The Canberra Raiders 32-20 victory over the Cronulla Shark was not pretty, or even good, but that doesn’t matter. When they could have and should have been rolled, they found a way to hold on. Then when they got a sniff, they tore through the opposition like a bowling ball through the pins, and with about as much subtlety. This will not work next week (far out haven’t we said that a bit lately), but the fact there is a next week is proof of the talent of this side is sufficient to carry it to next week and beyond.
The Raiders came into this game the overwhelming favourite, which meant every Canberra fan with a pulse was on edge (ok, just me, but dude I was struggling). If you were ever worried about the Milk looking over their opposition’s shoulder, the fact that a grand final rematch was awaiting them on the other side of this game should have had every warning light flashing. The Sharks were everyone’s favourite patsy, and were running on the fumes of no one believing in them. If ever there was a game ripe for a fast start from a team with nothing to lose, this was it.
And it’s exactly what we got. The Sharks started the game like a house on fire. Everything went their way for almost the entirety of the first half. They tore up middle, and even though they didn’t look coordinated or threatening when they pushed to the edges in search of points, they still managed to find two tries, two penalty goals, and a Canberra side that was scratching it’s head and wondering what happened to the plan. When they didn’t find points, they got repeat sets, and when Canberra had the ball they were either starting from their own line, or were so exhausted from defending that attacking metres were sparse.
The Sharks middles in particular just pounded the Raiders forward pack. While Blayke Brailey was on the field (about the first 30 or so minutes) they looked sharp, punching in around the ruck and taking bucketloads of metres. In the first half they outgained the Milk by more than 400 metres (and Canberra only had 529 metres at that point) and Hamlin-Uele (9 for 107m in the first half) and Talakai (8 for 97m) in particular were devastating. The Sharks were taking big metres on each set (average 46m a set to Canberra’s 31m), and the Green Machine were out on their feet. It didn’t immediately end at half time either. The Sharks took 60 and 70 plus metres on their first two sets after half time. The Raiders simply weren’t winning the middle.
The two tries that resulted were symptoms of this dominance. On the first Connor Tracy shifted across field, barely moving at more than a canter. Neither Bateman, nor Williams had the energy (or the effort) to take him down. Rapana tried to take matters into his own hands, rushing up unsuccessfully (as he did a few times in this game), putting Cotric in a bad position which he made worse, and the Sharks scored. This edge never looked comfortable, and for the first time since he moved there permanently Rapana looked like a defensive weakness. The last time that edge looked that sketchy was when it barely held together after injury forced Rapa and Semi together against the Roosters in round 10. A few minutes later Elliott Whitehead, broken from the excessive defence he’d done, dropped a simple ball as the Raiders came off their own line for the 4000th time, and Brailey picked up the ball and strolled over.
It was frustrating because even with their overwhelming weight of possession going against them, Canberra rarely looked troubled by the Sharks attack until those points. So often the Sharks punched up the middle, and the Raiders held on. They’d shift and the Green Machine would envelope the play. Across the edges good decisions were made in defence, with those few notable exceptions. The Sharks were smart and earned repeat sets, and Canberra just got tired, and made some mental mistakes.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened this season, but it’s the first time the result was so pronounced. Canberra was under siege. They were playing the game coming off their own line, and barely smelled the Sharks half until the last quarter of the game (at one point early in the second half they’d been tackled in the Cronulla half seven times). Canberra played too tight to their chest, playing one off the ruck as they desperately tried to get field position. This was a (rare) moment where they desperately missed Josh Hodgson’s ability to engage everyone with eyes and prevent defences from focusing on the ball carrier. Every carry was hard, and had a horde of powerful defenders repelling it.
The efforts of Josh Papalii (13 for 126m) and Joe Tapine (12 for 138m and 59 post contact metres) were barely enough to get the Milk back to the 40 before they had to kick and hope. Hudson Young (9 for 108m) and Siliva Havili (10 for 130m) brought energy with them onto the field, but were initially unable to change the passage of the game. The Raiders were losing the middle, and it meant that to turn the game they needed the Sharks to make errors to get into a position to attack; their only try in the first half came on the back of a penalty. Otherwise they scratched around in their own half.
Normally to get back into a game you have to start winning the middle, but Canberra reversed the process. First George Williams took a Wade Graham pass 80 metres the other way, then on the other side of halftime Jack Wighton scored after a rare error-restart-penalty combination. He was quick thinking, took a tap and was impossible for the discombobulated defence to stop close to the line. Moments later the Milk got another penalty, Williams kicked, and Wighton took one of the great
marks in AFL history catches and put-downs in rugby league history. All of a sudden the Raiders were in control at 22-14 and they’d barely had their noses in the game.
This series of plays were all opportunistic, and required supreme feats of skill, strength and guile from Wighton and Williams. They did it with little momentum, and while the game was entirely running against them. Almost at no point did the Raiders look coherent or anything approaching smooth, but Williams and Wighton grabbed the opportunities they had and didn’t let go.
In particularly Jack’s performance was pleasing. He stood up, as a leader and star should when a finals game is in the balance. Wighton took on the line, and was always peppering the right hand side of the Sharks defence with his feet and with the pass. He scored two, set up another, and was always a handful taking on the line. More than once he made the right read to run it on the last and pass it on to Croker. That resulted in another try when Croker made the right read to kick for Whitehead to seal the game. And he did it in defence too. He was brutal, and in one set in the second half, he made arguably two try saving (or movement ending) tackles, as well as another brutal hit jumping out of the line to chase a loose ball.
The only thing was he couldn’t do was fashion any of the fluidity of attack or set plays we’ve been so fond of with that left hand side. Jack threw away one try with a pass that was ruled forward, and in between struggled to find the right connections with Whitehead in particular on the left. Jack and he just couldn’t seem to click, to the extent that Jack nearly killed him with one hospital pass early in the second half, and even the last try for the Sharks came from an intercepted Whitehead pass. Similarly on the other edge, Bateman did his job defensively, but offered surprisingly little in attack, and Rapana and Cotric almost never saw the ball other than in yardage. When it required coordination and cohesion it was inconsistent for Canberra. When it required all the subtlety of a monkey in a day spa, Jack (and George) got it done.
Of course it wasn’t all Jack and George. Papalii and Tapine were excellent as always; Tapine’s footwork in the line was the most relible sources of metres in the first twenty for the Milk. Young and Havili should be recognised too. With Papalii and Tapine on the bench, and Soliola only playing the first 18 minutes of the game, they both stood up. Young in particular looks like a future star, and if not for his two drops, he would have had a barnstormer in his first finals game. His break up the middle gave Wighton the metres, the momentum and the space to set up Williams for a try, and with Tapine he was the most threatening Raiders middle.
And finally Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s performance was one of his best of the season; he didn’t do anything flashy, but he made a series of critical last-man-standing tackles, and took some of the dirtiest yardage hit-ups you will see a fullback take. He was exactly what Canberra needed at every moment they needed it (except when he passed a ball into Smelly’s head towards the end of the game – that left side again!).
So the Raiders live for another week. It wasn’t a well played game, and even as they tore through the Sharks in the second half they did so through a cavalcade of errors (9 for the half) and incomplete and inconsistent play. They simply must be more consistent and more competitive from the get go, otherwise their season will end next Friday. That’s hardly a controversial statement. The Roosters are good, and are fighting for their lives. The Milk must be better.
The good thing is that this game showed that it’s all there, lurking below the surface. Wighton proved he can change a game all by himself, and Williams was right there with him. Wighton’s connection with Whitehead was off in this game, but it won’t be off in the next game. Tapine and Papalii will be just as good next week, and with a bit more width and interplay between the forwards, they won’t be so easy to corral. The bench has the talent in Young, the effort of Liva, and the improving match fitness of Sia Soliola. We’ve seen what the Raiders can do with a bit of pace and space. They just can’t afford to wait fifty minutes to find it.
There’s no way they won’t be ready to go next week. There’s no pressure on them, and no expectations outside of their own. They’ve put together everything but an 80 minute performance since they first beat the Roosters back in round ten. Now is the time for a complete performance.