Raiders Review: The Search for Perfection

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders’ 36-16 victory over the Gold Coast Titans was a thorough dismantling of a inferior team. Canberra’s middle dominated, and their attack enjoyed a day of rare space in which to play. They should rejoice in such a substantial victory, but there is also work to do to get this side ready for the finals.

The Green Machine came into this game after finally unleashing something resembling an attack against the Broncos. It had taken so long for it to emerge, both last week and throughout the season that it was something worth worrying about (and we did). The Milk were finally getting an opportunity to play on a dry deck during the day (their last afternoon game was round 2) but doing so on a day trip to the Coast was hardly the ideal scenario. The Titans aren’t the garbage-fire that their Queensland brethren are, and were always going to present a bigger threat, but without Kevin Proctor, Jai Arrow and (depending on who you ask) Ash Taylor, the test for Canberra was less about result and more about process.

When the Raiders focused on the middle third they simply dominated. They out-gained their opponent by near 500 metres (1930 v 1479). In recent weeks we’ve been harping on the need for greater pace in the middle, and Coach Stuart tested our theory by starting Joe Tapine and Corey Harawira-Naera alongside Ryan Sutton. Tapine (15 for 166m) and Sutton (21 for 205m) were both exemplary, leading the Raiders pack in very different ways.

Tapine has been brilliant in recent weeks, and in this game continued to use his pace and step at the line to gain advantage in both metres and ruck speed, and then used his offload to earn second phase play (he had team-high three of a season-high 19 for the Raiders). Sutton had his best game in Canberra in a completely different style. He’s not quick like Tapine, but his first carry and his last are equally powerful. Both these men laid the platform starting, and it meant that by the time Josh Papalii (14 for 155m) and Dunamis Lui (15 for 119) came on the field, Canberra were in the ascendancy.

When the Raiders utilised this middle dominance and worked off the back of it good things happened. Each of their tries came on the back of runs that broke the Titans’ middle. For the first try, Jack Wighton and then Tapine had strong carries that brought defenders to the ruck, meaning Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had time on a rightward shift to survey the defence, double-pump, and throw a perfect ball to Nic Cotric to score. A good defensive set and a few good runs later and Wighton had a bit of space on the left. A perfectly executed run-around and then out-ball to Jordan Rapana (and an in-ball to Jack) and you had another (gorgeous) try. Then Wighton scored after Nicoll-Klokstad straightened an attack that had run out of space, earned a quick ruck on the goal-line and no one got off the line quick enough to bring Jack down. Tommy Starling got over after a strong Sutton run stretched the defence, and they all had eyes for Jack. Then in the second half the Raiders only non-intercept try came when they finally nailed a crash ball (to Hudson Young) after barely moving the ball outside the middle third for an entire red-zone set.

It was everything you want to see in a footy side. Winning the middle with both brawn (Sutton and Papalii) and brilliance (Tapine). Tearing in and earning the right to shift the ball. It wasn’t conservative; rather it recognised that you can’t *just* run at a side. Quick feet and smart lines worked well with intelligent ruck play to engage markers and change the point of attack. Brilliant ball play from Wighton, Williams and co. This was all part of a way forward for a Raiders’ attack that should be ready to take on the best. While the Milk didn’t go full ‘pace and space’ (they always kept Sutton or Papalii on), they played with a quickness and an agility in the middle that has alluded them too often this season.

Watching the forward pack make sixty metres a set regularly only made it more frustrating when the Milk got carried away with their success. Too often they forgot to win the middle first, shifting left to right to left in search of a gap. Good offloads would be misused by impatient play. In the early part of the second half there was a metaphorical arm-wrestle that the Raiders looked like winning until they wasted multiple attacking sets on the line going side-to-side, and kicking too early in search of a solution they didn’t need to find. They forgot that their left side had made sweet love to the Titans defence in the first half, and instead kept pestering the other side of the field like a cold-calling salesman. It took a try to the Titans to shake Canberra from their hotheadedness. The next attacking set was the one that ended in Young’s crash ball try.

This period where the game gets away from Canberra has happened a few times in recent weeks and the Raiders can ill-afford to make it a regular habit. There’s a balance to find in attack and the Raiders have spent so much time this season trying to find some space to play, that in recent games they haven’t been able to contain their glee at a bit of fancy footy. The absence of Josh Hodgson no doubt puts the onus on the spine to take control, and it feels like George Williams needs to make that his baby. I’m sure he’ll work it out, but in the meantime better teams will hurt the Green Machine if they make these periods a regular thing.

Of course one way to manage this challenge is making sure your defence is tight. The Titans were a real test for the men from the capital. Even without their top level forwards (or perhaps because of it) they played a very expansive game, shifting the point of attack quickly within sets. They did this through short passes in the middle, and with quick shifts to try and get around the outside. They routinely did it in their own twenty in response to getting trapped in a corner by the Green Machine’s mostly smart kicking. The Raiders response was mostly fine. They adjusted, focused less on getting their first three defenders on each side of the ruck up and in the face of oncoming forwards, and instead ensured their contact was strong and their line speed consistent across the park. More often than not the Titans went east-west a lot for not many metres, and Canberra continued to win the battle of position and possession.

But the Raiders made far too many defensive errors to be happy with their performance. The Titans first try came after AJ Brimson burnt Havili in the middle and he came up with air. It required Nic Cotric to fail to clean up a manageable grubber for the second week in a row. The second try came when Havili failed to bring down Fogarty, creating the hole in the defence for the young half to go through, and send AJ Brimson to the line. The final try came on the back of a break made by Sam Lisone where Harawira-Naera came up with air. It was a defensive performance both Havili and Harawira-Naera would prefer to forget.

Three tries is a lot for a side as thoroughly dominated in many other facets, but the Titans actually could have had more points. Whitehead, Nicoll-Klokstad, Wighton, Tapine and Bateman all had important defensive plays that saved the Raiders after their line had been broken (which it was 8 times in this game). Josh Papalii’s try saver on a runaway Fogarty was so awe-inspiring there’s already plans to make it the basis of a new religion. Such plays can’t be relied upon every week, but the Raiders made them in this game, and while they were important, they didn’t take on the life or death feel they may in future weeks. The defence continues to show that even when it’s inconsistent in contact or decision making, you can set your watch to its resilience.

The Raiders still have plenty of improvement in them, but the trajectory remains pointed up. The middle continues to develop a variety of approaches that mean they are ready for any side. While they scored plenty of points last week, the points in this game were crisper, made of smarter, better executed movements. It’s great to see that the attack is slowly rounding into form, and it was so heartening to see the forwards dominate in such a way. But the excitement those slick plays generated also birthed an impatience that was frustrating, and revealed the lack of on-field leadership that can sometimes lead to the attack getting carried away. There’s a need for someone to recognise when things are going in the wrong direction and reorient the offence. Defensively, the individual mistakes that were made in this game cannot be tolerable in a side aiming for the top four, but this game revealed no structural weaknesses.

What it did reveal is that the Green Machine are very good, and the Titans, well, not so much. The Raiders are looking up, and need to address the small things now to make sure they are primed and ready for the end of the season. There’s no time to waste.

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