The Canberra Raiders 18-6 loss to the Sydney Roosters showed the very small gap that exists between them and the contenders for the 2020 premiership. They stood up to the two-time premiers, showed they could fight them at every step, but at critical moments they couldn’t muster the creative or faultless play necessary to threaten. The goal of a consistent performance remains painfully out of reach. It makes their road to the premiership harder, but it doesn’t end it.
There was too much talk about things not related to the game this week. The return of a bench forward for 14 minutes of off-the-pace football outshone a game that will likely decide who has a top four finish. The Raiders were coming off a soft patch, in which it was hard to tell if they’d solved their offensive struggles, or just found some easy prey. In a sense the Roosters had been scratchy too recently. Massive victories over the Broncos and the Tigers had obscured some up-and-down play, and papered over a loss to another contender (the Storm). It was a chance for both sides to establish themselves in the discussion of the ‘real’ premiership contenders. The undercurrent of all the blood that has passed between these two sides in recent years was omnipresent.
The intensity of the game matched the stakes. The Roosters came out of the gate with the same pace the Panthers threw at the Raiders a month back. Instead of capitulating, the Green Machine held strong and pushed back just as hard. It was heartening, and showed that in a finals-style game (and this was very much that) that they would have the cattle to compete.
In particular, the Raiders first rotation of middle forwards was stunning. Josh Papalii (11 for 115m, all in the first half), Joe Tapine (18 for 149m) and Ryan Sutton (21 for 175m) punched the Roosters in a myriad of ways. Tapine used his quick feet, and when Canberra remembered to use him, was constantly a threat in the redzone. Papalii was a light-footed golem, stepping and barging and taking metres every time he got his hands on the ball. He was invincible, until he hurt his A/C joint, something that at the very least will keep him out two weeks (and if Sticky’s ashen face in the press conference was anything to go by, possibly more). Sutton was indefatigable, peppering Easts defensive line with strong running across the first fifty minutes.
Unfortunately they couldn’t find as many useful contributions from the second rotation. Siliva Havili, Hudson Young and Dumamis Lui all had useful moments, but none was able to threaten the line in the same way as the first unit. Corey Harawira-Naera still looks lost in green (particularly in defence). When Papalii didn’t come back in the second half it was a killer; it unbalanced the rotation, and the Raiders never re-established control of the middle without him on the field.
When the Milk’s middle was in control they got themselves into some very good positions they couldn’t take advantage of. Partly this was because of some simple, frustrating errors, but mostly it was driven by a weakness in their tactical approach. Much has been made in recent weeks of the ‘freedom’ that Josh Hodgson’s absence has given George Williams and Jack Wighton. An unfortunate by-product of this is the continued absence of a threat at the posts close to the line. It’s a balancing act, one that many criticised Hodgson for getting wrong, but without his presence Canberra too quickly give up at utilising their forwards, particularly bringing edge runners outside-in to force edge defenders into positions they don’t want to be in. Late in the game the closest the Raiders got to scoring was when Elliott Whitehead came outside-in off Williams, something that they hadn’t done since the opening forays of the game. Tapine in particular had threatened the line early, but the Milk forgot this as the game wore on.
The result of this inability to threaten the middle third on the line meant that when they shifted, there was invariably no room. Consequently both Wighton and Williams seemed to be playing too sideways, pushing out and out and running out of room. It’s a shame because Jack can make this adjustment himself (and occasionally did), by stepping off his left and taking the line on. But more often than not it requires more discipline about winning the middle before moving east-west. Tapine and Papalii can do it on their own. Lui and Sutton should do it by shifting the ball between them with short passes. It’s a relatively easily remediable situation that will only be obvious against very good defences like the Roosters had.
The focus here also obscures the fact that there were things to like in attack. The connection between Wighton, Whitehead and Croker remains a weapon for the Milk. They ran their run-around set play to perfection in the first half, and on another day Wighton would have found himself in more space than he was in. He toyed with the Roosters right side defence, hitting Whitehead and Croker close to the line, and once a shift put Valemei into space. I wish he’d taken the line on more than he did, but he had 12 runs for 114m, so it’s hard to be critical here. For his part Williams took the line on plenty, and continues to grow as a game manager. He didn’t connect with Bateman, or Rapana and Cotric outside him, but when things don’t go right, it’s refreshing how often he can find a repeat set to allow a refresh and another crack. His willingness to shift into first receiver on either side of the ruck gives the Raiders more variety in attack, and used wisely can really free up Wighton with some space before the line.
Ultimately though, some imprecision in attack was actually less important than the Green Machine’s ability to shoot itself in the foot. The Raiders threw away the ball in good position far too often. Havili, Nicoll-Klokstad and Bateman all had criminal errors in attack but they were hardly alone. In the second half in particular the Milk hardly spend a moment in the attacking twenty, simply because they dropped the ball every time they got there.
Similarly they made critical errors coming off their own line, and they often compounded with other errors to result in points for the baddies. Jack Wighton’s inability to find touch after a penalty was followed by Semi Valemei’s first tackle drop and then the Roosters first try. Daniel Tupou’s mark and try mid-way through the first half followed a five minute period on the Raiders’ line which started with Tapine throwing an offload to the wrong team and then Nicoll-Klokstad knocking-on a grubber kick. Tedesco’s second came after Havili dropped the ball in attack and the Roosters rolled up the other end. In the end the Raiders had 15 errors to the Roosters 9. Canberra have won one (1) game this season where they have more errors that their opposition (last week against the hapless Bulldogs). They’re not made to win when they drop the ball this much.
It’s a shame because for the large part their defence was quite good. The Roosters threw a hell of a lot at them across the game, and while they created some havoc at time around the ruck, the Raiders largely recovered, scrambled, and generally made the tackles they needed to. That they did this with a mostly reshaped backline was even more impressive. For the large part they shut down Easts’ vaunted set pieces, and rendered the edges ineffective. There were errors but they were understandable. Teddy’s first try required Bateman cover for a line still scrambling to set. He needed a perfect shot on the custodian and he missed. Tupou’s try was largely unstoppable – but Starling and Sutton could have put more pressure on the kicker. But this is quibbling. With the ball gifted them by the Milk’s ill-discipline, the Roosters would have scored much more against less qualified defences.
Ultimately though the Raiders learned their remains a gap, however small, between them and the top echelon. They can scrap and fight with any team they come up against on any given night, but they still have work to do to be consistent threat in 2020. The fix isn’t hard – it’s a matter of more direction at the goal line and a bit better discipline to match their mostly exemplary defence. It doesn’t require massive changes; just some fine-tuning, and there’s still three rounds to find their best before the finals kick off. They’ll likely be doing that fine-tuning without Josh Papalii though, and given their relatively precarious position on the ladder, and the possible (hopeful) free-fall of Parramatta, they need to keep winning over the last few rounds.
It’s been a while since Canberra had a statement win, and in this game they let an opportunity to let their game speak. There’s nothing to do but keep winning until the finals now, because that will be the next opportunity they have to make some noise. It’s a more difficult path, but with a little work, the Raiders can travel it.
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At the end of the day the Roosters roster got them home .12 players out of their 17 have test or origin experience. Victor Radley, Jake Friend and Ryan Hall who didn’t play are also representative players. It’s an uneven playing field.