The Canberra Raiders 14-6 loss proved they have a problem. In a game against a good side ripe for the taking, the Raiders’ only plan was to hope the other team lost it. When their opposition refused to comply, they were unable to find another pathway to victory. The Green Machine showed both the floor of their potential and flaws of their reality, and it cost them.
Manly came into this game already missing Martin Tapau, Moses Suli and Jorge Tofua. They lost Dylan Walker, Brad Parker and Tom Trbojevic in this game and barely blinked. Des Hasler coaches those types of teams. Roles of positions are so well defined that players easily slot into them, even if it’s been months since they lined up there. You can’t give the Sea-Eagles anything but your best and expect to win. They just won’t beat themselves.
Unfortunately that’s precisely what it looked like the Green Machine were hoping they’d do. The Raiders came with a clear game plan. Play the middle third coming into the opposition half, bomb to the corners, and smash them coming out of their own redzone. The point is to make the opposition play in a state of constant risk, allowing you good field position to attack should they falter. The Raiders succeeded in part. They spent so much of the game winning the battle of field position, continually putting Manly in tough situations, forcing them to kick incessantly from inside their own 40. The Raiders kept putting the ball in Manly’s corners, hoping for errors to take advantage of.
Manly failed to help with this. Instead it was the Raiders that found the ball impossible to hold. They spilled it 15 times to Manly’s 7. Canberra made errors coming off their own line – Curtis Scott on the Milk’s second tackle of the game, Siliva Havili to extinguish all hope with a few minutes remaining were notable examples. They also made errors in attacking opportunities. Jordan Rapana dropped a catchable ball from Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad with the line open, then was taken into touch when he couldn’t outpace Curtis Sironen. Emre Guler dropped the ball in a tackle from a halfback when he should have had the power to get to the line. Jarrod Croker ‘dropped’ the ball after a screamer of a catch. There’s four near tries. The Raiders spilled them all.
A lack of points meant the defensive margin for error was small. The Raiders middle came to play, constantly pushing up and out throughout the game. Josh Hodgson made 48 tackles. Corey Horsburgh nearly killed a guy. Josh Papalii and Sia Soliola were constantly in the faces of the Manly big men. Unlike previous weeks the Raiders rarely gave Manly easy metres on sets. Manly had 27 more runs than the Milk, and ended up with practically the same amount of metres for the game (Canberra 1481m – Manly 1475m per foxsports). Addin Fonua-Blake had 200 plus metres, but nearly half of them (92) came in post-contact. He was constantly battling three or four big men. The Raiders’ left edge also held fast for the most part. Jack Wighton and Elliott Whitehead were targeted early, handled everything thrown at them. The Sea-Eagles quickly realised the gains on this side would be small, so headed elsewhere.
They found their nirvana on the Raiders’ right. It was like it was 2018 all over again. Curtis Scott got turned inside out by Tommy Trbojevic for Manly’s first try because he was backpeddling. Cotric then got turned inside out by Tevita Funa because the entire edge had failed to move up and pressure the Manly ball players. On both occasions Scott was paralysed by what was going on inside him, worried George Williams would be unable to cover the inside runner. On both occasions Canberra basically escorted an attacker in to score.
There’s a weakness here. The Knights exploited it. Shit, Bradman Best walked all the way to the try line moments into the game before anyone hit him with any fury. The Tigers would have if they could have, but their insipid attack was easier for the Raiders to handle. This is not Curtis Scott’s problem alone. There’s a whole edge of players that need to make both cohesive and aggressive decisions. Scott can’t simply burn out of the line like he did twice in this game, because if no one joins you that’s as bad as back-peddling. All four defenders need to make this work, but Scott will continue to face the ire of fans and the interests of attackers if they don’t solve this.
In the face of a deficit caused by moments of defensive ineptitude, the Raiders barely veered from their game plan. They kept winning rucks, kept winning field position and kept bombing to corners. It was almost admirable if the game hadn’t been slipping away from them. It was often hairy, but the Sea-Eagles kept finding a way to keep them out. In addition to Rapana, Guler and Croker dropping the ball close to the line, Soliola was taken down metres from the line. Croker was wrapped up by cover defence when a ball to Wighton would have been points. It wasn’t that far from being a more bountiful day, but it wasn’t, and that’s the point.
While Canberra were a moment or a centimetre away on occasion, more often they rolled up the ground and then became simultaneously un-adventurous and impatient in attack. It’s a bad mix. When they got close to the line, the Green Machine tried to go around Manly, ignoring the success they were having close to the middle. It’s not the first time this has happened against the Sea-Eagles. They jam in so aggressively that teams become focused on how they get around the outside where acres of space are evident. But there is so much benefit playing around the ruck.
Instead Josh Hodgson seemed to cede so much of the close quarters attack to Williams and Wighton and Canberra went sideways too often as a result. After a few attempts Wighton has yet to solve the Manly jam. He should be straightening the attack, a strength of his, or pushing earlier ball to his backs. Instead he played at the line, putting too much pressure on his outside men and too much in the hands of Nicoll-Klokstad. Charnze is a brilliant ball runner but a developing creator. He gets caught with the ball a lot, and when he does pass it’s not yet as clean as it needs to be (as Jordan Rapana). Regardless, it was all too rote watching the ball go through the hands to Nicoll-Klokstad on sweeping movements. I’d love to see Whitehead and Croker given earlier ball and more of a chance with the ball to be the secondary creator outside Wighton. Nicoll-Klokstad should be given an opportunity to run some of the power-lines that Wighton once ran on Croker and Whitehead’s inside shoulders.
On the other side George Williams pushed sideways too often, and needed to take the line on more. Neither Tapine nor Scott offered him a strong line against the grain, which meant him turning his body up-field was his only option to keep the defence honest, and he didn’t do that enough. His kicking was to the plan, and the only issue was that he never veered from that and found a grubber and a repeat set. Both he and Wighton needed edges heading in a north south direction. Instead the Milk played to the edges and out. In the end their only try came when Whitehead ran an outside-in line when the defence jammed hard in on Wighton. I never saw a runner against the grain again.
This isn’t a “one bad day” thing either. The Raiders are averaging 14 points a game since the competition returned. It doesn’t matter how good your defence is, that’s not good enough to threaten the best. In recent weeks Hodgson hasn’t been able to find the balance between working his magic and allowing Wighton and Williams to flourish. He needs to try more than he did today, and he needs supporting runners to do that. Siliva Havili was the only Raider forward to crack 100 metres, and he did so much of that accompanying Hodgson into space. At the line talents like Papalii and Tapine should be given space and a hard running line and success will result. The edges need to turn up the field more than they have recently. And most of all, they need to find a way to get a repeat set. There were zero in this game, and if you’re playing a patient game in attack, you can’t do it one set at a time.
The Raiders don’t feel far away from finding it, but that’s what makes it so frustrating. This was a game they needed to win. Parramatta, the Roosters, the Storm and the Bunnies all coming down the pipe. The Dragons, previously the easy game on the list, have suddenly strung two wins together and look as threatening on offence as the Milk. There was never going to be a better time to find a way past Manly, nor would there be a better time to re-establish themselves as contenders after a quiet few weeks. Instead they offered a frustrating stick drawing of what they’re capable of.
The worrying aspect is that this isn’t solved quickly. One does not simply create fluidity and penetration in a week. Nor are there any easy roster fixes. John Bateman is months away, and while one may be tempted to move Curtis Scott on, move Nic Cotric in and bring Bailey Simonsson back, it won’t solve the attacking problems, and would be a risk to Scott’s development so early into his four year contract. It’s not yet time to panic, but there’s no time for pretence.
This problem has been the Green Machine’s for weeks now, and we’ve been waiting for a fix. The Raiders will have to ensure their defence can cover the gap, and grab every damn competition point they can while they wait for offensive congruity. There’s too much talent in this side to serve up such insipidity. Canberra have found their floor. Now they need to lift themselves off it.
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