The Canberra Raiders 28-12 loss to the Penrith Panthers confirmed the current limits of their abilities. The Green Machine were courageous and aggressive, but they were also imprecise, and unable to corral a fast and brutal opposition. They are a good, hard-working side that has impressive resilience, but when the elite of the competition are on, they are currently a step behind.
The Panthers came into this game riding a hype train not seen in recent years. The conversation around them has shifted from big improvers to sexy premiership picks through the duration of a seven (now eight) game winning streak. Commentators were hearkening back to the memories of 2003, comparing Pridd and Korisau, Gower and Cleary, Lang and Lang and Ivan and Nathan. While Fox did their best to blow gas up the Raiders in the lead up, there hadn’t been performances to match in the previous fortnight to support the excitement. The Milk had kept winning after the Roosters game, and not suffering a let-down in the following weeks was an achievement in itself, and a sign of how far they have come as a side. However, there was no form-line to suggest the Green Machine were purring as the Panthers were.
Nothing in this game would dissuade one of that position. The Panthers were a buzzsaw, particularly for the first 50 or so minutes, and out-played the Raiders in a way that only the Knights (in round 4), and the Storm and Roosters (last year) have in recent times. They played with pace, precision and aggression. The men from the capital matched their aggression, and showed plenty of resilience, but simply couldn’t match the pace and execution offered by the mountain men.
The Panthers middle ate the Raiders defence alive. In the first half they had 7 more carries, but ran for 250 metres more than the Milk. This penetration was direct and fast, collapsing the Green Machine’s middle third on itself. On occasion the Panthers would press through the Raiders’ right edge, using Kikau to target George Williams for metres and a quick ruck. It was their fail-safe, and they used it well. The combined pressure on the middle put an inordinate amount of duress on the edge defence to be perfect to hold the Panthers out.
Well they weren’t. Penrith’s first try came when Hudson Young got caught inside Nathan Clearly, and John Bateman got caught looking outside as Kikau ran a strong outside-in line. Their second try came when Elliott Whitehead forgot to tackle Liam Martin, and Jack Wighton, desperate to pressure to the Panthers ball-carriers, ran past the play. Both tries came after the mountain men had worn the middle down, sent the ball barely a pass or two wide to test the edge defenders, and found Canberra wanting.
The two other tries that followed came as the defence was worn down into lethargy and error. Stephen Crichton scored off a grubber that Nic Cotric failed to clean up, but he could have scored moments earlier if not for a Bateman try saver. Former Raider Brent Naden could have been corralled by Jordan Rapana if he’d been in better position and had taken Naden’s pace, power and athleticism more seriously. The sweeping movement that Naden was on the end of was fast, and it was exact. Such movements require a series of perfect decisions from the defence. The Raiders couldn’t do that, and 24-0 at half time always felt too big of a hole.
That Canberra had a zero on their side of the leger was not through lack of opportunity. They camped on the Panthers line for the first 6-7 minutes of the game and came up empty. They created other opportunities, finding a way to get over the line at least twice in the first half and being turned back both times by the video referee. But these chances felt fleeting and desperate, born from guessing and hoping rather than probing and knowing. For much of the game the Raiders weren’t able to muster anything coordinated and consistent, found penetration (and therefore metres) tough to come by. This came into stark contrast in the attacking twenty.
They really missed Josh Hodgson. Silvia Havili is an improving footballer, and a critical part of this squad, but he has yet to master the creativity needed to control the markers and find easy metres for his forwards. Only once did he surprise me (and likely the defence) when he switched the play to Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad on the weakside of the ruck. He also has yet to build an effective combination with the middle forwards in order to utilise the crash ball effectively in the redzone.
Canberra’s middle struggled as a result. Josh Papalii finished with 113 metres for the game, but at halftime he had 10 carries for 59 metres, of which 27 were post contact. No Canberra forward averaged 10 metres a carry, and only Papalii and Dumamis Lui (14 for 122m) cracked 100 for the game. And like recent weeks, the Milk played the game between their goal line and the Panthers thirty far more than is sustainable.
This lack of threat in the middle third, combined with an ultra aggressive Panthers defence, substantially reduced the space available to the Raiders ball players. It pushed Wighton and Williams wider and wider, reducing the space and options outside them. Wighton as per usual tried to run through it, as did Nicoll-Klokstad. For Williams it meant he was unable to give Bateman the ball in the space he needs to play creatively and link with the outside men. George tried a short-cut via floaters to the wing, but neither time he did this did the pass land on a man’s chest in any space. The only time the Raiders played with any directness in the middle, Williams nearly put Papalii in. Such was the malaise in attack that it was a surprise when Nicoll-Klokstad burrowed his way to the line (running off Wighton’s inside shoulder) for Canberra’s first try.
When Tom Starling came on the game opened up for the Milk. Starling is a smaller defender, and that’s the chief reason he spent so much time on the bench. The Panthers are big and fast and the middle was already struggling. But when he came on the attack felt faster, more connected, and his ability to threaten around the ruck – both in terms of his pace and his ability to use big forwards – made movements sharper. This opened up the space for the left edge in particular, and it felt like they found their precision and penetration that had been lacking earlier in the game (and last week for that matter). Nicoll-Klokstad scored again, this time at the end of probably the first sweep movement the Raiders ran that didn’t run out of space.
That’s not to say the halves were poor – they each had some really impressive moments. Jack’s long kicking game was impressive, and his running ability close to the line is an underutilised weapon. He put Nicoll-Klokstad and Whitehead into space on multiple occasions. George Williams kicked well in attack, patiently earning a couple of repeat sets, and nearly creating some tries. He ran at the line well, playing late to (nearly) put Papalii in, and burst through a gap late to score, only for it to be called back because for the third time in two weeks a Green Machine forward had stopped in the line. He didn’t connect with Bateman as much as last week. That was influenced by the lack of space available, but also by his tendency to run sideways, forcing Bateman to run an under line rather than allowing him to push into space.
The only other bright-spot for the Milk was the play of Nicoll-Klokstad, and even that was tinged with a degree of worry. Charnze continues to epitomise the 2020 Raiders. He works so damn hard that it’s hard not to love and respect him. He takes so many yardage carries that it’s never a surprise when he leads the Milk in metres gained (even after removing kick return metres). Every one of his 256 metres were critical in this game, and he showed he has a nose for the line twice. This doesn’t even mention the crucial role he played jumping between the defensive line and defusing kicks as the middle collapsed under the weight of the Panthers onslaught.
But even he was not without fault. He continues to be a developing ball-player, too often getting caught on the edge with the ball in hand and men in better positions outside him. Croker and Scott don’t see early ball when he’s the link man. Most importantly his confidence under the high ball is a problem. In this game it was obviously influenced by the fact his hand clearly wasn’t 100 per cent, but this shakiness existed before this game. I’ve said in these pages that it’s more confidence than technical, and this was clear to see in this game.
Nicoll-Klokstad epitomises where the Raiders are right now. Resilient, hard-working, courageous, but a step behind the elite of the competition. Let’s be clear, Canberra are a finals team, and are more than capable of matching it with the best. But right now they remain limited, with flaws that need fixing before they can take on the best of the competition when they are flying. Playing games between your goal line and the opposition thirty may work against the Bunnies and the Cowboys, but it will not suffice in a preliminary final.
Canberra can get better. They can find more creativity around the ruck. They can be more precise in their movement, and this will only be helped by improved play in the middle. They can play straighter coming off the edges, make smarter decisions in defence, and they can play with the same pace, power, and execution they faced in this game.
But right now they are not there. That’s not a reason to panic. You don’t win premierships in round 13. The Green Machine have plenty of games left against less-than-stellar competition to hone their craft. Now they’ve seen the bar they need to get to. Time to get to work.
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Great review of the game. The Raiders don’t move up in defence as quickly as other teams so lose the battle for metres and end up playing between the opponents 30 m and their own goal line. This was true even against the Cowboys. Why has this continued to be a feature of their play even with the improved defence last season?