The Canberra Raiders 18-12 victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs was courageous because it had to be. The Green Machine battled a smart team that put them in difficult positions, and Canberra simply clawed their way out of each one, inch by inch. It wasn’t pretty and the Raiders have plenty of improvement in them, but it was brave.
The Milk came into this game on a high after a big break. When the world had written them off, they didn’t so much thumb their noses as much as stick a middle finger up on each hand and thrust aggressively at the world. This week though, everyone was ready for the Raiders. The Bunnies are a good team, and because they haven’t found a way to get over a good side this year people had written them off, much like they did to the Milk the week before. You should always be wary of a Wayne Bennett team that has been written off.
South Sydney played such an intelligent game – the kind where you put your opposition in bad positions and then try and smash them into an error. Canberra spent so much time coming out of their own corners, or off their own line. Much of the reason that it was assumed that the Milk would handle the Bunnies with relative ease came down to the fact that many (including me) consider their pack weak. It was anything but that in this game.
There was barely an easy carry as the Rabbitohs pack swarmed the Raiders’ middles. Ask Dunamis Lui (12 carries for 85 metres) or Ryan Sutton (18 carries for 122 metres) how their bodies feel. Even the back five, normally good for yardage coming off the green line couldn’t find metres. Only Rapana ended the game with over 100 metres on the ground. Of the middle forwards, only Josh Papalii (19 for 148 and 61 post contact metres) and Joe Tapine (17 carries for 170m and 49 post contact) were regularly earning big metres. The game was played for the most part between the Raiders line and the Bunnies 30 metre line, such was the disparity in position. It felt like Souths spent the middle sixty minutes of the game starting each set on their 40 and ending it with an attacking kick. At the 75th minute Souths had spent 65 per cent of the second half ensconced in Canberra territory. They had been tackled 21 times in the Raiders’ red-zone compared to just four (4!) for the good guys.
It was here they missed Josh Hodgson – the Raiders simply couldn’t find a way to stop the ball carrier being immediately swamped. Hodgson can use his eyes, his body position, and a few steps to engage markers and create an extra half second for a ball carrier. He can hit a second-rower 25 metres away, allowing an unpredictability to the Raiders non-attacking sets. Instead Canberra played to their strengths, but Souths were ready for them. It made the going very tough.
This was also their own fault. There was much that was valorous about this performance, but equally Canberra made their own life difficult. Whitehead and Croker both dropped ball when the Raiders desperately needed a completed set. Wighton kicked the ball out on the full (and maybe not out on the full on an early penalty – it was hard to tell who kicked it because the TV coverage was carried away with a replay). He had four errors for the game. Williams knocked on a tough pass from Nicoll-Klokstad. Ryan Sutton dropped one cold when the Milk needed some clean ball.
Canberra barely got a chance to attack, but when they did they were incredibly efficient. It felt like they had ball in the attacking zone five times in the game, and came away with three tries, one disallowed and a penalty goal. People will look at three tries from kicks and suggest the Raiders had their share of luck but that sells them short. Each try required a display of brilliant skill. On the first try Jack Wighton’s cross-field bomb was pin-point perfect, and Nic Cotric’s strength to find the line after having to go backwards for the loose ball was astounding. On the second try Jarrod Croker’s pick up was magical, and Semi Valemei’s debut try in the second half showed quick reflexes and strength to get to the line.
Again the left side was the most threatenting attack the Raiders offered. It could have created more if not for the aforementioned errors from Wighton, Whitehead and Croker. On another day they likely find more opportunities and more points. On the other edge Nic Cotric and then Harley Smith-Shields didn’t get an opportunity in space, and Williams continued to look his best taking the line on. There’s work to be done there, but this game was more about the starvation of opportunity than any evidence of disconnect.
When you can barely get off your line for much of the game, the only way to win is with defence. And so they tackled and tackled and tackled. They made about 40 more tackles than their opposition with half as many missed tackles. 16 missed tackles for a game is outstanding, especially when you factor in the weight and position of possession.
Similar to last year’s preliminary final, the Bunnies troubled the Raiders early, but eventually they were enveloped by an aggressive and brutal defence. Their early success came through excellent sweeping movements that failed at the last pass. When they did score, it required a perfect set of passes that was met with a set of correct decisions by the right edge. The cover even got there, and Nicoll-Klokstad (and Josh fucking Papalii) almost pulled off a try saver. They scored again on the next set (ish) when Canberra gave away a penalty, two set restarts (one on the third tackle) and finally buckled under the weight of pressure and a miracle inside ball. Even these moments underscored how strong the defence was. The lengths teams are going to, to score against this Canberra side is heartening. There are just no soft tries at the moment.
This brilliant defence was built by a middle that played with almost scary aggressiveness. The line-speed was consistent all game, and the sound of contact was stunning coming through the television. Multiple times the Milk forced errors with just brutal tackles. Papalii, Tapine, Lui all put pain on the opposition, and even Tom Starling was effective. Only once in the second half did the Raiders line get broken – when whichever Burgess that is ran up the guts off the drop out. But apart from that the middle kept showing its grit, getting off the line quickly, and turning the Bunnies advantageous field position into little more than a footnote.
This aggressiveness and stability of the middle meant the edges had an easier time cleaning up any messes that evolved. Hudson Young was excellent, making 49 tackles (only missing 2), covering in for George Williams and helping out debutant Harley Smith-Shields late in the game. Add to that a couple of very damaging outside-in lines, and a one-on-one steal, and it is just more evidence that he’s a brilliant prospect. Smelly Whitehead was equally good on the other edge, and he and Jack Wighton meant Adam Reynolds spent more time kicking behind the line because he simply could not orchestrate anything else after their early forays. More than once Cody Walker got caught running around in circles looking, hoping, for a hole to emerge. It never did.
And when push came to shove Canberra found a way. Rapana’s try-saving tackle on Adam Reynolds was an incredible feat of strength. Tom Starling got in the way of Burgess on the goal line and (with help) kept him out. When the Bunnies looked like they were going to have one more shot at golden point, Dunamis Lui stole the ball (again) and sealed the game for the Milk.
If they are continue to succeed they’ll need to find another reserve, and another way to adapt, because the injury news didn’t let up for them. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will miss at least the next two weeks. If Rapana is the choice to fill in for him it will mean some slight changes to the backline movements, especially on the left. Rapana is more of a running fullback, and this will likely mean more will need to be done between Wighton and Whitehead to ball play. I’m hopeful it may mean some actions like Jordy steaming off the inside of Whitehead or Wighton’s shoulder. Regardless, it’s another shift and another adjustment. It also means that Harley Smith-Shields may come into the starting line up. While he didn’t have a huge impact, every run he took in this game was powerful, and he showed the talent is very much transferable to first grade.
The Raiders won this game with resilience, something that is becoming a characteristic of this team. It was there in 2019, and it’s there again in 2020. I’m not here to tell you this team is on an unabated trajectory to the top of the table – that’s just not 2020’s style – but it’s hard not to appreciate a team that continues to show they will fight tooth and nail for every inch on the football field. They’ve made it through the toughest portion of their draw and they are well placed to have a read hot crack this season. While they’ve had to manage with an array of injuries beyond the norm, each time they’ve found a way to get by. And with John Bateman and Corey Harawira-Naera on their way, they’re finally getting some support coming the other way. Finding a way to win, even when things don’t go right, has to be the norm.
This victory wasn’t pretty, and it shouldn’t be remembered as a comprehensive performance. Better teams will throw more at them and they simply cannot continue to give sides that weight of possession or position. The Raiders weren’t perfect, they dropped too much ball and put themselves in too many bad positions against a smart side that pushed them to the breaking point. But they showed character, resilience, and a defensive courage that allowed them to overcome imperfection to compete, and ultimately to win. If Canberra keeps playing with this level of effort, and defensive execution, they’ll have plenty more to say this year.
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