Raiders Review: The Need for Speed

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 36-8 victory over the Brisbane Broncos was a necessary dismantling of a substandard football side. It took them a while, as they battled with themselves and a limited game plan, but eventually they overwhelmed the Queenslanders and finally put them to the sword. It was relieving, if not necessarily pleasing, and revealed that the Raiders still have plenty to do to bridge the gap with the top four. It also provided them with some hints of how to get there.

Shouts to AAP’s Lukas Coch

If ever there was a trap game, this was it. The story all week had been about the failings of the Queenslanders; and the constant stream of problems, from protocols to injuries, meant that too many people (outside of Raiders’ fans) were expecting a bloodbath. That eventually came, but well after most people had started to talk themselves into a Broncos upset.

The Green Machine allowed the Broncos to control much of this game through a mixture of errors, ill-discipline and an overly conservative game plan. We wrote this week of the need for the Milk to start winning the battle in the middle, and it was clear from the get go that their plan was to do just that. Admittedly, the defensive aspect of this was very good; they aimed up against the Broncos big middles, keeping them from gaining any substantial metres on many of their first half sets. The Broncos only averaged 26 metres a set in the first half (though that number is no doubt affected by the many sets they spent on the Raiders line at the back end of the half).

This forced the Broncos to push to the edges to get around the Raiders and it worked. This was most notable when Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker both got caught at marker after jamming in on a sweeping movement, and the Broncos took full advantage. Fifita got outside Elliott Whitehead, flicked an offload and, after some good work by Katoni Staggs, the Broncos scored. Fifita and Staggs’ big bodies were always a threat to the Milk’s left, and Croker and Wighton helped each other out a lot to keep them in relative check. Wighton is such a gift as an edge defender – there’s not many five-eighths that can make 30 plus tackles, both brutal and often life-saving.

The Broncos didn’t have much inventiveness in attack but the Raiders just kept giving them opportunities. They gave away set restarts on the last tackle multiple times. They kicked the ball dead twice to allow the Broncos a free-ride out of their own half. They dropped the ball six times in the first half, throwing away rare opportunities to attack, or gifting the Donkeys more ball in good position. Even when their defence held the line for what I counted as at around 7 sets with some courageus and brilliant defence, it ended in a try because they couldn’t clean up an anodyne kick.

This was exacerbated by an offence that was too predicable. The Raiders played one-out around the ruck, rarely finding an offload, or even an extra pass to threaten the Brisbane edges. They too only averaged 26 metres in the first half. This was clearly part of a game plan to earn the right to go wide, which was admirable, but better choices needed to be made. The lack of creativity in the middle meant the Raiders forwards were sitting ducks, and only Josh Papalii ended the first half averaging more than 10 metres a carry. The starting middles were slow, and Siliva Havili played with no width. Too often they were stuck trying to win a battle with a single move.

The Raiders needed to offer more creativity and pace in the middle third if they wanted overwhelm Brisbane, and so it was confusing to see Joe Tapine and Tom Starling off the field until the 27th and 34th minutes respectively. Similarly Corey Harawira-Naera and Hudson Young weren’t spotted until the second half. The one-out bash up the middle wasn’t working (or at least was exacerbating the disadvantge of errors made elsewhere). Against the Broncos big pack the Milk needed someone who could create second phase play and win rucks with pace rather than power, so leaving the middles that excel at that on the bench so long was odd.

When they did come on the game opened up for the Raiders. The Green Machine started the second half playing with pace, making huge metres through their faster footwork earning quicker play the balls. Joe Tapine (15 carries for 176m) made metres using his pace and quick feet to force less than perfect contact, leading to more offloads (his 3 led the Raiders), or quick play the balls (his average play-the-ball speed at 2.95 seconds was the Milk’s fastest). These quicker rucks and second phase play killed the opposition. Nicoll-Klokstad took an extra twenty off a Tapine offload, Croker an extra 20 off a Harawira-Naera offload, and suddenly the Broncos middle was backpedaling. Dummy-half runs became a weapon, and Starling took 50 plus metres on 3 runs in the second half. Instead of averaging 26 metres a set, Canberra were routinely taking 60 plus metres.

The improved pace and creativity in the middle made the movements to the edges sing, and exposed the true shame of the Brisbane defences. Their first try came just getting John Bateman the ball with a bit of space. He did what he does in that situation, made Brody Croft look like an amateur, before turning the ball inside to George Williams for a try. They kept making huge metres down the left; almost every shift in that direction found Jarrod Croker running in space. Using early shifts on the left became a huge weapon in making sure sets were played in oppositions half. They only created one try (though the hands from Wighton and Croker for Rapana’s no try were so beautiful they should be compared to a summer’s day), but it was a gorgeous operation, utilising the smarts and connection of Wighton, Whitehead and Croker to put the latter in space before his kick inside was picked up by Nicoll-Klokstad.

This was in the middle of the collapse of the Brisbane defence, which hardly troubled for the first 50 or so minutes of the game promptly fell apart. As the Green Machine played with more variety, simple sideways movements proved incomprehensible. Nic Cotric scored a try unmarked in the corner, after Williams had wandered slowly towards the line, attracted Darius Boyd with a little bobble-pass to himself, hit the now open Curtis Scott, who passed to a confused Cotric. Then minutes later, the Raiders threw nothing at the Broncos in a red zone set, and so Williams just kicked it to John Bateman. There should have been a defender near him – it was hard to tell on the broadcast where that defender was, because Curtis Scott was the only person that could have stopped in. Minutes later the right edge got into a bit of space, put it through the hands and three defenders couldn’t stop Cotric. What had been a perilous position at halftime was now a party.

Such was the ease of this period, and the ineptness of the Broncos that it’s hard to know how much to take away from the game. The Canberra defence isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent homage to 2019. Brisbane didn’t offer a lot, but they had a mountain of ball in the first half and Green Machine kept turning them away. They only scored through Fifita’s brilliance and a Canberra error. This is pleasing, and if the Raiders can stop putting themselves in bad positions through errors, ill-discipline and slowness in the middle then they can consider this a real weapon, rather than a fail-safe.

The attacking issues that have been much talked about in recent times probably still remain, but this game gave some good hints about potential sources of improvement. In general play, the need for more speed and threat around the ruck was plain to see. The magnitude of change that occurred with the introduction of Tapine, Starling, Harawira-Naera and Young should give a hint about the direction that can be taken. Many would suggest there’s a trade off here defensively – no doubt bigger packs like Brisbane would love to wear down the pacey Raiders bench early in the game. The balance however, was too conservative in this match, and there’s an opportunity to utilise the pace and threat that Tapine, Starling and Harawira-Naera bring around the ruck earlier.

In terms of the anaemic red zone attack, it’s hard to take much from this game. The Raiders scored several tries when they simply shouldn’t have. Cotric’s first and Bateman’s tries weren’t well-worked movements, but rather defensive capitulation. If the Green Machine score another try as easy as those this year they’ll be lucky. But there were green shoots in approach rather than outcome. Canberra were more patient in attack, wiling to threaten the middle in order to create space for the edges. They offered some new looks, like George Williams swinging on to the left to throw a perfect harbour-bridge pass to Jordan Rapana for his first try. They used the crash ball to much greater effect in order to drag defences to the middle (although at some points in the second half they also overused it – the set that ended with Bateman’s try was five straight hit ups). Even beyond the red zone, both edge attacks showed the promise of a bit of space is all they need to create.

Canberra got what they needed in this game. In addition to a helpful addition to their for-and-against differential, and breaking the Curse of Spookers, they eventually found a real pathway to success in 2020. If the Raiders can harness the speed they have and make it work to win the middle more often, they might just have a formula to match the top four. But if they keep playing conservative, slow football, good teams will hammer them as the Panthers did last week, and bad teams will stick around like the Broncos did for too long in this game. In the next few weeks we’ll see if they’ve learnt that lesson. This sides’ best football still awaits.

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