The Canberra Raiders 37-8 victory over the St George-Illawarra Dragons was a comprehensive expression of their superiority. Over 80 minutes, they battled, wore down, and eventually overran an over-matched opposition. It wasn’t the best performance of the season, but it was one of their most dominant, and provides a good platform to build towards the finals.
This would normally have been a red flag game for previous vintages of Canberra teams. Coming off a big game (albeit a loss), eyes towards bigger games in the future – it’s been a recipe for disaster in the past. The Dragons theoretically could still make the finals, and many of their players are in an elongated audition for their jobs next year. Commentator Joel Caine even had the Red V as a pre-game betting ‘special’. In a pre-game interview Coach Stuart repeatedly expressed his frustration for the second half effort against the Roosters, and was keen to see his team atone with a more complete performance.
The Raiders’ game plan was a recognition that you beat the Dragons in the middle. For all the money they have invested in skill and edge players, the Dragons still use middle dominance as a precursor for everything they do. They’re hardly unique in that regard, but their respectability to falling over once they start losing that battle is more pronounced than other sides. The Green Machine game play reflected this. They routinely punched through the middle, relatively conservatively (it was well into the second half before a forward flipped back an offload), but with purpose. They continuously tipped their edge runners back towards the ruck, mostly in the hope of dragging defenders in before heading sideways, but sometimes (like with Hudson Young’s try) they still strolled in.
The middle forwards met this plan, largely keeping the Dragons in check when their wings were supported by the wind, before rolling over them like a boulder down a hill as the game wore on. It was a strong performance, built on the back of a brilliant (if short) effort from Josh Papalii in the first half (before a well-earned second-half rest). Joe Tapine (16 for 161m) was brilliant again, and kept testing the nimbleness of the Dragons’ props. He could have scored two or three times; instead he just had to settle for bending the line so others could take advantage. Papalii and Tapine were also brilliant in defence, brutalising their opposition at every opportunity. Papa put one hit on Cameron McInnes that made grown men swoon. This was a leadership performance by the pair. Any doubts one may have had about whether the Raiders were ready for the battle in the middle was dispelled by their patent desire to win it.
They got plenty of support. Dunamis Lui (12 for 115m), John Bateman (13 for 105m) and Ryan Sutton (12 for 108m) all did good work, but best support they got was from Hudson Young. 22 carries, 196 metres, a try, a try-assist, 5 tackle breaks, 2 line breaks and 37 tackles is quite the stat-line. More than just the stats, it was pleasing to see Young use his many strengths – working quick feet close to the line to score the Raiders first try, using his quick feet at the line to earn metres and ruck speed, and then busting through the line off Siliva Havili’s drawing the fullback and putting John Bateman into enough space to score. Add to that some robust defence, and a minimum of errors and it was quite a performance. If he ever gets a chance to utilise his left-hand offload, or can develop a bit of ball play at the line he will have all it takes to be an elite forward.
It was also pleasing to see Havili perform so well out of dummy-half. He came on with the game somewhat in the balance at 18-8 and immediately had an impact, putting Young through a gap with a good ball at the line. That would result in Bateman’s try, and Havili would generally follow it up with smart play when he was moving North to South. His service off the ground is still slow, but he’s an important complement to Tom Starling’s more traditional rake work.
Since the middle overwhelmed the Dragons, it’s no surprise that the left edge clicked into gear in the most astounding way over the second half. They had so much space to operate in, and utilised it with such a variety of looks that they’ll have other finals sides analysing this tape in unending detail. It was fascinating to watch them use Whitehead and Wighton so interchangeably, playing on each side of each other, testing the defences recognition of who was where and what they might do once they arrived at the line.
It was resulted in some beautiful work. The split lines that Wighton and Whitehead ran for a Wighton try was a gorgeous piece of timing and recognition. Whitehead worked inside out, Wighton the opposite, and the defence was helpless.
On another play they built on my favourite set play of recent weeks, turning a movement that in the last few weeks as been a sweeping run-around where Wighton receives the pass from Whitehead. The new version had Smelly hitting Jarrod Croker on the face-ball. He went through a yawning hole and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad would have scored if Matt Dufty hadn’t got a hand to the last pass.
The trust the Raiders have in Whitehead as a secondary ballplayer is critical in this. All of the above requires Smelly’s unique mix of pace, skill and power. Jack knows that he doesn’t have to do it all himself, as was perfectly displayed when on the last he shifted the ball to Whitehead, who grubbered for Croker to score. It was a simple play – Jack’s decision to pass to the Englishmen brought the winger up, and Whitehead took advantage. After all this creativity, it was almost jarring to see Semi Valemei score late with a simple shift through the hands.
Important in this too was the ongoing development of Jack’s relationship with George Williams. On at least two of these tries, and many of the left side’s movements, the halfback had switched to the same side of the ruck as Wighton, providing an extra set of hands and a bit more space for Jack to work. While he didn’t really create anything on the right – save for an opportunistic try he laid on with a good kick the Dragons failed to corral – he had his hands on the ball at the start of many of the Green Machine’s best movements.
This more expansive attack was no doubt reflective of the defensive qualities of the opposition (and also of those the Milk faced last week). But it’s good to see them expanding their repertoire. No one is blind to the fact that Canberra are yet to find fluidity in their attack, but it’s heartening to see them continue to improve in execution as well as variety as the finals emerge.
It was also good to see the Green Machine’s defence mostly handle everything the Dragons offered. They were physical; we spoke of Papalii and Tapine’s impact in the first half earlier, but across the park there was a desire to make sure the opposition knew who they were facing. The effort in the side was evident, and best exemplified by prop Ryan Sutton chasing a Dragon’s attempt to sweep around the Raiders all the way to the winger. The Dragons occasionally got some momentum through the middle, but the Raiders could always handle anything offered in the middle third.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. Bateman and Whitehead continually helped in on attackers that were the responsibility of the middle. This created space for the Dragons to attack out wide, which they almost always failed to take advantage of. There were some hairy moments that required big defensive performances. Lui and Bateman somehow got under a rampaging Kerr close to the line to hold him up. Nic Cotric not only got his hand on a pass to stop an overlap, he managed to somehow keep the interception. Wighton was forced to make a one-on-one tackle with Tyson Frizell on multiple occasions – he didn’t miss. Young kept the Raiders second-half clean sheet intact when he nailed an ankle tap just when Adam Clune seemed through. And Valemei nailed Zac Lomax, forcing an error when the in-form centre just needed to get the ball beyond the Fijian to put the Dragons into space.
The only weakness on the day was the defensive positioning of Semi Valemei. Twice rookie Cody Ramsey got the better of him, and on neither occasion did the Dragons have the numbers or the space to do it. On the first try the Fijian just gave the debutant too much room, on the other he got mesmerised by a terrible pass from Matt Dufty. On the first it was clear part of the game plan was for the wingers to reduce space for the edges, but this is taking that too far.
They were two errors that he would desperately want back, and combined with his shakiness under the high ball last week and in the first half here, shows he has plenty of improvement to make. But he did make some brutal and effective decisions to push in from the wing, and had some rampaging runs (one after a good take of a bomb under pressure). He also kept his head in the game despite his disappointing start, so there’s plenty to suggest that he’s a talent worth pursuing. It’s smart work to keep getting him reps in pressure situations, and learning lessons before the finals. While one would assume Curtis Scott’s infected leg will be healed by then, Semi may still be needed.
It was a comprehensive victory. They wore down an inferior opponent with relentless power and pace through the middle, pushing out to the edges as they won the forward battle. They never wilted, and they never panicked. It was pleasing to see. It was not faultless, but evidence of the Raiders substantial superiority, and their improved maturity as a football side over the last 18 months, and their incremental attacking development of the last few months.
More importantly, they showed that they are not going to sit on their laurels and wait for the finals. Instead they are working to make sure all pistons are firing come
September October. On both sides of the ball they’ve begun to build towards a more threatening unit. There’s still plenty of work to do, but the Raiders are coming,