The Canberra Raiders 14-12 victory over the North Queensland showed how they have come, and how far they have to go in 2020. In a game that shaped up as the quintessential trap game the old Raiders would give away, they managed to grit their teeth and find a way to win. They’ll play better in the future and lose, but that doesn’t matter now. The Milk got what they needed.
This was always going to be a tough game for the men from the capital, even if the rugby league commentariat had already chalked up the win before a ball was kicked. A day trip to 2000kms to the north Queensland heat (and a cow-paddock of a field) should make Townsville a fortress of sport (like…a…sportress….never mind) for the home side. The big Cowboys pack is exactly the kind of pack Canberra have struggled with in the current incarnation. Add to this the fact this was the first ‘lowly’ side Canberra had played since resumption, and you could feel the atmosphere for a let down.
The travel certainly seemed like it took it out of them. The people’s team looked like they were fighting lethargy the whole game, and had defensive line-speed to match. They could never get on top of a defensive set, and even when they pinned the Cows in a corner, the opposition seemed to always find a way to (at least) halfway. North Queensland made more metres (1,676) in this game than the Bunnies or the Storm in recent games, and broadly as much as the Roosters did in scoring 20 points against the Raiders a few weeks ago.
Partly this is Jason Taumalolo (24 carries for 225m, 114 post contact) is the best forward of his generation. But it’s also certain that the Milk’s lack of line speed made it easier. Like last week it meant Canberra spent much of the game working the ball from their own goal line, kicking to the opposition 30. It got better as the game went on but that’s only because it couldn’t have started worse. The Cowboys just waltzed down the field, aided by a Jack Wighton error and a set restart, and then Reece Robson jostled in from dummy-half. It was loose: Hudson Young couldn’t cover across from marker, Jordan Rapana didn’t get off the goal line, and Dunamis Lui charged out of position to put a hit on the wrong guy. Sticky would not have been impressed, and the Milk hadn’t touched even touched the ball yet.
A more strategic offence might have troubled the Raiders, but after that moment North Queensland landed few punches. Yes they had plenty of ball in attack, but they didn’t threaten the line. The goal-line defence held strong, and while the line speed might not have been impressive in between the twenties, the Milk continuously put the Cowboys ball players under pressure whenever they pushed wide in close quarters. Each edge made some brilliant and brutal tackles to end movements. Elliott Whitehead took down Taumalolo in space when a normal human would be steam-rolled. Jack Wighton laid some brutal hits to not only stop an attack, but also to put it at a disadvantage with a slow ruck. And having John Bateman back made the right side feel almost completely safe. This robustness it led to the Cowboys trying kicks of all persuasions, desperately trying to find a way through. Such was the solidity of this defence that it was a shock when the Cows scored their second try; caused largely by Harawira-Naera’s excitement being back on a football field. He over committed to John Asiata, created a gap behind him that Taumalolo strolled through. How ironic that in a game where the Milkmen lacked urgency that his over-enthusiasm would harm them so.
If the Raiders spent much of their defence time on their own line, it was heartening to see the forward pack march them back close to parity with such regularity. Josh Papalii (17 for 184m, NINETY-SIX post contact metres) was just stunning. I have no idea how he keeps playing this way every week. No matter the disadvantage a carry starts with, he turns it into 10 metres and a quick play the ball. We are blessed to have him on this side. Oh, and he added in a crucial one-on-one strip because fuck it why not? Did I mention he led the team with 44 tackles? If someone doesn’t promise to build a statue for him soon I’m going to turn up at Bruce with a lump of marble and a pick.
He was ably supported by a forward pack that never got a chance to operate with an advantage. Of the middle forwards only Joe Tapine (10 for 95 in just 34 minutes) didn’t crack 100 metres, and he also had several critical runs, utilising his quick feet to get the Raiders up towards halfway after yet another set of rebuilding. Hudson Young (16 for 151, 69 post contact) was particularly noteworthy. His defence is as solid in the middle as it is on the edge (another 39 tackles with only 1 miss), and his carry is always fast and strong. He nearly always pops through the line and out the other side, creating a quick ruck for others to take advantage of. Give him time and that will turn into an offload. This all happened with the able play of Tom Starling, who is proving himself a useful player, particularly when Siliva Havili had not a very happy night. In support, Jordan Rapana, Curtis Scott and Nic Cotric all did excellent work in yardage.
While the defence and the middle did their job, the attack rarely got a shot off in this game. In the 50th minute the Raiders had been tackled just 9 times in the Cowboys twenty, The fault here could be laid squarely at ill-discipline. While the Milk didn’t make an array of handling errors (they completed 83 percent for the match), they had a knack of making errors as they crossed half-way with tackles to spare. Whitehead, Rapana and Wighton all made errors around halfway on the first or second tackle of a set. When they weren’t inexplicably dropping the ball at halfway, they were kicking the ball dead (Wighton did so at least twice), throwing hospital passes (both Jack and George put their edges under pressure not seen since Josh McCrone used to test his second-rower’s will to live). One such pass hit Croker upright in the line, and while he managed to catch it, he was pushed 10 metres back, and the Milk had to kick from a dead start after only making 25 metres on the set.
This clunkiness has been a feature of Canberra’s attack this (and last) year. Up until tonight the left had been developing well, but they were unable to muster anything meaningful in this game. They kept probing, but their most effective movements were swinging Smelly under for metres or Jack taking the line one – if he could have kept his feet, like, ever, Canberra could have scored more. As we noted Jack never quite nailed the right pass on the sweeping movements, and for the first time in weeks that side of the attack found no points.
This was offset by the return of the right. Along with winning a hard fought game, this should give Canberra fans the most happiness. After being largely a non-factor since the return (outside of George Williams taking the line on), the return of John Bateman, and (to a different extent) Curtis Scott, unleashed some ad-hoc brilliance on that side. The first try was a catch-and-pass movement from their own half that had so much to love about it. Williams saw the numbers, Bateman provided the quick hands to link the halfback to the outside backs. Scott popped a beautiful ball and Cotric was away. Cotric himself had circled around the entire line from the ruck to catch the pass from Scott on the wing. I have only ever before seen Leipana have the connection to pull that off . This group combined again in the second half when Williams gave Bateman the ball under pressure, he spun out of the tackle, popped a ball to Scott who powered to the line.
On both plays Bateman was a critical link that made the right side feel like it could develop into a genuine threat. That link has been missing all season, and when the Englishman got the ball in hand good things happened. That’s not to say he should simply be Williams’ right-side five-eighth; he’s too good carrying the ball into the line (and back behind the ruck) to push wide every play. But Williams trusts in him to make the right choice to push out (or in), and he has the smarts to make the right play as needed. It made all the difference.
It was enough to get the Milk the points they needed both on the field and in the competition. It wasn’t the stomping that we all wanted but it does continue to show a degree of security the Green Machine feel about their ability to close out games. Once they got ahead their defence just ground it out, even if they only had a two point lead and as much field position as I’ve eaten healthy food in lockdown (meanwhile have you tried these Salted Caramel Tim Tams? I have. A lot.) It continues a stunning reversal from 2018, and shows that Canberra have a lot of the same starch about them in 2020 that made them so damn charming last year.
There’s no doubt the Green Machine know about their inefficiency with the ball, and clearly thy are working hard to alleviate the problems. It’s certain that at some point in the coming weeks the errors and the penalties will disappear for a night and the men from the capital will put a hurting on someone, rather than scrapping and fighting for every win. The key is finding a way to make the new right and the slick left appear together on a consistent basis. No small feat for Coach Stuart.
It doesn’t get easier from here. Canberra have the ‘Riff next week, who have won 13 straight (approx) and they just put a hurt on Manly (who you might remember, beat the Raiders with injuries galore). Good goal-line defence, some creativity on the right and a hodge-podge of other offerings won’t crack it in that game. The Milk have to get better, and build on what they’ve already established.
But for now, they’ve yet again found a way to win when they once would have capitulated. The didn’t do it pretty, they barely looked fluid, and it was never comfortable. But they did enough, and for now that’ll do.
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