The Curse of Spookers

BY DAN

It’s been been over a year since the Canberra Raiders scored five tries in the same game.

It was August 2, 2019, few days after the Green Machine had taken part in a team-bonding outing to a haunted amusement park call Spookers on the outskirts of Auckland. They turned that camaraderie and bonhomie into good times on the field, tearing apart the Warriors 46-12. Never for a moment were they troubled – even my notoriously pessmistic-ass called it a ‘training run‘. My how times have changed. Canberra won’t go to Auckland this year, and if they don’t do something soon, they won’t score five tries either.

The comparison between then and now is a bit of poetic licence. The Raiders attack wasn’t a slick machine last year. It was unstructured, heavily reliant on the dummy-half play of Josh Hodgson to organise and find opportunities in the middle third. Outside that, it was hit the ball wide to excellent athletes like Jack Wighton, John Bateman and BJ Leilua who could either create, or simply dominate. It wasn’t sophisticated, but with a defensive wall put in place over the 2018/19 off-season, it didn’t matter if they scored a lot, just that they scored enough.

And 2020 hasn’t been a complete dry spell. The Milk have played almost exclusively on wet, dewy evenings, playing 1 afternoon game all season. It’s been hard to watch Wighton and George Williams get into good positions and just. fall. down. They’ve lost an entire forward pack of players, including the aforementioned Hodgson, managed a rotating cast on their right edge, and still manufactured enough points to be competitive, hell, even good.

So there’s mitigating factors, but it’s hard to hide the fact that the 17.8 points per game Canberra are averaging is a full 4 points less than 2019 (and it hardly was smooth sailing last year). It’s the 9th best attack in the league, which is down from 4th best last year. They passed 30 points five different times in 2019, something they haven’t got close to this season.

So why has it been worse?

You have to start any discussion with the regular loss of the middle battle. This season, through a combination of new rules, injuries, and less aggressive line speed, has seen the Raiders lose the battle of position on many occasions. They’ve been out-gained on the ground across the season by around 90 metres a game, and in 8 of their 11 games since the restart. Even for a team with a winning record, the Green Machine haven’t been doing it with positional advantage. We (in these pages, and the in the general rugby league public) tend to focus most on what we do with the ball, but it’s worth considering the role of the defensive aggression in this.

This has meant even before they get the ball the Milk are on the back foot. It has felt like they have played most of their games in 2020 coming off their own line, fighting to get into better territory. The sight of the Green Machine’s back three taking dummy-half hit-ups to try and gain advantage against a set and aggressive defensive has been such a huge part of this season (and probably why the Raiders have the third most dummy-half runs, and third most 1 pass runs, in the competition). We’ve asked so much of the back three, and of Josh Papalii in trying to create momentum and speed that doesn’t exist in sets. Both Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Josh Papalii are in the top 10 of the league in carries of less than 8 metres, as they struggle against defences ready to smash them.

In most games the Raiders spend so much time in their own half that they get limited opportunities to attack. They currently rank 12th in the league for tackles in opposition 20, with only the anaemic Titans, Dragons, Tigers and Broncos behind them. They’re third in the league in long kicks (behind the Bulldogs and the Dragons) reflecting the fact their sets end on the wrong side of halfway, whereas their oppositions’ end with an attacking kick. In contrast they have taken the second least attacking kicks in the competition; only the Broncos have less.

It’s created a game plan that relies on other teams’ faults to create the necessary field position for the Raiders to score. They have not won a single game this season in which the opposition had less errors that them. Dropped balls have become the life-blood of a side that is constantly fighting for position. This is much of the story of 2020. The defence isn’t holding the opposition in check through the middle of the field, the attack coming off the line isn’t making up the difference, and as such the Raiders must make do with limited opportunities. That they’ve done so (relatively) well speaks to the effectiveness of the goal-line defence and relative efficiency of the attack.

While the attack is efficient, as anyone with eyes can see, when the Raiders do get into a good spot they don’t always make the most of it. Ask the Panthers how stressed they were by the Milk’s nonthreatening opening forays last week. They held the line for six minutes and barely looked fussed. Canberra didn’t do anything wrong, but they presented little threat to the Penrith line, drew no defenders to the middle with powerful prop runs, and when they headed wide, it felt unearned, with too much sideways movement that was gobbled up by aggressive edge defence.

The lack of penetration has been a problem. This has occurred in two main areas. Firstly, they have failed to threaten the middle third on a regular basis. Canberra hookers have thrown 4 try assists in 2020 which is less than Cam Smith, Harry Grant (12 and 5 respectively) and Darius fucking Boyd, and reflects a lack of threat to the posts come the redzone. It’s a change for the Raiders. Hodgson’s ability to engage markers and draw attention from the defensive line created space for the halves to work. He has had the most (or equal most) try assists for the side in every season he’s worn green (even 2018 where he played half a season). He attracts more attention than any other Raider – to the extent that even 4 rounds after his injury he still leads the team in line engagements. His replacements have mustered one try assist in his absence.

It puts far too much pressure on the edges to create close to the line. I’ve noted the work done by the left edge creatively this season, but much of Wighton and Whitehead’s work is done far from the goal line, where there’s more space to use their wits and wiles to find holes to run through. When they get down the goal line, the lack of penetration in the middle means that the space available to the edge attack is severely restricted, and the main threat becomes running the ball (such as Nicoll-Klokstad’s two efforts last week). This has very hard for the Milk’s creators. Jack Wighton is 19th in the competition in try involvements (15), and George Williams is the only other Raider in the top 50 (33rd with 12).

That’s not to say the halves are just necessarily all victims of ill-fortune. The Raiders are 12th in the league in line engagements, and without Hodgson they’re only likely to drop further. Wighton is the next most likely Raiders to draw defenders, but he engages the line as much as Adam Reynolds (both with 85 line engagements this season). Wighton leads the competition in errors, and close watchers of him know that they’re not all high-risk, high-reward efforts. George Williams is 10th in the competition in general play passes, but he’s been unsuccessful in building anything slick or reliable in terms of a connection with his outside men. He barely got a shot against the Panthers, but the Cowboys game provided a way forward, utilising second-rower John Bateman’s ball-playing skills to link the half the Scottric centre-wing combination.

This also reflects the challenge of the ongoing development of Nicoll-Klokstad. So often teams use their fullback as a secondary ball player to connect the backs to the halves. As we’ve pointed out ad nauseum in these pages, this is an ongoing project for Canberra. He gets caught with the ball far too much, and is still developing the decision making skills to identify opportunities and react accordingly on sweeping movements. He’s much better at this on the left side than the right, but last year he was equally comfortable operating off John Bateman’s outside shoulder, as demonstrated in this critical try assist in the famous comeback against Melbourne. The Englishmen’s return may not just link Williams with Scott, but also Charnze with the outside men.

The story here is that these problems are not solved easily and require efforts in a range of ways to address. They are all interconnected. They require improved defensive line speed to stop them from playing in their own half so much. Then they can end sets with attacking kicks instead of clearing ones. Canberra need more of a threat in the middle to create space for the edges to operate. The halves need to threaten the line more, but can only do that if there’s space for them to do so. And in all this, they need to be smoother across their connections, with key players connecting at pace.

Easier said than done, and possibly something that will continue to hamper the Raiders over the season. These problems are structural across the side, and with the lack of byes in the season structure, and the Milk’s unending injury list, there’s little time for easy fixes, or hope that a returning player will balance the issue. Returning to Spookers is forbidden by government regulation and I presume there’s no other way to escape the curse. The Green Machine are going to have to lift themselves out of this quagmire on their own, and it’s going to take all of them.

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