The Canberra Raiders survived. That’s the main feeling most people have post their almost weekly slow start-fast finish combination managed to carry them through an elimination final. Another team, a different half (seriously Chad, those last tackle options were no bueno), and maybe the Raiders are licking their wounds and planning for 2021 today. But they eventually put it together, and that was enough.
Of course the Green Machine started slowly, as they have in so many of their games recently. Part of me can’t help but notice the propensity to not turn up for the first 30-40 minutes of the game has been largely reserved for teams the Milk are expected to handle easily. The oft-trotted out statistic that they went 8 games through the back end of the season without scoring first obscures the true story here. Against the non-top 8 teams, the Raiders seemed to take it easy. The list is almost endless. The Broncos, Bulldogs, Dragons, Cowboys, Warriors all had leads in the first half against Canberra over the last eight rounds of the season. Against the big names they were ready to go from the get go. They went toe-to-toe with the Roosters for the first forty, and were all over the Panthers for the first 10 minutes before, well, it all fell apart.
So a hypothesis is that this is an expectations thing. It’s not that the Milk are turning up an expecting to win without trying. Rather, that their opposition, with little to lose in terms of reputation or ego, shows up with all guns blazing. The Raiders, in the knowledge that their defence will keep them in almost anything, absorb the pressure over the early bouts, before responding with flourish as their opposition runs out of steam. This is certainly what occurred against the Sharks.
This pendulum swings the other way in the next week of the finals. The Raiders are now playing with house money. They’ve made it about as far as any sober analyst would have expected – and certainly further than most thought when Josh Hodgson, Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler, Sia Soliola, Michael Oldfield and Curtis Scott went down (ok some of those matter more than others, I’m more just writing them to acknowledge the length and depth of the injury list). They were expected to beat the Sharks, and Cronulla got to play like they had nothing to lose (which, they weirdly didn’t fully embrace with all those penalty goals in stead of going for the jugular). Now it’s Canberra’s turn.
I recognise that this is a weak attempt at pop-psychology, and potentially overweighting, or misreading, what is going on between the ears of the side. There are, of course, strategic contributions to these slow starts. The ploy of playing within the middle third early in games certainly makes them susceptible to a monstering from an opposition. Without Hodgson there to send markers and A gap defenders to wrong way with body positioning and a threatening step, defences are able to key-in on the ball carrier with much greater success. Perhaps more width from dummy-half, and more interplay between the forwards to change the point of attack, and the Raiders might not be playing from their own half so much.
There will also be those who would suggest starting Siliva Havili to provide power at 9. Unfortunately for that option Papalii and Tapine played 60 and 51 defence-heavy minutes respectively on Saturday, and Sia Soliola only punched out 18 for the game. Havili’s contributions as a middle forward may be more critical this week, and wearing him out early may be counterproductive, especially if Harawira-Naera and Soliola don’t have more minutes to offer.
But all things being equal, these strategic aspects shouldn’t result in the lumbering beginnings that we have seen. It’s hard not to think that the expectations of easy victories has played a role. Now they take on the Roosters, the dynasty, who have already (rightly) been installed favourites. Most people will be looking to a potential Roosters/Storm preliminary final, the extension of the Roosters reign and the replication of Parramatta’s threepeat from the 80s. Expectations will firmly lie on the Roosters to prevail.
This can play into the Raiders hands. The Sombreros and the Raiders have been tight match ups in all of their games in the last 18 months, and in both encounters this season the Milk have been raring to go from the outset. Whether this results in a victory is anyone’s guess. But regardless of how the game ends, I don’t think we’ll see another slow start again this season. The weight of expectation is off the Raiders’ shoulders. Now they are free to throw the kitchen-sink at their opposition, consequences be damned.
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