The Canberra Raiders capped their most horrible month since early 2018 in a way only the Green Machine can: with a painful 25-24 golden point loss to the Parramatta Eels. Canberra showed that they are capable of competing with the top echelon teams in the NRL, but right now only for a bit, and not completely. In the meantime they spent much of the game getting in their own way, revelling in their limitations on both sides of the ball. They are a work in progress. The most relevant question is whether they’ll find their potential in 2020. Right now they’re just patchy and impatient.
The Milk came into this game desperate for a victory. They needed it for their table positioning – they are ensconced in the fat bit of a tough draw. They also needed it for their own confidence. When the Knights tore them apart it made the Raiders seem vulnerable in a way they hadn’t since the bad days. Those wounds have shown since, and this game was a chance to show those were anomalies, and that Canberra were actually the real deal.
What resulted was not that. The game ebbed and flowed but the Green Machine never felt in control, of themselves or the game. Even when they were ahead it felt like a battle as the Raiders failed to capitalise on good position. Parramatta kept finding themselves in attacking positions, and could have had a couple of tries if not for the bounce of the ball. As the game wore on, Canberra felt more and more ragged and while they could string passages of play together like the last five minutes of regulation, they could equally be as lacking direction and control as the golden point periods.
The thrust and parry of the game was carried out between two hard working packs. The Raiders’ middle fought hard. Josh Papalii worked like Boxer in Animal Farm, taking another 18 of the dirtiest carries you will see for a clean 176m. He looked cooked at the end of all of his rotations in this game. Emre Guler (13 for 123m) and Siliva Havili (14 for 138m) worked hard, and have established themselves as permanent parts of the Raiders’ 17. It was good to see that even after Corey Horsburgh injured his ankle that the Raiders could find metres.
Josh Hodgson played his role in this. An underrated part of his game is the width he can bring to the forward pack. Papalii’s easiest carries come when Hodgson hit him 25 metres away coming off an edge back to the middle, allowing him a modicum of space to run in. When the Raiders did get some metres and momentum from the pack, good things happened. The most obvious example is the first try to Papalii, coming on the back of good Hudson Young and Sia Soliola runs.
A bit of space to operate gave us vision of the best evidence in recent times that the Raiders’ attack might find a way to click. On the left edge, Wighton started giving early ball to Elliott Whitehad and Jarrod Croker and good things started happening. Twice the Raiders scored down the left, and arguably they could have had four. Each time it was because Wigbton sent early ball to his outside men. For the first try he played early and wide to Croker, who passed (probably forward) to Nic Cotric, a kick, a catch, a pass and Elliott Whitehead was scoring. They nearly repeated it minutes later but Whitehead’s last pass to Wighton was knocked down. Early in the second half Wighton gave Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad a bit of space, and his pass that put Cotric into space was called forward. Finally, the Milk’s last try came simply from more early ball from Wighton to his outside men. Whitehead dummied and he and Charnze did the rest. Add to that George Williams’ perfect kick for Nicoll-Klokstad and Hodgson and Papa’s beautiful connection and you’d think the Green Machine may have found a fix for their attacking dramas of recent times.
But despite these heartening moments on the left edge, and the battle being fought (and sometimes won) in the middle, Canberra too often played without form or patience. Too often they kicked poorly (mostly Hodgson and Williams), seemingly incapable of finding a useful kick at the end of sets, wasting periods of dominance that should have resulted in points. It was all repeated in golden point, when the halves were so intent on field goal attempts that they failed to realise that kicking to corners, or even trying to score a try was an option. It was frustrating. The Raiders were never clear where on the field they were headed, and seemed impatient to get there. Consequently at many points Canberra could press an advantage in this game they came up with the wrong play. Sometimes it was a dropped ball like Havili’s which wasted good position against a tired defence. Others it was Williams’ kick that gave a 7-tackle set to the Eels instead of giving the Raiders the ball ball. It let the Eels sit in the drivers seat, even when they were losing.
This was compounded by the fact that the right side was almost non-existent in attack. At the moment Williams either plays straight or he passes – he needs to do both at the same time. Too often he ambles sideways, no threat to run, allowing the defence to push to the outside attackers. He does take on the line (he had 100 plus on the ground) but when he does it seems that’s his only option. Part of that is the positioning of his outside men – only Hudson Young routinely pushed up with him, or offered him an outside-in line, Curtis Scott was absent and had no connection with the surprisingly shifted Jordan Rapana. It shows there’s a disconnect on the right that still requires work and that was unlikely to have been helped by Rapana’s shift there.
Unlike recent weeks the Raiders defence couldn’t keep the attack in the match. The longer the game went the less stable the middle felt. Again ill discipline played a role. All of Parramatta’s tries came after either penalties, restarts or repeat sets. The middle would be holding on by a thread, victims of having to make a multitude of tackles. Eventually the Eels would find numbers on the edge. It still required individual errors. Wighton read in on Paulo when Croker read out for the first try. Whitehead pushed passed the line when Ray Stone was coming on a face ball. Shaun Lane’s offload for Jennings’ try was perfect, and the move that saw Sivo score his try was smooth, but on both occasions Canberra was chasing the game, the middle overwhelmed, and the edge desperately trying make up the difference. Even without Mitchell Moses the Eels were able to press repeatedly up the middle, before hitting the Raiders’ right edge in search of points.
It’s the same weakness as last week. Teams are targeting Williams. He’s small, and players are getting on his outside far too often. The Eels identified him as a player to target for metres and quick rucks. But that’s the deal with halfbacks. They’re usually the weakest defender, and it’s the job of the edge back-rower and the centre to cover for them. Last year John Bateman and BJ Leilua provided hearty support for Aidan Sezer (who was no slouch in defence). Williams is performing fine in the grand scheme of things, and Hudson Young continued to provide robust support inside him. Curtis Scott didn’t have the obvious errors of previous weeks but he’s not providing ‘plus’ support for Williams; instead he’s just OK. The defence needs more than that right now.
It’s tempting to see the Raiders solving their problems with positional switches. It’s my view that Hudson Young should be the permanent starter on the right edge until John Bateman returns. He’s more stable defensively, and his quick feet in attack are underrated. This would free Joe Tapine to fill the starting lock that Corey Horsburgh is likely to vacate with injury. This means the attack will be a bit quicker to start with, holding plenty of power on the bench. There’s a real question as to whether Nic Cotric should be starting at right centre with Bailey Simonsson joining the starting side and Curtis Scott dropping out. The argument against is the Raiders tearing apart their cohesion and potentially Scott’s confidence, but it cannot be any worse than what’s occurring (can it? Shit I hope not).
This discussion is indicative of where the Raiders are at. They’re still putting the pieces together, developing an understanding and hopefully building towards something bigger. At times it feels like the bits are there – they’re just never there at the same time. That’s not good enough against settled teams like Manly and the Eels, with or without their best players. I suspect this will take time, and given their draw, it will probably be just as painful (if not more) at stages over the next month. But there’s goodness in this team, I think, and if they can connect their brains and their structures to their talent good things can happen. At the very least, this Raiders side stuck in the game despite it being done and dusted. That should hearten.
Right now things are bad though, and unlikely to get better quickly – the draw simply doesn’t provide the space for them to find their way. The Raiders need every win they can find, because after the previous four weeks it would be a fool who thinks they can take anything easy. But they are not out of this season. They showed in this game that they are capable – that they are a good footy side. They didn’t do it always, and they didn’t do it for long enough periods. But if they can hang on, 2020 is still worth talking about.