The Canberra Raiders 38-28 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was a reminder that good things are still possible. The Baby Raiders took it to the Sharks, playing smarter, faster and with greater discipline than their more experienced opposition. It revealed that not only do the Green Machine have plenty of talent in the pipeline, it also showed that Coach Stuart has built a culture that can support sustained success.
Many outside Canberra had seen this game as a recognition by Sticky that a top four place was impossible. There was no chance for a week off by winning a qualifying final in week one of the finals, so why not take a rest now? It was good to see players like Papalii, Tapine, Wighton, Rapana and Whitehead get a break after shouldering such a load this season. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Bateman and George Williams’ maladies would (hopefully) be rectified after a week of rest too. Take the break, take the loss and regroup for week one of the finals. It’s a good thing no one told the Baby Raiders the plan.
The battle in the middle was such a huge part of the Raiders success in this game. It wasn’t an instant win, and despite getting an early lead, the contest in the middle remained ongoing. In the early minutes when the Sharks got the ball they made metres with relative ease, and by half time the Green Machine’s weight of possession (58 per cent of the first half ball) wasn’t matched with a proportional metre advantage. The Sharks had actually more post-contact metres and more tackle breaks than the Milk at that point.
But the Raiders held them, and this stalemate was enough to blunt the Sharks game-plan. Dunamis Lui was huge (19 for 160m), and with Sia Soliola (16 for 160m) gave the Raiders the courage and direction they needed. That this was Sia’s first game back in months is simply astounding – he didn’t look like he’d missed a game. Siliva Havili (14 for 160m) yet again displayed his versatility, and Hudson Young (16 for 119m) and Ryan Sutton were excellent also (before Sutton left with a suspected MCL and ACL injury). It was important that the more experienced pack shoulder the load, but Darby Medlyn (5 for 50m) and Kai O’Donnell (8 for 68) provided able support when they got their go. And importantly, when the Raiders needed to rescue a set, their plethora of young outside backs showed they were up to it. Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields both cracked 100 metres with devastating yardage runs. Timoko used the power of a more developed player, and Smith-Shields played with a pace that will be terrifying to oppositions in the coming years. His try off a short drop out was an impressive piece of skill.
Normally a stalemate in the middle won’t result in so many points but two things happened that tipped the scales in Canberra’s favour. Firstly, the Sharks made a ton of crucial and sometimes comical errors. Cronulla had 15 errors across the game, and you’ll rarely win with so many mistakes. The Raiders first try – a simple crash ball from Tom Starling to Lui – came after Will Kennedy and Nene MacDonald messed up an interchange returning the Milk’s first kick. They seemed to be unable to handle the kick off, so when the Sharks did score, the Raiders would often end up with an attacking set right after, ready to steady the ship. Instead of the young Green Machine being overawed, it was their opposition, and it meant the game always remained in Canberra’s control.
The second thing that kept the Raiders in good field position was the exceptional kicking of Sam Williams and Matt Frawley. They found repeat sets with grubbers (and even a try for Nic Cotric), and they found grass and smartly placed long kicks into the corners. It meant that even when the Milk weren’t winning the middle, they were still forcing the Sharks to work it out from their corners. It was so pleasing to see the game plan that has suited the Green Machine over the last two years being executed to perfection, even without the top names. I hope the first string was watching, and remembering the foundations their success is built on.
So while their field position game meant they were able to corral the strengths of the Sharks, the successes of the forward pack meant that the spine could get out and play some rugby league footballTM. Tom Starling was brilliant, ending the game with 105m on the ground, a try and three try assists – all built with smart play and effort. His try came from a series of moments that reflected what he brings to the side, matching effort and skill to corral a kick, tear sixty metres up field and have enough in his tank to power over from dummy-half with a tenacious run a few tackles later. Minutes later he did it with skill, with a show-and-go that caught the Sharks inside defence napping, burning through the line before kicking for Sam Williams and one of the great Raiders tries in recent history. Close to the goal line he was always a threat at dummy-half, but he also played brilliantly with his forwards, setting up Lui for a crash ball try, and then Kai O’Donnell as the second man of a two-prop set play for a second half try. It was such an impressive performance built on the back of his exponential development over 2020. While the Sharks defence was hardly a wall, what Starling proved was that Canberra are a threat at every point of penetration across the park going forward.
Sam Williams and Matt Frawley also got in on the act. The pair mimicked the first string structure, with Frawley setting up exclusively on the left, and Williams swinging between sides. Adam Cook provided ball player support when the ball shifted right and looked capable in limited opportunities. Williams created a try for Nic Cotric when he recognised the acres of space behind the line and put a perfectly weighted kick through. He took on the line at will and even though his pace isn’t scintillating, he always was a threat to go through. He played intelligently, and organised well. At an individual level it everything you expect from Sam Williams.
But more than that, or the try he scored supporting Starling, he was the bond that tied the side together. The Raiders rarely felt rudderless, and because of Williams’ experience and leadership, were always punching their way towards the line, finding the weak spots to hit, before doing the right thing and finding a good kick. He was ably supported by Frawley, who showed that he’s no slouch in first grade, and picked up a try of his own taking on the frail Sharks defence close to the line.
And while the Raiders did let in five tries, this actually belies the relative robustness of their defensive performance. This was no first-string effort, the middles found themselves in a battle early and had issues getting good contact on the big Cronulla forwards. There tackling efficiency was in the mid 80s (compared to Cronulla’s low 90s) after the first half, and they had more missed and ineffective tackles than their opposition. But they kept turning up, and rarely made errors of effort or decision making. One try came from a kick that Valemei couldn’t get to, another from a good shift by the Sharks that was held up by Cotric that the referee got wrong. A third came from Tom Starling being caught defending at the five-eighth position after Frawley was caught at marker. None of these felt avoidable, or reflective of some ongoing weakness in the Milk’s defence.
The rookies were fine, and handled most everything thrown their way. Semi showed that he continues to improve his decision making, particularly when to jam in, with several devastating hits. Smith-Shields and Timoko handled bigger men than themslves with ease. Adam Cook wasn’t perfect at the back, but he was hardly an anchor. And Medlyn and O’Donnell didn’t look overwhelmed.
In fact, the major defensive concern for the Raiders across the game was the right edge, and specifically a haphazard effort from Corey Harawira-Naera. Two tries were scored down his edge, both arguably coming from defensive errors on his behalf. In particular, watching him get stood up by the footballer formerly known as Wade Graham was painful. He missed four tackles, and it raises questions about his ability to fill John Bateman’s spot next year. His body seems much more suited to the middle right now, although that could change with a good offseason. Regardless, Hudson Young (38 tackles, 1 miss on the other edge) will be ready to fill that spot if Harawira-Naera’s lateral mobility doesn’t improve.
In the end Harawira-Naera’s defence didn’t matter. The Baby Raiders muscled up whenever they needed to, and when the game got tight in the last fifteen minutes, they held the line and didn’t panic. In fact, during this period it was the more experienced players that made errors. Harawira-Naera was sin-binned, Young had the ball stripped, Starling threw away the ball in an attempted off-load. In response the young players kept making plays. Semi kept making good reads to jam in. Timoko was physical in defence, and made several brutal runs to get Canberra out of danger. Darby Medlyn, O’Donnell and Smith-Shields all had important carries, and never look phased by the physicality of the game.
Beyond winning a game it’s a good sign for the Raiders’ future. Timoko and Smith-Shields look as ready as Semi Valemei to play first grade consistently, and will be pushing Curtis Scott, Bailey Simonsson and others across the back five next year. Medlyn and O’Donnell didn’t look out of place playing major minutes against a sizeable pack, and will provide important depth for the finals series and beyond. But more than a pipeline of talent it showed that Coach Stuart has done an exemplary job of creating a football culture in Canberra that can sustain success over the long term. These players came in and did what it took to win – no excuses – mirroring the same tactics and resolve as their more experienced brethren. The Baby Raiders were physical in defence, powerful and pacey in attack. They played with cool heads and stuck to the plan laid out by Sticky and so effectively lead by Sam Williams and the experienced pack. It was beyond heartening to see. It was a goddamn 2020 miracle.
For the purposes of this season though this game was little more than a confidence boost. The Tigers choked to the Eels, and so the Raiders still have to take the long way to the promised land. The first stop is the Sharks again, and you can almost throw this game out as a useful guide for next week. The Sharks were overawed by the Baby Raiders’ enthusiasm, a factor they never managed to match. Next week they won’t lack for effort, and they’ll add Blayke Brailey, Siosifa Talakai, Toby Rudolf, Chad Townsend and potentially Matt Moylan to this side. Canberra has proven over the season that they are a better side, but how good you were last week doesn’t matter in the finals. All that matters in the next 80 minutes.
So there’s no point looking beyond that right now. Instead we should rejoice in the remarkable feat of the Baby Raiders overcoming the odds to beat the Sharks. In a year where Canberra has been asked to overcome injury, arduous travel, and player movement turmoil, the Raiders have shown resilience at each step. Every problem has been met with clear eyes and a full heart. Harder tests are coming, but as they proved in this game, every single member of the Raiders squad is ready to face them.