The Canberra Raiders won 34-20 against the Canterbury Bulldogs because they are better. It took them a while to remember that, and they spent too much time chasing the game. But once they got on top they were irrepressible. Good sides can win like this, but harder tests await that won’t afford them the luxury of intermittent attentiveness. Now the Green Machine avoided all the traps, it’s time to build for the finals.
Canberra came into this game in the midst of the easiest run of their draw. It was the third game in a row against a bottom three side, and the talk in the lead up wasn’t if but how much. The Green Machine were given a rare gift in the form of Knights loss earlier in the round. It gave them the opportunity to put space between themselves and the peloton, which now sits a full game away from the Milk. Add to that the proverbial eye over the shoulder at the coming litmus test in the form of Easts, an always pesky Dogs side, and it had all the smell of a trap game.
In the lead up to this game Coach Stuart made a big deal about the defence proving itself ready to take on the best and there was much that would have given him pause. While they held their opposition scoreless in the second stanza, in the first they failed to control either middle, and it put pressure on the edges.
The Dogs pack were powerful and it took the Raiders some time to corral them. According to NRL.com, Ofahiki Ogden was the only member of the starting pack that didn’t end up with 100m on the ground, and he in particular was massive in the early going targeting Tom Starling. Tom didn’t miss many tackles (he had 2 missed tackles and 2 ineffective tackles in his 48 for the game), but the pressure for the middle defenders to help him out created space on the edges. It was an Ogden carry at Starling close to the line that dragged three defenders in – including the fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. A sweep movement followed and well timed rainbow from Lachlan Lewis found the Raiders stripped for numbers, Nicoll-Klokstad about three steps away from being able to cover. It’s the risk in starting the smaller man in the middle.
When they weren’t dragging defenders into the middle the Bulldogs peppered the Raiders’ right edge and for the first time since John Bateman returned it looked vulnerable. They scored here in the 29th minute; a well worked move in which Curtis Scott got caught behind a lead runner, but they also used it as their fail safe whenever they needed metres in sets. The Dogs pin-balled between the Raiders’ right and the middle with the consistency of a metronome, and for a period easy metres resulted. The ball only headed out to the other side of the field at the behest of Keiran Foran or Lewis’ boot. Two tries resulted in the last five minutes of the half, each with a degree of bad luck, but also each highlighting Canberra’s ongoing struggle to defuse kicks. These tries, and another near try, all resulted from the exact same cross-field kick to Croker. There’s an problem that will need fixing.
The Raiders weren’t a mess in this period, just more vulnerable than they should have been. It’s hard to tell how systemic these issues are because they weren’t constant. There was a five minute period from the 20th minute when the Dogs were wholly on Canberra’s line, and the Milk barely looked troubled. Whatever defensive issues they had all but disappeared once the they got moving in the second half. Canterbury sets were routinely below 40 metres, and they were almost always kicking from their own half, monstered by the Raiders middle. The right edge was robust, even with the insertion of rookie Matt Timoko when Scott was injured, and even when Tom Starling was sent to the sin bin. And while the kick diffusal wasn’t perfect, the Raiders never looked like leaking any more points. They only missed 11 tackles for the game. They will defend worse than that and leak less points again this season.
Regardless, for the third time in three weeks Canberra found themselves in a hole against a substandard side. At half time they had eight errors to their oppositions three, and gave away more set restarts. They then started the second half by throwing the ball out on an ambitious flick pass from Croker to Rapana, then giving away three set-restarts and a penalty in a row and losing Starling to the bin.
It was frustrating because the Milk’s game plan wasn’t complicated and shouldn’t have resulted in such ill-discipline. They were punching up the middle, utilising the variety in their forward pack for metres. Ryan Sutton (15 for 149m) and Joe Tapine (16 for 164m) were excellent early (both had 100 plus metres in the first half), Sutton using his consistent power to bend the line, Tapine his brilliant footwork and power to find the creases in the defensive line, and engage edge defenders that didn’t want to have to come in to help the middle. We’ve written way too much about Tapine lately, but he was again huge in this game. When the Raiders were playing tight and predictably one-out, he could still create a quick ruck using his quick feet, or second-phase play with an offload (he had three in this game, for the third week in a row). The Milk’s first try came when he got the ball in second-phase play; the Dogs retreating defence was dead as soon as he got a head of pace up. From that point it was beautifully inevitable watching him step his way to the line.
If it wasn’t for Tapine a good chunk of the game could have been worse for Canberra. Their early play in games is conservative. They rarely play to the edges and don’t seek to engage multiple middle defenders through interplay between the forwards. It can be predictable and makes life very hard for the ball-runner when he gets ganged up on. Interestingly this wasn’t changed by the presence of Tom Starling with the starting lineup. Tapine was a lifeline for the attack, able to make a defender miss or dump an offload to extend the plat, until Josh Papalii came on, and the Raiders started playing with a bit of width.
This was most obvious in the second half as Canberra began to win the middle consistently. Using the punishing runs of Tapine and Papalii as a starting point (19 for 222m, including 69 post contact), the Raiders pushed through the middle, and tested the edges, and the u-shaped Canterbury defence fell apart. Papa and Taps would hit the middle, then Canberra would hit the edge, and then the space was everywhere. The Milk worked both sides of the park. On the left Wighton meticulously worked over the Canterbury right edge with short balls to Elliott Whitehead until it was time to take the line on himself. On the right Williams gave Bateman plenty of chances to create. For both their best success came working back from the edge through the middle third.
Four tries followed all on the back of some strong work up the middle, and then easy decisions to crash over. Wighton went over twice, both times while the Raiders were down a player, both times on the back of Williams taking on the line. Hudson Young crashed over under the posts when Papalii popped a short ball from first receiver (there’s that interplay!), and Starling finished the scoring because the Dogs middle was as flimsy as a broken gate.
It wasn’t rocket science, just a simple matter of changing the point of attack consistently and asking a defence to stop attackers that were just better than them. This being that kind of game, the Raiders soon forget that lesson. Late in the game they got too fancy trying to go around the opposition. Williams threw away the ball twice, once after busting the Canterbury defence up the middle, and he and Bateman both kicked the ball away when a simpler approach would have sufficed. Finding the right balance between excitement and simplicity remains a challenge.
It’s hard to draw meaning from this game in isolation. The Bulldogs are a hardworking side that folded like a card table whenever the Raiders played with a smidge of variety and pace. The Canberra defence was excellent except when it wasn’t, and they’ll defend worse with less damage in the future. Like the Broncos and Titans games the Milk were only dominant for 30-40 minutes, and continue to struggle to find the right balance between expansion and conservatism in attack. But what they offered was all was needed for them to put 30 plus points on the board and win going away.
In truth these sorts of games can catch you and Canberra faced three in a row and took the points in all of them. After taking their opposition’s best shot, they stiffened their collective spine, stared down the opposition and ran over them. They’ll not be acquitted this opportunity against the Roosters, and that’s the rub. The Raiders can ill afford to play more ‘bit’ games like this one if they’re going to push deep into October. Next week is an important test of whether these ‘bits’ can add up to a whole.
There’s been enough consistency across the season, if not within games, to suggest Canberra have enough to make that push. So far they have avoided all the traps. With only four rounds until the finals, now it’s time to build.
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