Tell me there’s a better feeling than spending your weekend bathing in a victory like Canberra’s semi final victory over the Roosters.
If you’re anything like me, last Friday’s victory sat with you all weekend, and you read every damn article you could find about it, if only just to hold the exhilaration of beating the Roosters, at their home, as underdogs, to end their season, and arguably their dynasty, a little bit longer. It was *that* good.
Let’s just bask in that again for a second, think fondly of Charze Nicoll-Klokstad, and laugh at Trent Robinson’s salty press conference.
To be honest I hope the players are more focused on the future than I am. The Raiders are now halfway to the promised land, having already bounced two of their traditional finals enemies, showing the rugby league world that the Milk, in fact, were no fluke. They can ill afford to marvel at their accomplishments. Awaiting Canberra on the other side of that victory are more rivals, the Storm, and potentially the Panthers (or Souths). The Green Machine have quite the history with the Storm (though, anyone that’s played finals in the last 15 years does too). They’ve broken green hearts in the finals plenty of times (1998, 2003, 2016), most recently in the 2016 preliminary final. The teams are markedly different since then (only 7 of the Raiders’ likely 17 took part in that game), but no much since last year’s Qualifying final the Raiders famously won on the back of Joe Tapine’s battering ram and a BJ flick pass.
Beating the Roosters was no small feat. The Milk had one of their best performances of recent memory, and that’s a crowded field. Nor were the Raiders perfect. Climbing the mountain is a challenge, and human’s aren’t robots; you’re never perfect and you can always get better. Improvement is key. You don’t win the competition by being the best team in May – just ask Parramatta. The stakes get higher like De La Soul, and the Green Machine will have to lift again. But how?
Sidebar: Rob will have a more detailed breakdown coming in the The Rumble later this week
There are three areas that have questions around them after Friday. The least worrying was their first contact in defence. Canberra missed 42 tackles on Friday, and the Roosters managed to get away 20 offloads. These two things were interrelated and reinforcing. Offloads mean defensive lines are broken, and tacklers lose the benefit of groups work, meaning sometimes it can take a couple of single-person efforts, rather than a two or three working in concert to bring a man down. But poor contact can also make offloads more prevalent, as imperfect hits leave attackers free and able to promote the ball. This hasn’t been an issue before this game, and it doesn’t feel more than a function of the pace and talent the Raiders faced on Friday. I doubt it will be a problem come the preliminary, but the Storm were just behind the Roosters this season in offloads, so the Raiders will have to be ready and physical.
The other question the Raiders face is about their middle rotation. Somewhat surprisingly they started arguably all of their strongest middle forwards against the Roosters. Papalii, Tapine and Young didn’t disappoint, winning the middle early which was enough for the Green Machine to take a handy 16 blot lead. Havili also started alongside them, and when Soliola and Lui came on, it meant the middle held on, rather than pressed the advantage. It was enough for the Roosters, but assuming Brandon Smith and Nelson Asofa-Solomona come off the Melbourne bench, it won’t be so easy against the Storm.
How Sticky chooses to balance these minutes will be interesting. Soliola’s minutes increased from 18 in his first week back to 26 last weekend, and I suspect they’ll jump again by a similar amount this week. If Havili doesn’t start that will give the Raiders the extra poke off the bench they had against the Sharks, but that will have to be balanced against the defensive utility of protecting Starling from the big boppers in the first 20. In the end, the most likely outcome is that more will be asked of Dunamis Lui. He’s made a habit of stepping up in 2020, and we don’t expect it to stop here.
Finally the right side needs to find a bit more fluidity on both sides of the ball. Rapana and Cotric barely saw the ball outside of yardage. Most of Bateman’s work was done on the fourth run of sets (seriously, so many Raiders sets go Papa, Taps, CNK, Bateman). Rarely did they get a chance to play a bit of footy. Saying a bit of early ball wouldn’t hurt is a cliche at this point, but given the lack of continuity and fluidity on this side this season, it may actually the only way to test the left side of Melbourne’s defence.
In defence they were routinely tested, and mostly held on, save for one moment where Batty and George took the same person, and left Cotric standing in no-man’s land. They get no respite this week, with Cameron Munster and the dominant Storm left side attack coming there way. There’s no personnel change that is a realistic option, and so the only way to improve is to keep calm and carry-on. More time together will improve their cohesion, and hopefully their collective decision making.
These problems are small in teh grand scheme of things, but they’ll have been the focus of Sticky’s mind over the weekend. I’ve no doubt he’s got mitigations, if not solutions.
But before we look forward too far, we should remember the victory over the Roosters as one of the great finals victories. There were so many brilliant performances. Thunder and Lightening in the form of Papalii and Tapine. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad with one of the best performance by a Raiders fullback since Gary Belcher’s heroics in 1989 finals series. 17 men in green stood up and made everyone who supported them proud, and everyone that opposed them take notice.
Ok, now bring on the Storm.
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