The Canberra Raiders 34-18 loss to the Newcastle Knights writ large their weaknesses for all the world to see. A bigger pack simply overwhelmed their middle defence, allowing the Knights’ creative players an amount of space that the Green Machine’s edges couldn’t handle. It’s a story of many losses of recent vintages, and highlights the necessity of currently missing players, particularly in the finals series. It must be addressed for the Raiders to succeed.
Canberra came into this game as the team du jour. The talking heads had been crowning them champions due to their round three domination of the Storm. That match up has clearly suited the Raiders in recent years. Even though the Storm have a massive pack, the Milk are able to jam in from the edge because outside Munster, the Storm don’t really have much pace or power on their edges. The Knights presented a different problem – a team that can dominate the middle and shift to dynamism on the edge, particularly on their left. A big and burly middle has been a problem for the Raiders since they shifted to more mobile pack. The good guys just usually do a better job of adjusting.
That was the issue the Raiders faced in this game and they never solved it. The Knights were running on rail tracks between the middle and the left edge. They ran with power, won rucks, and when the Raiders tried to dominate and control a ruck, an offload would pop out and make the Milk do it all again. In the first half the Knights had eight offloads, and combined with the power of David Klemmer and the Saifiti brothers, it gave the Knights a platform the Raiders couldn’t handle.
The key here is that it wasn’t directly up the middle. Much of the Novacastrian’s work came working the left tram-line against the Green Machine’s right side defence. The Milk needed physical first contact from these defenders and it didn’t get it. The result was piles of metres to the Knights middles (out of the middle rotation only Tim Glasby [10 for 92] didn’t have 100 metres) and edge players. Aidan Guerra, Kurt Mann, Bradman Best and Kalyn Ponga all had 120 metres or more. The Raiders conversely spent their energy tackling. Corey Horsburgh had near 60, Josh Papalii 46 and Joe Tapine more than 50.
It seemed no matter where a set ended, Newcastle ended it at around the Raiders 30, bombing to a corner. It was the kind of attacking discipline Canberra made a formula out of in 2019. When a team plays like this it means every set you have the ball is fraught with risk. It requires great discipline to continually carry the ball out of danger, something the Raiders very much lacked in this game. When Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad dropped the ball on the first bomb he faced, the problem put on its most pure display. A handling error, a defensive line that was just a little slow (Williams) and a little late (Scott and Cotric) and the Milk’s vaunted goal line defence was in shreds and we’d barely cracked a beer. After that first try that right edge was again torn apart over the first 15 minutes of the second half. Edrick Lee scored twice, once because Cotric came in when he shouldn’t have, another because Kalyn Ponga threw a ball that caught Scott inside his man.
Many will put the blame solely on those edge defenders, but such was the dominance of the Knights’ middle that Pearce, Ponga and Kurt Mann were playing with so much time that the could do what they wanted. They got to hit the line at pace, try to isolate George Williams and force the defenders around him to help in, thus creating an overlap. This isn’t to say Williams was poor defensively, he largely held his own. Rather, the smallest guy on the ground got little help, particularly from the inside.
Joe Tapine had a tiring night, highlighting the gap between his defensive motor and that of John Bateman. When the Raiders needed a dominant tackle he couldn’t give it to them – he was simply cooked from the 50 plus tackles he had to make. It’s not normal to defend how John Bateman does, but the Raiders needed more from Tapine, and he was simply too gassed to do it. No better was this demonstrated when Aidan Guerra’s near try at the end came from a hole that opened up because Tapine couldn’t push across from the ruck in defence. It’s the kind of thing that teams will notice. The Raiders left edge had relatively little to do, and still managed to let Kalyn Ponga stroll through between Wighton and Whitehead in a manner that will have Wade Graham staring at them in disgust.
While it’s tempting to put this defensive effort down to just effort, I’m not sure this is a complete explanation. The Raiders were unquestionably flat. The line speed was very slow, and their trade mark physicality in contact was missing for the first sixty minutes of the match. But it’s also worth noting that this game plan has been utilised effectively by lesser teams than the Knights in recent years to beat Canberra. Last year the Cows and the Warriors both jagged wins against the Green Machine in the same fashion. This is the Achilles heal; the Raiders just usually do a better job of hiding it.
The lethargy of the defence compounded the sins of the attack. While the Knights seemed to end every set on Canberra’s thirty, the Raiders barely spent a second in the opposition half in the first sixty or so minutes of the game. Despite being outgained by near 400 metres, they had more post-contact metres than their opposition (677-643), reflecting the differing aggression each side played with.
This disadvantage meant to Raiders desperately needed to be clean with the ball but they were far from it. The Knights completed eight from their first nine sets compared to the Raiders four from eight. When they did get on the advantage early, they threw away one try (Croker probably should have passed), and scored another. Too often they begun to forge their way down the ground only to give away the ball. Wighton, and Horsburgh dropped ball cold. Wighton kicked a ball out on the full. Nicoll-Klokstad took the ball down the blind on the last, needed to kick in behind, or run against, the jamming defence. Instead he threw the pass right into Edrick Lee; a sign of his still developing passing game. These are just a few examples. The Raiders needed to be near perfect, such was the hole their defence put them in. They were nowhere near it.
That’s not to say the attack didn’t have it’s moments. Josh Papalii (14 for 143m) needs a statue outside Bruce Staidum and he needs it yesterday. He was tireless in this game, despite being clearly exhausted from the amount of tackling he was doing. He took so many carries in disadvantageous situations, and turned sets around despite the defence teeing off on him, as evidenced by his 67 post-contact metres. His try, where he palmed off Aidan Guerra, made Kurt Mann look like a boy and carried Andrew McCullough to the line like Darren Lockyer, gave the Milk the faintest of glimpses of a shot, and if they had won would have been the moment we would be talking about now.
George Williams too was exemplary. Throughout the game he was the Raiders’ best creator, running hard at the line and finding sapce outside the Knights jamming defence. His floater created the opportunity that Croker couldn’t finish, and outside of Papa’s solo effort, all the Raiders points came from his work. When Wighton went off injured he continued to thrive as the focal point in the attack, even with no space offered as the Knights defence zeroed in on him. His late chip and chase was a bad bounce away from being points for the Milk. If there’s a silver lining to the rain cloud that was this game, it’s that the Raiders have unearthed another gem here. Even though he wasn’t as flashily dominant as last week, he took a pack that gave him very little field position or space and still created points. It bodes well for the sides’ development.
For the rest it was obviously not a red-letter day. For the most part the exhaustion of the middles meant the Raiders were often going sideways rather than vertical. More than once Josh Hodgson jumped out into acres of space, desperately seeking a ball-runner to join him, only to find forwards watching. When Jordan Rapana and Siliva Havili came on late, suddenly the Raiders were pushing through the middle, creating ruck speed. It was a shame Stuart didn’t use these players earlier.
The most generous reading of this performance is to call it a healthy ego check. The Raiders had been riding high since their performance against the Storm, and this performance shows them that nothing less than their best in necessary against this competition. Their tendency to sometimes get physically overwhelmed by bigger attacks will be tested over the next month, with Manly, the Eels, Dragons and the Storm following next week’s match with the Tigers. It’s chance and a necessity to show that this sometimes weakness isn’t something that good teams can always expose. And when it comes down to it, the Raiders were thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball, and still found themselves in the mix late in the game. It’s a testament to a resilience that never existed before last year.
It does highlight how much they miss people like John Bateman, and to a lesser extent, Hudson Young. Joe Tapine is a talented young player, but he simply cannot erase the errors of others in the same way the Englishman does. They also need more minutes from the back-end of their bench. If Sticky doesn’t trust players to give him 30 good minutes in a game where they are being overwhelmed, it’s a real issue for how they set up going forward.
Questions will be asked about whether the Raiders same-day travel is a part of the story, but there’s nothing there to fix, just a reality that has to be adjusted to. Similarly the extent of the blowout will be placed in the hands of the new rules, which have produced an inordinate number of one sided affairs in the exact mould of this game. The Raiders will be in this position again this season, so there’s little to do but buckle up and work a way through the bad times.
This wasn’t a good day for the Raiders. Things got out of hand in a way they haven’t in a while. But making too much of this game is as unhelpful as was the outburst of ball-tickling that followed the Storm game. Canberra has a flaw, one that they routinely overcame in 2019 and one they need to address again, because the whole league is watching. But even with that flaw exposed, it still required the Green Machine complying for it to have such an effect. I doubt will see a performance like this for a while.
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