big things this season. That there’s still plenty of room for improvement should terrify the rest of the competition.
So much of the tenor and tempo of this game felt familiar – much more than other games this weekend. The new rules didn’t seem to have as big an impact here. Though the pace and space of the ruck was noteworthy, it didn’t have the same frenzy of Thursday or Friday night’s opening forays. Instead what replaced it was two top-tier sides prepared to earn their way.
It was familiar because the Raiders started with the foundation built in 2019. The defence again was a primary focus. While the pace of the ruck allowed the Storm to get big metres between the twenty metre lines, the Raiders enveloped the Storm like poison gas: the closer they got to the Canberra line, the more they suffered. The Storm were suffocated, and they became frustrated and flustered. You don’t see that often.
What caused this disquiet was Canberra’s startling goal line defence. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad pulled down the bigger Jesse Bromwich, a moment that startled the prop so much he basically flung the ball away in a vein attempt to avoid embarrassment. Joe Tapine corralled Justin Olam in a courageous tackle to hold him up when a try seemed inevitable. Josh Hodgson forced an error with a tackle that shook prop Tino Faasuamaleaui close to the line. He also stripped a Storm attacker to dispel another raid. Tapine chased the faster Josh Addo-Carr to the edge of the ground, and while he was unsuccessful in bringing him down, the effort made removed the space the Fox had to operate in, and an attempted infield kick sprayed into legs and into the arms of Nicoll-Klokstad. Scott helped in when Papenhuyzen had too much pace for George Williams, holding him up enough to force an error in the grounding attempt. I’ve missed a host of other efforts, but it was clear the willingness of the defence to offer sides nothing easy had carried over from 2019.
These were individual moments, but what was more heartening was the structures that held. Both edges looked almost impenetrable, particularly at the goal line. On the left edge, Wighton, Smelly, Croker and Rapana looked like they old heads they were, working together to give the Storm right edge next to no space. When the Storm pushed right they almost always ran out of carpet. Even when they had numbers on that side, the Milk’s intelligence and understanding made sure they could cover it. More than once Whitehead ducked under the play only to emerge outside Wighton to make a tackle. Wighton did likewise with Croker. Late in the game it was Papalii helping across. The Storm kept pushing wider in search of space, and all they found was the sidleline.
Their focus however, was on the Raiders’ right edge. The Storm (like most sides) sent their attack at this edge, seeing a potential weakness. You can see the logic. Tapine is not meant to be there. Williams is meant to be small. Cotric and Scott are a new partnership. The Storm are not stupid. They were ready to test these moving parts.
Instead what they found was a resolute ballast. Cotric and Scott acted in unison, and on the odd occasion they were beaten it was because of luck rather than faulty decision making. Williams didn’t just hold his own to keep out the bigger Munster and the faster Papenhuyzen; he was a threat to hurt on the edge. This is important – if there’s been anything clear in these first games of the ‘new’ style, it’s that contact is a premium in defence. You can’t make up for your defensive mistakes on the ground; you have to make sure your first effort makes an impact. Williams showed that he is up to being the focus of every team’s attack.
This brutal and brilliant defence was paired with the same intelligent attacking formula of 2019. The Raiders played through the middle third, kicked to the corners. Sometimes rugby league isn’t rocket science. It felt like every hit up started with a prop on the advantage. Josh Papalii (18 for 166m), Sia Soliola (14 for 129m), Corey Horsburgh (12 for 115m) and Emre Guler (10 for 110m) all cracked a 100 metres. Papalii had some powerful carries in some difficult situations to earn those metres. Like the previous 199 games of his career, he took the hard carries, and turned them into good ones.
Josh Hodgson had more space than normal – probably afforded by the new rules – and he took full advantage. He was running more in the middle third, just because he damn well could. Not so much North South, but with purpose and poise, ready to put people in the right space. He had space and time to make decisions, and the ball always went where it needed to go. On the Raiders first try he sent the defence to the Raiders right before swinging back to Jack Wighton. His excellent flat ball to Jarrod Croker was outmatched first by Croker’s outside-in line, then the captain’s stunning pass to Rapana. It was beautiful enough to make a man believe things he shouldn’t this early in the season. Croker’s hands are some of the best of a centre in the competition, and he nearly put Rapana in again later, this time with Williams interestingly sitting outside Wighton on the left, hitting Croker with a flat ball, a quick flick and Rapana should have scored. It didn’t matter.
This wasn’t the only time Williams involved himself in the attack. On any other day I would have started the story of this game with his play. He was simply dazzling, and it looks like the Milk have yet again won a gamble on an Englishmen. He took the line on brilliantly, in both dynamic North-South movements and beguiling sideways shuffles. The fake-shuffle-floater combo that landed on Cotric’s flying chest for the Raiders second try was so beautiful people will name children after it. But as impressive was his willingness to push vertically, find a weakness in the defence, and take it on. He did it to Brandon Smith – an otherwise excellent defender – made him look pedestrian, and put Nicoll-Klokstad in for the Raiders’ third. His play on the right was a constant threat, bringing balance to the attack in a way that hasn’t been seen in any recent times.
The above tries were masterly, but when they couldn’t be stunning the Green Machine were smart. Wighton, Hodgson and Williams all earned repeat sets, taking what was available and giving the Raiders more time to shine. The first try came on a second foray at the line. It was a much more cohesive, intelligent and penetrative redzone attack than offered in previous years. This meant that despite limited opportunities to attack, the Raiders made the most of them. It was the kind of small brilliance that makes football teams great. It wasn’t one player running through tackles, but rather players spacing perfectly, hitting better lines and bigger gaps, and when the time came for someone to execute, the Raiders did.
But the absolute best bit about this game was that the Raiders weren’t perfect. There is still improvement in this defence – and that should terrify the competition. While they covered for every error, the Storm did break the line 7 times. On occasion they were swamped in the middle, conceding huge metres in sets as the Storm propelled down the field almost unimpeded for 60-70 metre sets. They ended up out-gaining the Raiders by nearly 200 metres. It’s hard to tell how much of that is fitness, and how much is the new rules, or a combination of the two. The middles felt like they caught the game as it wore on – Nelson Asofa-Solomona felt unstoppable early, much like Jared Warea-Hargreaves in last year’s grand final, but the Milk corralled him by the middle, his frustration bore out in the comical grubber he let slide in desperation at the end of the match. The Raiders would prefer to not be playing from their own half so much, and a more composed side may have made them pay for it. But then again, much of the lack of composure was caused by the Raiders.
And there is improvement in the attack. The Milk were the more polished and smarter side for much of the game, but they did take their time in going for the kill. For a period in the second half they found it hard to complete sets, and the Storm lingered. It took Josh Hodgson’s strip-40/20 frozen rope to ice the game, and that was much later than it should have been. Once that occurred, the Raiders could play happy, and the last try showed the razzle-dazzle that can come when a game is iced.
They still have roster competition to come back. John Bateman shouldn’t be far away, and that should improve the defence further. Hudson Young may come into the 17 also. Both he and Bateman seem suited to the new rules; their quick feet at the line, the ability to handle bigger men and match pace with smaller make their versatility critical. The Raiders were also missing Bailey Simonsson, and whether he or Rapana starts at left wing, the other will provide strong yardage work as a bench utility.
The Raiders are well placed now. They have a litany of tough outings over the next two months as they travel around Australia, so each two points they can collect is a gift and a blessing. That they did it over everyone’s favourite enemy in their goddamn house again just makes it all the sweeter. While some may say it wasn’t a virtuoso performance, it was damn impressive, and proved the Raiders floor is as high as any in the competition. Some will be tempted to get carried away and call it season defining, but it’s too early and there’s too much fluidity and uncertainty in the competition (and life…ay too real) to be so definitive.
But be sure about this, the Raiders are damn good again, maybe even better than before. While they have room for improvement, anyone who saw this game will be terrified of them.
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