The Canberra Raiders were dismantled by the Melbourne Storm 30-10. Every weakness in their makeup that they had papered over throughout the year was exposed as the Storm tore them apart with pace and precision. It was thorough and complete devastation, but Raiders fans shouldn’t lose heart. They’ve proved this year that they have built a side capable of sustained success.
It was always going to be a tough trip up to Queensland. The Storm’s record at Suncorp is so ironclad that it may as well be their home ground. There was always the risk the Green Machine had played their grand final last week, and the tough game, and the extra travel, was always going to have an impact. And so when the Raiders started slowly it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a problem they’ve had all year; one that I had hoped was vanquished by the adrenaline of finals footy. But while the Storm started this game with the energy of a geyser, the Green Machine felt like it was stuck in mud.
The Storm started by attacking the edges of the Raiders defence. They had a deliberate plan to play multiple passes wide of the ruck, determined to move the Canberra middles around, and test the decision making, and contact, of the edge defenders. They would hit an edge, then back to the middle of the ground, then out to the other edge. When they needed metres they pushed around the defence, and too often defenders let fast-running Storm attackers get outside them.
They did it on the first set – shifting to Jesse Bromwich two wide of the ruck, then again with Papenhuyzen outside Munster, with Josh Papalli having to make a cover tackle on the fullback. It didn’t result in a try but on their second, third, and fourth possessions they used this pattern to score tries and end the game before it started. The first try came after the Storm got ball in good position after a poor end to a set from the Raiders. They pushed wide to the right, then back to the left. Both times the Milk cleaned up, but it dragged the middle defenders over the edge, and then when Hudson Young pushed up to take Jahrome Hughes, and Siliva Havili ended up with no one as Jesse Bromwich scored. On the very next set the Storm repeated the pattern, playing two-wide on both sides of the ruck, before shifting to the Raiders’ right. Rapana pushed in on the face-ball to Brenko Lee, except the pass went out the back to Kenny Bromwich and the Storm were away. A few minutes later they used the same pattern to work down the field, kick to the corner, force an error, before Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker and Semi Valemei took turns missing tackles on Vunivalu that they will regret when they see the replay. Croker’s in particular was dismaying given his experience.
It was such a simple strategy but it tested every point of the Raiders. It worked because Canberra could never get a clean hit on the powerful Melbourne middles, and as a result they found metres and momentum easily. Nelson Asofa-Solomona had some brutal carries early that provided the space to push wide of the ruck. It worked because when they pushed wider they hammered the makeshift right edge, which needed to be air-tight, and it simply wasn’t. The first two tries involved defensive mistakes from Jordan Rapana, the third had no mistake, but Munster’s strong run nearly split John Bateman and George Williams. All season we’ve wondered if that edge was as stable as 2019, and in this game we got a confronting answer.
It worked because even when it didn’t result in a break, it ended with a dangerous kick that the Raiders couldn’t handle, nor clean up with their defence. At half-time Canberra had successfully dealt with only 12 per cent of the Storm kicks, which is a defusal rate I have never seen before. The Storm scored once more when Nic Cotric’s air swipe of a Papenhuyzen grubber let the ball sit up in the in-goal long enough for Justin Olam, and could have had another if Josh Addo-Carr’s grounding had been correct in the 18th minute. The Green Machine have struggled with kicks at various points this season, so this hardly felt isolated. Rather, it felt like a weakness, identified and exploited, like someone digging a fire-poker into an open wound.
It was such thorough dominance that when Cameron Smith kicked early on the fourth set, forcing the Raiders to drag themselves out from the very corner of the ground, or when he took two points to put the Storm up 18-0, it was almost relieving. This was brutal. This was clinical. This was precision. And the Raiders, for all their resilience, for all the heart they have shown in 2020 to overcome every obstacle in their way, finally found one they simply couldn’t conquer.
By 25 minutes in the Raiders had made just 199 metres with the ball. That’s basically three good sets worth of metres in 25 minutes. The Storm were making 43 metres a set, and the Raiders could only muster 28 on average. Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine had 7 carries between them in the first half, such as the possession deficit over that first segment of the game. It was every battle for position and possession the Raiders have found themselves in over the season, only this time the opposition never let up, and never let them out. The Storm went 17 from 17 in the first half according to NRL stats. And they did it playing with width and creativity. It was near perfect footy.
When they did get the ball in a bit of space the Raiders were playing catch up. They rarely won the battle in the middle, with the Storm matching the brutal pace they attacked with in defence. Only Hudson Young (15 carries for 106m) and Joe Tapine (13 for 101m) cracked 100 metres, and both did so at well less than eight metres a carry. Such as the momentum deficit that the Raiders routinely had to waste tackles in attack trying to punch in around the ruck because there was no space on the edges. The Raiders best attacking weapon, the left edge, got almost no opportunity to work in space. More than once their first receiver on the left side had to run the ball because there simply was no room for another option. On the occasions they found space they had unsatisfying ends, with Whitehead, Croker and Valemei all making avoidable errors in attack.
The right had more opportunities, especially as the game wore on. Williams, sometimes in combination with Nicoll-Klokstad, managed to put Bateman and Rapana into space on multiple occasions. They each held the ball with overlaps outside them and tries went begging. Partly this was due to excellent decision-making from Olam and Addo-Carr, who both made critical tackles on attackers in space, or prevented passes from being thrown. The Raiders eventually did get the ball wide to Cotric and he scored, doubling his try total for the match after he had turned a good kick from Williams into a brilliant try earlier in the game.
The Raiders didn’t help themselves with an array of errors -13 for the match, compared to 4 for the Storm. They very much needed a cool head able to manipulate the ruck to earn some cheap metres around the middle, and perhaps steal a try around the posts. While Josh Hodgson wasn’t available, it was surprising to see Tom Starling sit on the bench well into the second half. I understand Sticky was seeing his team unable to corral the big Melbourne forwards and didn’t want to risk exacerbating the issue, but when Starling did come on, the Milk didn’t suffer in defence, and they played with much more threat around the ruck, and it meant easier metres in the middle and more metres on the edge.
Almost nothing went right for the Raiders. If this was a regular season game you’d put it in the bin and say forgot about it. But this will be a lesson that each of these players will have to learn from. If there was a comfort it was that for the full eighty minutes the Raiders kept striving for victory. They made several ‘effort’ plays, like when Corey Harawira-Naera and John Bateman dragged Josh Addo-Carr back into his in goal after a Williams kick. Or when the middles ganged up on Dale Finucane to push him back into the in-goal off the second-half kick-off. Unfortunately, they were unable to turn these moments into any thing approaching a dominant passage of play.
There were good performances. George Williams couldn’t overcome the stacked deck but he continued to probe and test as much as he could. Young and Harawira-Naera’s performances were promising: Young because he was the standout forward in just his second season, Harawira-Naera because we got a glimpse of what he can offer Canberra next season. No one shirked their task, the opposition were just better.
And so this was a terrible way to end an inspiring season. The Raiders were dominated in this game, but it was an achievement to ever get this far. They’ve overcome smoke, coronavirus, more travel than a salesman, a forward-pack’s worth of injuries, and had sticky-taped together a backline with wingers playing at centre and a rookie playing at winger. It was so incredible to see them them chew up and spit out every challenge they faced this year, and while it’s sad they couldn’t handle one or two more, I’m so grateful for their efforts this season, for their resilience, and for their courage under fire.
What they showed is that they have the roster and the culture to build sustained success. Next year they’ll be back, and they’ll have a second rotation of forwards almost as good as their first. They’ll have a world-class hooker manipulating the ruck, and another quality one waiting on the bench for tired forwards to torment. They won’t have to play Rapana at winger, because they’ll be able to choose from the myriad of options in the squad who’ll have a bit more experience, and a bit more footy, under their belts. George and Jack, who have begun to gel over the last half of this season, will be even more ready to take on the best. They’ll be another year wiser, just as hungry, with a chance to go even further than this, or last year. It’s a good place to be.
And finally thank you for reading all season. We won’t be going anywhere, and we’ll have a full-season review, and plenty of other content coming in the near future. But on behalf of me and Rob and I just wanted to say thank you for reading. We appreciate every piece of support we get, and we notice every one of you who likes, shares, or comments on our work. It’s truly humbling that so many of you seem to like what we do, and to have our own little part of the Raiders community to chat to. We love you all.
So for the last time in 2020: UP THE MILK
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