The Canberra Raiders 14-6 victory over the Wests Tigers was brutal and necessary. The Green Machine were hardly pretty, barely fluent, but still capable of using some often bruising defence to manage the game. The Raiders were far from their best, but after last weeks’ capitulation, the evidence that they are capable of more was a welcome sight.
This was a brutal game. The kind where Jack Wighton played most of it looking like a losing slugger deep into the 11th, and no one (especially not Jack) batted an eye lid. The hits from both sides matched the clear desire they had to make up for their previous performances. The slippery floor (and dewy ball) of Campbelltown meant that changes of direction were hard, and nifty ball-play risky, which drove the attacks right at each other. Even when the sides wanted to play a more open style of footy, the conditions made it fraught.
This meant that it was a war of attrition for much of the game; each side ramming the ball up the middle, kicking to the corner, and trying to force an error. Last week the Knights had the same game plan against the Raiders and the Milk obliged. This week Canberra showed grit – playing most of the first half coming off their own line, fighting to stay in the game. While they looked insipid and clunky in attack (perhaps because of the effort expended to bring the ball out safely), and sometimes lacked energy early in the game, it was pleasing to see the Green Machine not shoot themselves in the foot.
In any game post 2019 we would have marvelled at the Raiders’ defence in this game, but such has the improvement been in recent years that efforts like this game feel standard. Unlike last week the Green Machine’s middle defenders pushed up with much more pace and verve. The A, B and C defenders consistently met the Tigers early, meaning that the edge didn’t have to consistently contend with multiple runners hitting the line at pace. They made huge hits to force errors just when they were needed (like Dunamis Lui’s hit in the 67th minute to jar an error). They held when momentum in sets pushed against them. They pushed up and in on Wests attack, sometimes brutally.
When the Tigers did get some momentum and space to move against the Raiders the middles held, and the edges managed everything thrown at them. On the right, Joe Tapine had another good effort. He made several critical tackles, bringing down Tigers edge runners repeatedly that threatened to break the line. He supported George Williams well, and only on one occasion did there appear to be a miscommunication (on that occasion Williams had to defend inside shoulder at the last minute after Tapine was unable to help across). It was pleasing to see the right edge return to its pre-Knights form.
On the other edge Jack and Elliott were brutal, and largely not worried by the Tigers attack. On occasion Jack’s aggression got the better of him, creating holes outside him after he had read in on the Tigers’ backrower, but Smelly and Croker covered the issue. On the one occasion they didn’t, Jordan Rapana simply made a brilliant try-saving tackle after turning over his shoulder to catch a player who seemed to have acres of space to amble in to score. It was a stunning tackle and match altering. At the time it was 4-0 to the Tigers, going in to a halftime the Raiders desperately needed. 8 or 10 points down in this game, in these conditions, is obviously a bigger mountain to climb.
Over 80 minutes, the only points the Tigers could create came from a kick and error. While their lack of creativity and the challenge of the conditions contributed, it’s pleasing to see the Raiders show that their last performance was an outlier, and their defence remains a weapon that can keep them in every game. It’s particularly important in this post-Covid style of footy, that seems to see massive disparities in position and possession that simply must be weathered. There is no other option. The Milk did as they must and it was a big part of why they won.
As pleasing as their defence was, their attack was lacking, particularly in the first half. Unlike last week it wasn’t a discipline issue – the Raiders completed at a consistent rate (over 80 per cent throughout the game). Rather they were unable to find any direction and advantage through the middle early on. They seemed to be directionless in the first half, rarely getting on the advantage and listlessly getting through sets like it was a chore.
Partly that was conditions, partly it was the Tigers defence. Another contributing factor was Josh Hodgson’s surprisingly sluggish performance early in the game. He made a few risky decisions on last tackles that didn’t come off, uncharacteristically found grass on several passes, and threw several balls behind his first receiver. It’s no surprise that when he snapped out of this in the second half, the Green Machine immediately seemed to play with more direction.
The middles had a tough night, but they earned their post-game beers. Josh Papalii
is my goddamn hero again showed that no matter the situation, he’ll shed a defender and carry another for yards. He had 14 carries for 144 metres according to NRL.com, but the 80 flipping post contact metres he had spoke to the difficulty of the circumstances of each of these runs. It was a stunning effort, and one that we should never take for granted.
It was pleasing to see the other forwards lift in the absence of Corey Horsburgh. This was particularly true in the second half. The Raiders did miss Big Red – you can see that in the abject lack of second phase play (outside of Joe Tapine no Milk forward had an offload) – but Emre Guler (13 for 141m, 64m post contact) and Ryan Sutton (12 for 122m, 63m post contact) showed that the Raiders have the depth to support their middle rotation. Guler in particular used his footwork repeatedly to turn disadvantage into metres. Sutton was a revelation given how long it’s been since he’s played. Siliva Havili didn’t really trouble the scorers (9 carries for 83m) but his energy was an important addition to a side that had been sapped by an early possession and position disparity. Hudson Young returns this week, and suddenly the Raiders seem like they’re carrying substantial depth in their middle forwards, even with John Bateman’s lengthy absence.
On the back of this, the halves did just enough to muster points. On the left, Jack was always a threat running the ball because he’s brilliant at it. Often it was the most potent attack. The brutality of his step and run to score the Raiders’ first was astounding. Two defenders met him at the line, and both cascaded off his body like they were trying to tackle a moving vehicle. When he didn’t run the ball, he gave Smelly and Croker near opportunities to put their outside men in, only to have them unable to release the last pass. The Raiders left several potential tries on the table with the ball in the hands of an edge defender unable to get the ball around the corner. Jack’s only error was a pass so wonky it was hard to not think his black-eye had something to do with.
On the other edge George Williams was again good, and showed that his game is building each week he’s in the NRL. He found it hard to take the line on in this game (probably because of the dewy turf) and early he found it hard to find his outside men. He definitely lacked a threat coming underneath and against the grain – something that John Bateman has made an art form of (and Curtis Scott did once tonight). He always seemed to have plenty of time at the line, and took full advantage, most notable with his risky, but perfectly executed grubber behind an over-zealous defence for Canberra’s second try. According to Fox Sports he now leads the league in try assists. It’s such a boon for the Raiders to have him adjusting so well. Much of 2019 the Raiders either played up the middle or to the left. Now, their right edge is just as dangerous, as evidenced by the fact they kept pushing that way late in the game. The balance it brings to the Green Machine will serve them well when they are seeking points at more important points of this season.
Another part of the attack that continues to develop is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s move to a bigger role as a secondary ball player. He is now popping up on both sides of the ruck outside the half, giving another option to create. This means the half can give early ball to the edge and not have to always make plays at the line. It’s a work in progress; he continues to get caught with the ball, and in this game he threw a near try assist that was called forward. But it’s promising, and a necessary facet to bring greater variety to sweeping movements.
Charnze had a mixed night. He engaged with the attacking movements as outlined above to inconsistent effect. He had yet another week of being somewhat patchy under the high ball. He allowed too many bombs to bounce (possibly again due to the conditions), and made an early error bringing the ball off his own line that was below his normal standards.
He did however, join Jordan Rapana in returning the Raiders’ back three to their critical role in set starts. They both had important carries bringing the ball out off the goal line. This yardage stood in stark contrast to last week when the Milk got stuck on their own line too much. While they started from similar positions this week, the work of Nicoll-Klokstad (27 for 251m and 106 post contact) and Rapana (18 for 170 and 72 post contact) meant even when they were in trouble, the forwards got a rest, and the Green Machine didn’t suffer. There’s almost no doubt in my mind now that Rapana will start for as long as he’s playing in green.
In the end the two tries and the resolute defence were enough for the win. After the Knights were handled relatively easily by the Storm this evening, it really highlighted just how like a lottery the competition can feel at the moment. A few set restarts, a mountain of possession, and a good team can turn bad really quick. Each week presents a critical two points, and while it wasn’t fluid, and it wasn’t perfect, the Milk got what they needed.
The Tigers won’t win the premiership this year, and better sides won’t let the Raiders spend a whole half working it off their line and not punish them more, but it speaks to the robustness of this green wall that will keep the Raiders in games no matter what their offence is doing. There should be no pretending that they can be as stilted as they were in the early parts of this game every week, but for this game it was enough.
Call it gritty, call it gutsy, call it hard-fought. Canberra showed their floor remains high, their defence a weapon, and that they’re ready to take on the tough period that is coming. Manly, Eels, Dragons, Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs are the next six weeks. There’s not a lot of easy points there, and the Raiders’ perma-travel state only exacerbates that. This only highlights how important this game was. There’s a mountain to climb, and the Green Machine needed to prove their fitness to conquer it after their last start. They showed they’re ready and willing.
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