The Canberra Raiders 24-20 victory over the Sydney Roosters was the purest of rugby league victories. The Raiders overcame their extended injury list, a red-hot opposition, and their own limitations to show that they can match it with the best sides in the competition. Whether this was a once-off or the start of something beautiful is yet to be seen, but the Canberra Raiders proved in this game that they will not go gentle into that good night.
This was meant to be impossible. Hodgson, Bateman, Horsburgh, Soliola, Simonsson and Scott were all watching. They were on five days rest, travelling to a place they hadn’t played at in 30 years, and their opposition hadn’t lost at for ten games. The Roosters had been putting up points with almost boring brilliance in recent weeks. No side, not the Storm, the only team to beat them, or the Eels, with a historically good defence in 2020, had held them to less than four tries in a game. Without Hodgson and the extended injury list, most would have been surprised if the Raiders could muster four tries themselves, let alone stopping the Sombreros from running riot. But the Raiders fought them, and they won.
It was damn hard. This wasn’t the game where the Raiders make metres for fun. So many rucks were a battle and they were almost always playing from a standing start. This made it hard for Siliva Havili as starting hooker. His strength is picking up some clean ball, taking it to the line and making merry. It’s not ruck manipulation and clean 25 metre passes. When the Raiders had a good ruck, he could find metres and momentum. The first try of the match came from a half-break from Jack Wighton. Havili scooped it up, hit Joe Tapine at the line, who flopped a pass to Dunamis Lui for his first (and likely only) try for the season. It was the best of Havili at hooker. But if a forward got in a bad position in a tackle it made his life difficult, and it was a big reason the Raiders spent so much time in the first quarter of the game battling out of their own twenty (the Roosters excellent kicking and defence were bigger factors though).
Tom Starling proved a perfect foil to Havili. His service was clean, he provided a threat to run, and his defence was aggressive, making it more robust than his 82kg frame should allow. He even ventured out as a ball-player, often as a link man between Wighton and Williams on sweeping movements. It seems likely that this approach – of Havili taking the first twenty before handing over to the little man – will be the formula going forward.
This improved service was enough to allow the forwards pack an even footing with their fancied opposition. Josh Papalii (18 for 212, 47 post contact metres) was colossal. It was the same story as every week – taking the hardest carries, turning the deadest sets into productive ones. He even popped up for a try. Papalii’s footwork at the line was excellent, and he rumbled 20 metres to score while James Tedesco watched on in stunned awe (presumably).
Papalii stood up, because he does every week, but this was also Joe Tapine (18 for 159m, 44pcm) and Dunamis Lui’s (14 for 112m) victory. Both have been asked to play major minutes in recent weeks and both have had a major impact. Lui has been running hard, and in this game played the Papalii role on a few sets, taking multiple carries and getting the Raiders out of trouble. Tapine is a monster, and it’s becoming clear that he can do so much damage with his quick feet in the limited space offered in the middle. So often a bit of sideways action from Joe created a quick ruck even when the defence were swallowing him. It’s an important skill that was needed in this game, and it won’t be any less critical in the coming weeks.
The Roosters aggressive edges were a big part of the Raiders attack. They pushed up and in on the Green Machine’s playmakers in the hope of removing any space for them to operate. It’s worked against the Milk on many occasions, most notably whenever they play Manly. In this game they played with a patience and a willingness to play inside the jam that worked wonders.
Jack Wighton broke the edge early in the game with a pair of threatening runs, the second of which created the space for Havili to generate the first try. This was a constant threat – Jack ended with a clean 110 on the ground. So much of Canberra’s attack came from the idea that someone had to tackle him. When Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad butchered a try late in the first half on a sweeping movement, he had so much space because the Roosters edge had sold out to stop Jack. Nicoll-Klokstad held the ball too long and the Green Machine left points on the table. Wighton’s relationship with Elliott Whitehead as a co-creator is so important (notably Wighton’s break for the first try was made easier by multiple defenders falling for the Whitehead decoy). This wasn’t the only chance this side created, and even against a quality defence like the Roosters it felt like all the left-side needed was a bit of space or early ball and they could make hay.
Canberra used this aggressive edge to their benefit on the right too. When the outside defence pushed up on a right-side sweeping movement, Nicoll-Klokstad made up for his first half error by cutting back against the defence, grubbering perfectly for a Jarrod Croker try. Then George Williams saw the defence rush up outside him, propped and stepped between slow middle defenders, and bowled over Tedesco like he was Maika Siva (ok not quite but still) for another try. Even Papalii’s rumbling effort can be seen in the light of Starling playing the face ball to the big man because his link to Wighton had been severed by onrushing defenders. It belied a maturity and a patience in the Milk’s attack that hasn’t always been present (this year or previous).
Defensively it’s hard to argue with a side that held a rampant Roosters side to just three tries; and notably three tries that all required near-miracle passes to result in points. The Raiders were courageous and occasionally ferocious. It was so pleasing to see the middle fight the whole game, even on the back of the short rest. They didn’t win every battle, but they did enough to keep the Green Machine in the game. Time and time again middle defenders came quickly off their line, putting pressure on the Roosters which may not have been the sole reason for the bad guys’ error rate, but can’t have hurt. Add to that Lui rediscovering the Milk’s penchant for pinching the ball, and there was a lot of good to see.
When the line did break it was generally with the Roosters finding a way down the edges. The Raiders’ right was the most susceptible; the Sombreros relentlessly attacked it throughout the game, but even moreso when Jordan Rapana moved into the centre position and debutant Semi Valemi took the wing spot. Rapana’s not a natural centre and it showed; his aggressiveness often found Valemi wrong-footed, and needing cover from Hudson Young and George Williams. The Roosters last try seemed to come from nothing, but it actually came from Rapana not getting good contact on Josh Morris, forcing Valemi in and creating the space outside him. Later Rapana again failed to get good contact on Morris. This created a half break, forcing Young to have to cover across on quicker players while Rapana stood at marker. Ikavalu would have scored if not for a forward pass from Morris.
I’m not certain if Coach Stuart will persist with this pairing on the right-side. Canberra need a more stable solution defensively at right centre than any option they’ve tried this season. Hudson Young continues to show he is a stable and capable defender. Williams made sure Luke Keary rarely got outside him. But right centre was a problem for the Raiders all game (as it has been all season). It’s probably the hardest defensive spot on the field, having to make all the hardest reads against every teams’ most precise attacking movements. But the most obvious solution also requires weakening the left side’s cohesion. When you have an injury list like theirs, these are the decisions you have to make.
While the left leaked two tries it was less concerning. Tedesco’s move on Croker made the Raiders captain look bad, and if you come out of the line you need to wrap the ball up, but he’s hardly the first Tedesco has stood up. The second try on that side required a perfect ball from Flanagan to Brett Morris and was barely defendable. And when push came to shove, Croker made several big defensive plays at the back end of the game, most notably forcing an error the last time the Roosters got into attack. The rest of the game Wighton and Whitehead were largely brilliant, covering the mistakes of others and making critical plays.
This is what happens when you play the best. You find out exactly where you do well and where your weaknesses are. You just have to find a way to overcome them, and the Raiders did it with brilliant defence and a dash of hot blood and courage. It was inspiring to see, and impressive to watch. If I’m playing the hindsight game, you could see in the Storm game that the Raiders weren’t simply going to give up when things went against them, and it’s so heartwarming to see them look a death-machine like the Roosters square in the eye and not flinch. This is the kind of game that can kick start a run or define a season. It’s not that the Raiders can expect this output every week. I’m sure you can think of any number of reasons this is a one-off, as it would have been in the years before 2019. A fun asterix on an otherwise frustrating year.
But it’s hard not to see what occurred in this game and wonder if they can produce something approximating it in the coming weeks. So much of what they did in this game is replicable. Jack Wighton is going nowhere, and with Smelly and the left side will always be able to create points. Josh Papalii will fight for every metre. Hudson Young continues to improve and impress and with George Williams will eventually find a connection on the right. Defensive effort like that is not a fluke and you can fix the right edge. Probably.
The upside may be less without Hodgson et al but the heart remains as strong. The Raiders proved in this game that they haven’t given up on 2020, and even without their stars they’re capable of mixing it with the best. The key is to make sure they do it next week too. I wouldn’t bet against them.
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