The Canberra Raiders 22-16 victory over the St George-Illawarra Dragons was uninspiring. The Green Machine looked tired and out of ideas. They played with only occasional pace, sometimes smarts and the odd good moment in defence. It was enough to beat a team as incompetent as the Dragons. It won’t be good enough in the coming weeks.
The Milk desperately needed this win. After dropping three of their previous four, and with the Storm, Roosters and Souths on the horizon, this was the perfect chance to fine-tune the bumpiness of the last few weeks. It was their first crack at a non-top 8 side since the break. For their part the Dragons, coming off a ‘pretty good’ performance against the Roosters and a couple of wins in the games preceding, presented a plausible threat as Canberra looked over their shoulder at what was to come. It should have been a high energy game.
Instead it was a slow game. Part this was referee Matt Cecchin’s inability to police the ruck and the 10 metres at the same time (to the detriment of both sides). Coach Stuart also believed the travel and golden point had caught up with the Raiders over the last few weeks, and that showed in the pace of the game. Extra injuries didn’t help, meaning the Green Machine ended up with only one and a half people on the bench (Elliott Whitehead’s knee is fine…allegedly). Regardless, it was played with all the energy of a Saturday morning hangover.
The lack of pace didn’t suit Canberra. Their middles struggled all game to get consistent momentum through their sets. Josh Papalii, starting off the bench, had 136m of the hardest metres you will ever see. 58 post contact metres underscores how often he was trying to run while the defensive line was already up and around him. No one had it easy – the rest of the pack made nearly half their metres after contact. Emre Guler had 40 post contact metres in his 83 before he was taken off with a serious injury. Ryan Sutton had 141m (and 53 post contact metres), his 55 minutes proving that his best work is in volume.
They looked most sprightly when Siliva Havili (109m, 53pcm) and Joe Tapine (111m, 45 pcm) were playing quick around the middle. It’s not complicated. They played with pace, and they bent the line with quick feet getting on the outside of defenders. One can’t judge effort, but it’s hard not to see Havili pushing up alongisde Josh Hodgson when other forwards aren’t able to and wonder why not. Add his strong effort runs to his neat ball play at the line (he put Tapine through a gap up the middle) and he was critical to the Green Machine in this game. That a guy that couldn’t crack the 17 last year needs more minutes says a lot about 2020.
When the Raiders managed to get a few quick rucks good things happened. Hodgson was hardly at his best but with a bit of space and a forward coming on to the ball he can always make things work. When he shifted the ball to Wighton with a bit of space was when the Milk looked most dangerous. The left edge in attack is becoming Canberra’s best weapon. Wighton is such a powerful runner that sides aren’t just honouring his run, but focusing in on it. He had 131m in this game and barely broke a sweat. Nicoll-Klokstad and Whitehead are becoming effective deputy play-makers outside him, and Wighton seems to getting better at picking when to give them ball play, when to play at the line (or kicking it, as he did perfectly for Croker’s drought-breaker). If he can work out when the throw the long ball to the winger the Raiders will be set.
Nicoll-Klokstad showed that he’s also improving as a ball-player. By my count he only got caught with the ball once or twice when I would have preferred he passed it. His pump-and-pass to Cotric that gave him the space to steamroll Matt Dufty was a thing of beauty. He didn’t panic, and he made the right play perfectly. It’s an important that Wighton continues to trust him, because it adds so much potential to the attack. Similarly Wighton’s work with Whitehead, while not explicitly resulting in points (though if Wighton could have found the ball with his boot after Whitehead sent Jarrod Croker down the left it would have), was a threat until Smelly’s knee stopped working.
This was the best of the Raiders attack. The right side looked largely insipid. George Williams created one try by running through the saddest, laziest defence you will ever see. He kicked another ball to Bailey Simonsson who’s take was magic and pure and good and made me believe in the kindness of strangers. But outside of that the only penetration that side of the attack could muster was Hudson Young running an outside-in line back towards the ruck. This was always useful, and Young generates quick rucks, but there was little else on offer. Williams still isn’t really playing at the line; as last week he either took the line on or passed, rarely both. There’s was little gained in early ball to Michael Oldfied, who’s a strong carry but I genuinely am not sure if i’ve seen him pass the ball. As such the attack felt like it played in two-thirds of the field, and the Raiders weren’t better off for it.
This imperfect offence was compounded by some comically frustrating errors. Hodgson had a butt fumble, Jack dropped it cold on the attack when the Milk could have iced the game. Williams and the rest of the spine seemed to forget how to get to a kick early in the second half as the Raiders went through repeat sets where the Dragons started at the 40, even though the Milk ended their sets on halfway. That’s not to say Canberra were ill-disciplined with the ball – they completed at a respectable 76%. Rather, they seemed to drop the ball at the worst times, and (Williams in particular) were too often caught in two-minds about running it on the last versus kicking it. They earned one repeat set, and generally did as many idiotic things are they did smart things. When Williams grubbered the ball out with four minutes to go it felt like the most intelligent thing the team had done in half an hour.
And even then the defence didn’t hold up their part of the bargain in totality. They’ held the Dragons at bay for an hour, though it’s hard to tell how much of that was to do with their good defence or the oppositions insipid play. My god they were sad in attack. For the first sixty minutes they had maybe one set where it felt like hey might break the line. Whitehead and Wighton were smothering Frizell, and while Vaughan could create quick rucks, the Raiders always seemed capable of scrambling and handling. When St George had attacking sets the Milk mostly made the right choices. Croker and Cotric moved together enough to make you feel comfortable about that edge again. Young was aggressive in helping Williams. Not much was being thrown at them, and they didn’t look like leaking points.
That’s not to say the Milk were good. They missed 43 tackles in this game which is not acceptable – but it only resulted in three line breaks, showing that between the Dragons’ ineptness and their own resilience, they were good enough to cover their errors. Where good teams have made sure they only give away set restarts on the first few tackles, the Raiders excelled in extending Dragons sets by giving away late tackle restarts and penalties. In fact on the first Dragons try the Milk gave away a restart on the 5th with the Dragons mired at half away. Suddenly they got another set against a tired defence, and a try resulted. Later Croker was (wrongly) pinged for not being square at marker when the Dragons were stuck on their own line. It got them off their line and down the field and a try resulted.
Then Elliott Whitehead left the field. Technically it was after the first try the Dragons scored, but even for that one he was behind the play because he’d made a tackle on Euan Aitken that wasn’t called held. The grubber went through where he normally he would be to help. Given he’d saved the Raiders bacon on several occasion more than once helping across to pick up a kick (once to the right side, y’know, the whole other side of the field), you can assume if he’d been in the vicinity he would have found the ball before Dufty.
Sidebar: I’d love to watch the tape of this game again just to see how much Whitehaed was shifting around in defence. He kept popping up all over the shop. My theory is that he was following Frizell, simply making it his mission to make sure the big man didn’t break the Raiders.
When Whitehead went off Curtis Scott came on, which was odd enough until you saw the boys get around him when he was part of creating an error. If Tapine hadn’t been at the end of his rotation perhaps he would have shifted to the edge and allowed Havili to fill the middle. Scott wasn’t poor, but he’s not the defender that fixes the errors of those around him. So when Zack Lomax put a fend on Croker – not Croker’s first error of the night – and Cotric was caught already turned in, there was no one to clean up the mess like Smelly normally would. It was the second in a matter of minutes and every Raiders fan started to get that twitch. You know.
Update: I saw a comment that I was blaming Curtis Scot for this try. That was not the point. The only thing Scott did wrong was not be Elliott Whitehead, which is a fault of 7 billion other people.
But the real story was on the other side. After weeks of arguing about Oldfield v Scott, this game showed the resounding winner was none of the above. Aitken palmed off Oldfield to set up the last try, nearly did it again on the stroke of full-time, and the Green Machine nearly coughed up a lead with less than two minutes to go. It was almost the worst of 2018. It wasn’t the first time the Dragons had made a break down Raiders’ right. Ben Hunt got between Young and Williams earlier but his inside kick found Smelly instead of Dufty.
It should be enough for Coach Stuart to end the Oldfield experiment at centre. There’s a case to be made that his defence tired with his lack of match fitness. I’m open to that. But it’s not the first time Oldfield has proven unsustainable as a defensive centre, and it’s frankly unfair to him (in a contract year no less). There needs to be a defensive presence at that centre position because Williams and Young aren’t good enough defenders yet to cover for any weaknesses. Cotric seems like the best solution, but the constant shuffling of the back-line is infuriating and can’t be good for cohesion. There’s not easy resolution.
It’s not the only tough decision Stuart has to make. The Raiders’ injury ward now reads: Bateman, Horsburgh, Soilia and Guler. Three of their four best middle forwards are out for long periods and their best edge defender. Dunamis Lui is almost guaranteed to come in next week, if only to reprise his role of wearing the brunt of the opposition’s first shift. Papalii and Sutton seem most likely to start with him, with Havili and Tapine joining them off the bench. After that, well who knows. Scott and Rapana could both find themselves playing minutes in the middle, because they’re the only players the Raiders have left with first grade experience. Oh how we miss Murchie, Luke Bateman and JJ Collins now.
This was a win and the Raiders needed it. But it shouldn’t have made anyone feel better than they did after either the Manly or Parramatta losses. Canberra did plenty of good things that’s for sure, but they showed they are still to solve the issues that plague them: a lack of pace in the middle, a stilted attack and forgiving right side defence. They showed resilience that we would have lauded in other years, but only because of the tyranny of low expectations. Sticky can talk about travel and tiredness, but the Storm and the Roosters are over the horizon, and they don’t give a shit what the Raiders have been through. The cavalry will come eventually, but right now the Green Machine aren’t remotely near their best. They can ill afford to putting together a patchwork team to take on the the juggernauts at the top of the competition.
Hold on. That’s what the Raiders did through this game. They’re not clicking, they’re not rolling, but they got their nose in front and held on when it matter. It wasn’t pretty but it was enough to win. Two points, and they were desperate for them. They’re going to have to do more than just enough in the coming weeks. Let’s hope they find a way.
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