The Canberra Raiders 20-14 loss to the Melbourne Storm was a crushing defeat for hope in a year already lacking it. The Green Machine tried – oh how they tried – but errors cost them too many points, and then luck cost them Josh Hodgson and potentially their contender-ship in 2020. The way forward now is nothing but hard.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. This was meant to be the game that the Raiders righted the ship. After so long on the road, Coach Stuart felt the team had just been tired against the Dragons. Two weeks in their own beds would result in a revitalised Canberra outfit. The Storm were tired as well, having come off a golden point game against the Roosters, with the knowledge that they would be almost permanently on the road going forward for the rest of the season.
The sad thing was that for moments in the first half it looked like the Milk were finding, if not their best football, something approaching better. After an uncharacteristically quiet few weeks, Josh Hodgson was controlling and creating in the middle with great success. He and Josh Papalii were making sweet music again in the middle. 115 of Papalii’s 182 metres on the ground came in that opening stanza. When Hodgson hit Papalii on a face ball for Canberra’s first try, it was the third time in the opening 20 minutes they had done it, once called back for a forward pass but each time threatening the line. He even nailed a long kick to the Storm’s right corner that set the Milk up to trap their opposition in their own 20 for a full set. It was the regular Hodgson stuff that has made the Raiders great.
Papalii’s supporting cast was putting in too. Dunamis Lui’s (17 for 136m) effort was inspiring. Kai O’Donnell (6 for 59m) only played one stint, looked absolutely cooked by the end, but didn’t look out of place. Joe Tapine provided a useful contribution off the bench (12 for 122m) and Elliott Whitehead (11 for 120m) was brilliant as always. For a period the Raiders were owning the possession and position of the game, tackled 19 times in the Storm redzone in the first 20 minutes compared to near nothing for the opposition. This penetration in the middle allowed the edges to play straighter more often than they had in recent weeks.
Errors were the only reason the Raiders weren’t up more. Errors always cost you, but rarely as directly as they did for Canberra in this game. One Melbourne try came from a blunder for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, failing to push a grubber dead. Another try came after Bailey Simonsson was wrongly put in the bin. The referee’s error compounded when Hudson Young got caught on the wrong side of a wrap-around and it was enough to create the numbers for a try. A third try came when George Williams’ kick was not quite inch perfect, or more accurately just perfect enough for Ryan Papenhuyzen to pick up and go 80 metres to score. In between all this Whitehead was ruled to have lost control of the ball in the act of scoring.
The Raiders were a bad combination of errors and ill-discipline. Young, Lui, Williams and Nicoll-Klokstad all dropped the ball cold in attacking position. Canberra gave away a freaking ‘not packing the scrum fast enough’ penalty and then a ‘not being able to catch the drop out’ turnover. Even with good ball and smart play in the middle, the Green Machine were still getting in their own way.
And then Josh Hodgson went down. It’s no coincidence that the Milk’s domination of the middle ended with his injury. Metres were harder to come by, and it was compounded by the Green Machine’s middles rotated. Papalii came off 10 minutes into the second half, meaning Havili was trying to muster momentum without the best weapon in the pack.
It’s easy to say the attack wasn’t as fluid, but it’s hardly been a smoothly functioning machine this year. It made life harder. One of the reasons the Raiders have been so successful against the Storm in recent years is the ability of Canberra to make metres with width. Hodgson can fire a twenty metre pass, even with the wet fish that was the ball tonight, to an edge forward to take 15 metres and create a quick ruck. Havili filled in admirably, but his strength is playing straight with runners on his shoulders. It’s still effective, but it can’t create pace and momentum from nothing.
Space was at a premium – and suddenly the ball players on the edges were more often operating with defenders in their faces. It reduced the options they had on many occasions. Williams had plenty of numbers but no space when his grubber was picked up by Papenhuyzen. The right side attack, which had hardly been firing, was even quieter without the threat and space that Hodgson provides.
The pleasing thing was that the left side remained a threat the whole game. The Raiders created two tries on this edge after Hodgson went down, and should have had three but for Whitehad’s error. All of them came from a quick ruck, a bit of space for Wighton to build a head of steam and some space to create. The ball to Whitehead was at the line and put him into a hole. The ball to Croker was catch-pass, matched in brilliance by Croker, and then Cotric’s catch and score. When Nicoll-Klokstad went in at the end of the game it was because of the gravity created by Wighton dragged so many bodies inside that Charnze had an acre of space to run to, and fall over the line. In between Wighton found a couple of repeat sets and the Raiders got a glimpse at what their best option will be over the rest of the season.
The other bright spot was that the Raiders defence was robust. It’s rare that you can say that when you’ve had 20 points put on you, but the Storm didn’t look like scoring unless they were gifted points, either by an error, an errant kick, or with (unearned) extra players. The Milk softened in the middle in the second half and bent on occasion, but it never felt like they would break. The Storm found metres and momentum attacking Canberra’s right but between Young, Oldfield, and Williams they held the strong. Williams’ took up residence on Oldfield’s outside (as opposed to the traditional positioning inside the centre). I suspect this was driven by the lack of threat posed by Riley Jacks and a desire for Oldfield to get up in his face. I don’t think it will be permanent. We will see.
And the heart. The side genuinely never gave up, even down 20-6 with their conductor gone and the fates of referees and footy gods conspiring against them. It was a resilience we haven’t always seen in the past but it was there in this game; and it’ll be needed for the rest of the season.
The Raiders now face the cold light of day. Without Hodgson the ceiling of their potential is much lower. Canberra can win without him, but it puts more pressure on everyone. He allowed the Raiders to skip steps in attack, able to just create momentum with his eyes, a couple of steps, or a sneaky 30 metre pass to a backrower lined up against a half. It’s not impossible to win without him, there’s just more steps where things can go wrong.
Havili has to play big minutes, and will rely on an already stretched set of middle forwards to provide him some platform to operate from. The forward pack has lost Hodgson, but it’s also lost Havili, the rotation forward. Even when a middle forward doesn’t get hurt, somehow they still have to do more work.
There’s more pressure on Wighton to create. So much of the Raiders attack was sent down the left side in the second half. It’s been the best, most cohesive unit throughout this season, but it will now face teams that have no pressing need to worry about other areas of Canberra’s attack. George Williams continues to develop, and would desperate for a dry track, but he needs to find a way to connect with Young and Oldfield. It’s a mess out there at the moment; since the return whoever has played centre has been absent in offence. Spacing is undoubtedly an issue, and the shifting personnel can’t help. That will need to get sorted quickly or risk the Raiders becoming a one-note team. Williams also can’t get caught on the last any more, because without Hodgson there aren’t other kicking options to take the pressure of Wighton.
Siliva Havili will be a fine fill-in, and will provide plenty of poke for the Milk in the middle. Tom Starling will likley provide minutes off the bench, if only because with Bailey Simonsson’s injury, Jordan Rapana will have to return to the starting side. Kai O’Donnell will make up for his lack of match fitness by being one of the fit 17 players the Raiders have. Questions will again be asked as to what is stopping Canberra from filling out their squad urgently. The Raiders may not have options that will make them better, but right now they need bodies, if nothing else.
Compounding all this pain is a short turnaround and the frankly astounding Roosters next Thursday. If a team ever needed a bye it was this Raiders side. Unfortunately they have to get a rest, go back to work and find a way. Without Josh Hodgson it’s that much harder. What a shit year.
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