Something I noticed about the Canberra Raiders approach to defence last weekend was a profound uptick in physicality. This was both in isolated incidents, but also throughout the length of the game.
This was a change. In the past, including last year and the grand final run of 2019, the Raiders defence had always had a bend-but-don’t-break quality to it. It aimed up at the goal line, but generally teams could find metres between the 20s if they wanted them. It was almost as though the Milk would escort them to somewhere they could trap them, and only then would they stiffen. If we’re being honest this was a continuation of the approach taken in 2017 and 2018, only with functional edges. So colour me curious when I noticed a ferocity at the point of contact from the Raiders defenders. It wasn’t perfect – they didn’t always succeed in corralling the Tigers. But there seemed a deliberate intent to win the collision rather than control the tackle.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the new rules. After an admittedly comically small sample-size of football (1 round does not make a summer. Wait. Is that right?), it seemed over the weekend that the defensive emphasis for most teams had shifted from maintaining the integrity of the defensive line to doing whatever they can to stop teams from rolling up the middle. This central destruction can spring from simply winning one ruck, so perhaps the Raiders have recognised that they have to do everything they can (in addition to wrestling) in order to make sure the play-the-ball is not disadvantageous.
Perhaps its because of the depth. The Raiders have a unending list of middle forwards right now that can play minutes in the middle. The ramifications of high-energy defence like this would have once been dire. Wearing out Josh Papalii trying to knock the block off every ball-runner may have rendered the Milk’s meterage moot. Now Dunamis Lui or Ryan Sutton or Joe Tapine can expel as much energy in defence as they do in attack, safe in the knowledge that there’s plenty of talent to back them up (or driven by that fact). Look at The Rugby League Eye Test’s involvement rate metric. It shows the amount a player is involved (either in running or tackling capacity) during their time on the field as a proportion of the total number of plays.
Last year Sutton and Horsburgh were the only players that regularly turned up in this list. Acknowledging it’s only one game, but the Raiders unusually have four of their middles in the top 20 in the league in involvement. Lui and Havili only played limited minutes, but they, along with Tapine and Sutton, were able to expend more energy and effort in service of the greater good.
Of course it’s likely (or possible?) that it’s both. The Raiders know they have to win the middle to win the game, and are have declared total war, directing all their resources towards making sure that happens (shouts to my dude Clausewitz). For once they have enough materials to make it happen. It’s also just as likely that I’m seeing what I want to. This is one game, and there’s no defensive metric for “he proper smashed ya mate suck on that”. I’m relying on my own interpretation, which, and this will shock you, could well be wrong. Maybe the Raiders have been consistent brutes all along. Maybe they’re not now.
So let’s not call this a thing just yet. Just a small piece of anecdotal evidence, worth considering and building into something bigger if we continue to observe it. I think there’s enough evidence from the weekend to suggest this is something worth watching. I’ll be keeping an eye on this over the next few weeks.
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