The challenge facing the Canberra Raiders to win the NRL premiership is substantial. They will likely have to go through the three best teams in the league to get there, and that assumes they beat a ‘better-than-you-think’ Cronulla Sharks this weekend. There are simply no easy games.
Winning will mean finding every edge they have. There’s plenty to point to. Defence, dynamic ball running, resiliance. These are all parts of the Canberra story. Most of these strengths are will be shared by the counterparts in the coming weeks. But one advantage they have that no one else has is excellent, ball-playing backrowers.
Sidebar: Before we get going, this article contains some gifs I stole from the good people over at Rugby League Writers. I don’t know if you’re aware of their work, but visit their website, follow them on twitter and facebook, and generally appreciate the goodness of their work.
This is unusual, at least for most finals teams. Most edge runners are just that – they offer brutal running and an offload. Think Boyd Cordner. Think Ryan Matterson. Think Viliame Kikau. There are fewer players like Bateman and Whitehead, people who have all the physical ability to match up with bigger forwards, with the silky hands of outside backs. Wade Graham is the grand-daddy of the current crop, Kenny Bromwich is an underrated ball player, and James Fisher-Harris has improved in 2020, but it’s unusual for NRL teams to expect ball-playing to occur outside the spine. And no one can do it like Smelly and Batty.
Of course it’s not so secret. Whitehead has always been a a very good ball player. Check out this ball to put Corey Harawira-Naera in space.
This is a display of Whitehead’s skill – a perfectly timed and weighted ball. If it was any starting 7 in the competition you wouldn’t bat an eye. But this is the Canberra left-edge backrower playing like a half on the right. That’s a weapon that the Raiders are carrying around outside their premier ball-players.
Over the last two seasons (and in particularly in 2020) he has, with Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker, created a slick attacking operation on the left side, and it’s become increasingly obvious over the back end of this season. As Jason Oliver at Rugby League Writers points out:
The Raiders left edge has accounted for 45% of Canberra’s total tries in 2020. It’s played a major role in their 6th-ranked attack scoring 22.3 points per game.You can read that here.
Perhaps this is best displayed in his and Jack’s pet set play, this devastating run around.
So many options can build off this play. You’ve seen in recent weeks Whitehead play Croker on the face ball rather than swing it back to Jack. Smelly has the option of taking it himself as teams key on Jack moving around the back. It’s a play built on trust in Whithead to make critical call on what the defence is reading. Not many teams will put that decision in the hands of a second rower.
That trust and understanding between Wighton and Whitehead extends to last tackle options. Watch examples like the below from the victory against the Dragons.
Jack is happy to push the ball into Smelly’s hands in a little bit of space confidence he has the skills and ability to make the right decision about running, passing or kicking. In this circumstance that pass to Whitehead is enough to bring up the rookie winger Curtis Ramsey. Whitehead spots this and puts a perfect kick in behind the line for Croker.
This isn’t the only example of Elliott being trusted on the last to make the right decision, and we all remember him putting on a remarkable try for Hudson Young in the game against the Warriors.
On the other side of the field Canberra harbours another creative back rower. John Bateman is probably faster and more dynanmic in his movements than Whitehead, but he also provides an additional creative threat outside the traditional right side half, George Williams. He’s got a fend as powerful as his step is dexterous, and he can create something from nothing with the best of them.
Similar to Wighton’s relationship with Whitehead, this removes the pressure from Williams to do all the creating himself. This forces defences to to be accountable across the park, making them think twice about jamming into tightly on the English halfback. In both the below examples Bateman is simply shuffled a ball by Williams in a bit of space, and makes a split-second decision to pass on both occasions that results in points.
To be fair, it’s always been a part of their games, and probably a bit part of why they were brought to Canberra. Both Whitehead and Bateman have displayed an array of non-typical skills for the Green Machine. Whithead threw the most perfect cutout pass standing in as five-eighth in just his second game for Canberra in 2016. John Bateman similarly was a revelation in 2019, mixing grubbers for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, footwork that made Kalyn Ponga look slow, with a hard fend and an ability in defence that made him a huge part of the Raiders’ revival. Both of them formed a key part of the attack in 2019 also, as the Milk relied on the ability of their athletes across the park to create points even when their attack wasn’t at its most fluid.
But this has grown in importance in 2020. Injury to Josh Hodgson and an array of props has meant a bigger role for both edges in attacking movements. As the Canberra attack has become more fluid, much of it has come with the greater involvement of these two players.If they are are to find a way to get past the best of the best in the NRL, one way will be to find a way to offer something the rest can’t. These ball-playing backrowers may be the Raiders’ edge.