The Canberra Raiders lost their trial match 26-20 to the Easts. But we all know that trial games don’t matter. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: the results don’t matter. What’s important is that they show the pieces are there for another run at the cup. In this game (and, to an extent, in the NSW cup beforehand), the Raiders showed that they have everything in place to be a serious show for 2021.
Coach Stuart usually treats trial games with the full spirit of the word. In previous years he’s named essentially the whole squad, played “starters” limited minutes and shelved the game before half time. He did that again in this game, with the added bonus of also playing anyone not certain of a first grade start in reserve grade as well. Papalii, Tapine, Nicoll-Klokstad, Wighton, Rapana, George Williams, Hodgson and Hudson Young were the only players that only played first grade. The Raiders still lost both grades but that was beside the point. They dominated the early goings of both games, made mass substitutions and were promptly run down. Maybe the real win is the things we learnt along the way?
For starters we learned that Josh Hodgson doesn’t appear hampered by the “new style” or his new anterior cruciate ligament. He was brilliant in the first forty minutes. It’s just a trial, but if people had concerns about his style of play matching to “set-restart” era, he showed that he had a plan to operate. He gave the forwards ball early, played with width to Williams and Wighton, and happily took metres when they were available. He set up two tries; both coming from a set in which he worked over the ruck and then took advantage of a small opening. The first after scooting 30 yards off the back of a Josh Papalii offload, hitting George Williams, and then picking on the overwhelmed Roosters left edge repeatedly until Hudson Young crashed over. Later he sent Joe Tapine over in similar circumstances. He looked fast the whole time (not just on his scoot, but in his service, and when he stayed with Tedesco chasing a ricochet). If there were concerns about his tendency to overplay his hand in the attacking twenty, they weren’t on display here. He seemed well balanced with Williams and Wighton in this affair, although they kept their cards close to their chests in terms of set plays or anything too creative.
Of course so much of this ease came from a good work of the middle forwards through the first half of the game. The starting middles (Papalii, Soliola, and Tapine) all averaged nine metres a pop, and looked dominant against the Roosters first string. It was a luxury to bring Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler, Ryan James and Ryan Sutton off the bench at various points. Outside the starting middles, the rest had already played a stint in the reserve grade, with Horsburgh and Guler particularly impressive in that fixture.
All of them looked lean; weapons prepped to match the league’s need for speed. Strategically it was interesting to see both James and Horsburgh play consistent roles as link men, bringing other forwards into the ball to test the defensive line at the fringes of the traditional ABC defenders. In an era where teams are loading up through the middle to test tiring rucks, having the option to play with a bit of low-risk width and change the point of attack can be important to creating quick rucks.
If you were hoping that performances in this game would be dispirit enough that there might be clarity about which of these middles may be in in the 17 in a fortnight you might be disappointed. Horsburgh is probably the only that eliminated himself from consideration, and that wasn’t though his performance. His hard carries and offload proved as effective as ever, but unfortunately in the reserve grade game he was put on report twice, for a shoulder charge and for fighting (I think). I wouldn’t be surprised if he missed weeks in addition to his club imposed suspension from round one. It was also noteworthy that Dunamis Lui only played at the back end of reserve grade. I’ve no idea what that means.
Similarly in the outside backs the picture was no more clearer after this game. Seb Kris started with the top line team and didn’t disappoint. He had some strong carries and looked comfortable in defence. Curtis Scott had some strong carries too (although he had a bad miss in reserve grade). Harley-Smith Shields was exhilarating in the second half of the main game as well as throughout the reserve grade. He made one defensive error in turning his back on James Tedesco, who proceeded to burn Tommy Starling, but he offered so much with the ball. Matt Timoko was physical and wouldn’t look out of place in the starting line up if asked. Bailey Simonsson looked fast and powerful. And Jordan Rapana seemed to have a pep in his step after a couple of injury-troubled years.
It was so pleasing to see them all stand up. I suspect we’ll see a relatively “chalk” lineup in round one, but that still leaves Jarrod Croker’s left centre position potentially up for grabs. The presence of Kris in the starting 13, and the performance of Harley Smith-Shields, intrigued me.
The only concern for the Milk was the middles getting occasionally overwhelmed in defence, which put pressure on the edges to clean up. It’s the nature of the game at the moment – win a ruck, win another then unleash on the edges. The Roosters do it as well as any team the in the league. One first half try came from this. The middle got beaten repeatedly, Josh Hodgson was isolated and got run over by Lindsay Collins. There were no bigs around to help him out. This isn’t a worry at this stage; good teams will get on top of you occasionally. The Raiders generally did a good job of cleaning up the mess.
Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead did substantial work in this regard. Young was particularly challenged facing off against one of the best backrowers in the competition in Angus Crichton, but he held his own. In the large part he and Curtis Scott were a good match in defence. It was pleasing to see Young link Williams and Scott on a few occasions in attack too. Darby Medlyn and Harry Rushton got minutes on the edge in both games, and had good moments. Rushton is much bigger than I realised, and his work rate was astounding. He got beaten once or twice laterally, but the strength of his carry, and his willingness to make tackle after tackle, is something to be excited about.
In short it was a really heartening performance by the Milk, despite the loss. It showed that they are as well prepared as any Canberra team ever. They have an elite spine that can work together. They have an unending forward pack with a strategy built to succeed in the game as it is. And the only concern – the uncertainty in ther outside backs – has been allayed through the performance on young players with talent to burn. I can’t be coy. This is a really good footy team.
Things will get hard at some point, they always do. But it feels like this side is ready. In terms of its preparation, but also in terms of the obstacles they’ve overcome over the last two years to learn lessons and build the side they have today. This was just a trial, but it feels like they have all the pieces in place to take on the league.
Bring on the real stuff.