The Canberra Raiders 26-14 victory over the New Zealand Warriors was manufactured. In the face of a series of chaotic and bizarre events, they were forced to concoct a way to victory, fighting with a hand tied behind their back. The Raiders spent time punching themselves in the face but landed enough haymakers to produce a victory. They’ll need to be better come finals, but for the purposes of now, it’ll do.
Canberra came into this game needing to win to keep their top four hopes alive. Against a side that was busy packing their bags for quarantine and the promise of home and family, they should have been ahead on enthusiasm. Of course they started slowly. The Raiders have now gone 8 games without scoring the first try in a game.
In addition to just an energy deficit, the Raiders soon found themselves with a personnel problems. George Williams and Jarrod Croker went off for Head Injury Assessments (HIA) within minutes of each other, the Englishman never returning. Then Jack Wighton was sent for ten in the bin for (incorrectly) being ruled offside, and the Raiders had no halves, were playing second-rowers at centre, half, and five-eighth, and had managed to get down 14-6. It felt chaotic.
Of course, HIA’s can’t really be avoided, but the sin-binning could have. The Raiders discipline in defence and attack was abhorrent in the first half. The Warriors scored 14 points across the game, and they all came with a helping hand from the Green Machine. The Warriors first try came after John Bateman dropped the ball with the Milk trying to push out of their own half after a possession and position deficit. They took two points when the Raiders gave away a penalty in a scrum they were feeding. Wighton was binned in the next passage of play, after the Raiders gave up a post-points penalty, followed by a set restart, then Jack’s penalty, his binning, and Peta Hiku stepping around Corey Harawira-Naera for New Zealand’s second.
Canberra didn’t help their situation with poor discipline with the ball. They ended up with 12 errors, four more than the Warriors. It’s the second time in three weeks they’ve won a game despite having more errors than their opposition (they hadn’t managed that this season before the Bulldogs game). It’s not often that a 68 per cent completion rate will win you games. Some of this was because of players forced into roles they normally wouldn’t fill (for example, Whitehead had a couple of errors trying to create) but as many came from poor-offload choices (Tapine), poor kicking (Wighton), dropping the flipping kick-off (Wighton again!) and general impatience.
Overcoming a lopsided penalty count and general indifference to ball security would requires a staunch defence and for the most part the Milk’s defence was strong. They only conceded two tries: one from a kick and another when Harawira-Naera was isolated on an edge where he would not normally defend (at least for this season). For the most part the goal line defence felt untroubled. There were other scoring opportunities that could have resulted in points, but more than once Canberra players made critical plays at crucial times. More than once they got hands to the ball and streaked the other way. It could have ended poorly – for both Semi Valemei and Elliott Whitehead’s interceptions. There was plenty of numbers outside them – but that’s kinda the point of defence. They only score if you don’t make the right choice. Perhaps a better way to describe the edge defence was opportunistic, and it needed to be. Semi picked a ball up and turned a potential 20-6 deficit into a as-good-as-even 14-10, and Whitehead’s second half interception ended with Valemei breaking several tackles on his way to cementing the Raiders lead. They were both big moments.
From a long-term perspective the most worrying aspect of the defence was the ease with which the Warriors made metres around the ruck, particularly in the first half. Karl Lawton had five runs for 56m out of dummy-half. Roger Tuivasa Shek added another 17 metre scoot on top of that, and another big run simply turning up on the outside shoulder of Lawton, and isolating Tapine. That was only saved through the efforts of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad nailing his idol with a try-saver. The weakness in the middle was a co-contributor with ill-discipline, and put pressure on the edges. Harawira-Naera was isolated on the edge against a faster player with no help in sight. Hiku scored the first try off a grubber because Nicoll-Klokstad had been cleaning up around the ruck on the other side of the field. This doesn’t seem endemic and hadn’t been a problem before this game, and I suspect it won’t be a problem next week, but it was worth noting. You don’t win finals games with flimsy defence around the ruck.
Ill-discipline and an inconsistent defensive execution and application would normally be a problem for the Raiders. Add to that Jack Wighton getting binned, George Williams going down in the 8th minute, Jarrod Croker spending 15 minutes on the HIA, and Bateman and Whitehead spending moments picking up their elbows and guts (respectively), and you would normally punch it up as a frustrating loss at any other point before 2019.
But *this* Raiders ain’t *that* Raiders. With George out, Whitehead shifted to the right to act as a proxy playmaker. The game would obviously run through Jack, and Whitehead would chime in when needed. This worked to plan initially. The first try came after Jack got caught on the last, and Smelly put up a bomb that forced an error from Tuivasa-Shek. A simple shift left later and Jack put on a perfect face ball to Croker that resulted in a try (and Croker’s HIA). After Jack was put in the bin, Whitehead became the focal point of the attack, creating a stunning try on his own, taking on the line on the last, grubbering through, catching a ricochet, putting a second, centreing kick that Hudson Young somehow juggled into a try. Even when Jack returned, Whitehead played a massive role, and it was his pass that put Harawira-Naera into the space that ended with Nic Cotric iceing the game.
To be fair, it’s a capability that Whitehead has displayed since he came to Canberra. I touched on it last round, and Jason Oliver did a piece on it for the Rugby League Writers during the week: Whitehead (and Bateman) as a secondary creator is a huge part of what makes the Canberra attack function. When he’s partnered with Wighton on the left, he takes all the pressure off Jack to create, allowing him to run more, and pass earlier, safe in the knowledge that Whitehead will also create. Jack clearly trusts him, and so does Sticky, hence the move to right side creator when Williams went down. The only shame was that the Raiders had to put their devastating left-edge attack in the cue rack for the game.
What he created was even more impressive when you consider so much of it occurred before the Milk really begun to win the middle. Discipline, defence and position shuffling made the big men’s jobs harder, and it took some time for the Canberra to consistently win the middle. The Raiders were outgained by 100 metres in the first half. Over the second forty they gradually gained control, and Tapine, Ryan Sutton (12 for 116m) and Young (8 for 79m) began to dominate. Tapine ended with 18 carries for 156 metres, and EIGHTY post contact metres (or 9 for nearly 100 metres in the second half). With all the shuffling they had to play bigger minutes – Sutton played 62 minutes, Tapine 69, and Young 73. Josh Papalii “only” played 58. There’s a likelihood Sia Soliola will rest one of them next week, if only to keep them fresh for round one.
We talked last week of Young’s breakout performance, and he was again excellent in this game, shifting around the park to fill holes as needed in defence (another 38 tackles with only one (1) missed), and providing a strong carry and a quick ruck in attack. His connection with Tom Starling is a weapon and if only Sutton was Nicoll-Klokstad the Raiders would have had four more points. I don’t know where he plays next year (my preference is right edge) but wherever he does will be a strength for Canberra.
It was by no means a complete performance from Canberra, and probably not even a good one. The game itself had a chaotic feel, heavily influenced by the referee and the absence of George William. In the chaos though the Milk managed to keep their heads long enough to put together the points needed to manufacture a victory. The array of obstacles that they faced, both externally and internally created, were substantial, and their resilience to find a way when there was no clear way forward, impresses.
Undoubtedly they got in their own way far too often, and this performance must be a one-off if they’re serious about the latter weeks of the competition. Systemic concerns of their ability to start at the same pace as their opposition remain; how much that is determined by their opposition is worth considering. They went toe-to-toe with the Roosters in the first half, and were smashed by the Panthers after dominating the first 10 minutes of the game. Apart from that their slow starts are hard to decipher, and most likely part of quiet arrogance they are simply better than their opponents. The extenuating circumstances of this game mean it doesn’t fit as neatly into this explanation, but it feels part of the story nonetheless. If I can play pop psychologist, it feels to me the Milk are keen for the real games to start.
They’ve shown this season (and last for that matter) that games like this are not the norm, and rather the improvement is that even on their off days (with their halfback in the shed) they can find a way to win. After almost every game against an also-ran we’ve said “they can’t do that against better sides” and for the large part they haven’t.
The Raiders dream of a top four finish stays alive. That feels important, though not critical, to Canberra’s premiership chances. While they. would no doubt prefer a home preliminary final, this year, and in this game, they’ve shown they are capable of winning no matter the circumstances. The pathway to week three (and beyond) is achievable whichever path they take. But they’ll need to be better to get there.