The Canberra Raiders fumbled, fought and clawed their way to a 12-10 victory over the Cronulla Sharks. It was a grind, and it was lucky, but it was also revealing. The Milk have plenty of work to do but they showed they have a strong defence, a willing attitude and an idea, if not a complete picture, of an effective attack. If only they could get out of their own way.
The rain dominated the lead up to the game. While points had been scored by more fluid attacks over the weekend (hello Roosters), the conditions were hardly conducive to fluid attacking football. The Raiders were coming off 30 points against the Tigers with barely a moment of cohesion, but it felt naive to hope that would appear while trying to navigate the bath that was Kogarah oval. For a period of time the Raiders didn’t quite thrive, but they thoroughly had the match in control.
And we should remember this. The Green Machine did not struggle for the entire match. they built a lead through conservative, intelligent, wet weather football. The forwards flourished while the Raiders had plenty of ball through the first fifty minutes of the game (60 per cent possession through that period). The opening team of Josh Papalii (12 for 130m) and Joe Tapine (15 for 145m including 81 post contact metres) were both excellent as expected. They were ably supported by a bench mob that for the second week brought equal levels of power and penetration; Ryan James (13 for 144m) and Ryan Sutton (10 for 91m) in particular were strong. This group is a real weapon for the Raiders right now. They come on and maintain the quality of work, and the Raiders are flourishing where their opponents bench rotations are wilting. It was also noteworthy to see them supported in yardage work by the back five, each proving able to make tough metres (which is pleasing in for each member but for different reasons).
Aided by a cack-handed opposition, this work through th emiddle ensured Canberra were playing the game at the right end of the park. At one point they’d had 39 tackles in the opposition 20 compared to two for the Sharks. The Raiders may have wished they’d banked more points in this period but their redzone attack struggled.Their points came from good work – Seb Kris’ try was proof he’s more than just a battering ram; those feet were so fast they left Chad Townsend for dead. Josh Hodgson’s cerebral brilliance was on display when he faked out both markers, sending them both to his left before hitting Hudson Young back to the right for a try on half time bell. But for much of this period it still felt like they were putting together their attack as they went. Partly this was because of the weather – in this sodden turf everyone felt like they were just hoping their knee ligaments could handle the wet. Most movements felt like they had a timidity attached that would be understandable given the wet.
Structurally the challenge of finding the balance between Hogdson, Williams and Wighton remains a work in progress. There were times where Hodgson played too much in the middle. Too often he hit a non-ball-player on the blind side on the last (there’s a fine line between trusting your team-mates and lunacy). But there were more where he didn’t test the middle enough and the rare times the Raiders looked fluid was playing through the middle third. Instead the ball went wide to Williams, who faced aggressive edges that were impossible to navigate in these conditions. Wighton got more early ball in space, and while he didn’t score, in the first half at least he looked his most threatening. There’s a balance here between the three ball-players that’s still to be found, and we would reiterate last week’s message of patience.
If finding this balance was all that ailed the Milk, then the scoreline wouldn’t have been as close as it was. However, for a period in the second half the Raiders lost their goddamn minds. Or should I say their hands? Canberra dropped so much ball in the second half it almost became comical. Jack Wighton wasn’t as quiet as last week, but more in the way someone is ‘infamous’ rather than ‘famous’. His three errors in a row just after half time were the start of a period where they couldn’t keep possession for longer than a thought. Jack dropped ball taking on the line twice, and another time threw an impossible pass at Jordan Rapana’s feet. His best moment was set play that was beautiful weapon the Green Machine can deploy in the future; he set up directly behind Hogson and split weak-side, creating confusing and almost enough space for him to score. But he didn’t, and while it was ultimately ruled a strip, he then lost the ball a few moments later. It was that kind of game.
His errors were followed by a drop from Nicoll-Klokstad (who’s drop came on an unchallenged bomb that eventually became the Sharks first points), Rapana forcing an Elliott Whitehead error, Simonsson dropping the ball coming out of trouble and Saliva Havili dropping a short ball from Hodgson in attack. Then Young dropped the ball on the first (and only) tackle of good ball the Raiders had in the last thirty minutes of the game. There may have been other errors, but this is all my traumatised mind could remember. The Raiders went from having sixty percent of the ball through the first fifty minutes to ending the game on the wrong side of the possession ledger. The Sharks had roughly 70 per cent of the ball in the last thirty minutes, as the Raiders completed at a painful 54 percent in the back half of the game. It was infuriating and would have put paid to a lesser side.
But hey, there’s a reason we’re talking about a Canberra victory, and it’s only not only to do with Chad Townsend’s poor kicking. The Raiders defence had the Sharks handled. It was physical, it was brutal, and it industrious. The middle tried to smash the Sharks into submission, and it succeeded in forcing an array of errors. James, Young, Sutton and Wighton all brutalised errors out of the opposition. It was further evidence of the tactics we had identified earlier in the week (TL:DR the Raiders are using physicality to win rucks), and it was a roaring success.
But it wasn’t just smashing players as they came through the middle. The Raiders’ edges were exemplary on both sides. Kris was clean, and unfazed by the pace Will Kennedy tried to put on him. Curtis Scott continued to make the right choice \, and do so aggressively. Whitehead and Young both cleaned up any mess they encountered. Young chased down the seeming only Sharks break for the game and forced an errant pass. Smelly somehow chased a shift movement to the other side of the field and forced Josh Dugan into touch. In between they were both stunning in defence, and in particular its so pleasing to see Young already so at home defending on the edge. I’ll be shocked if Corey Harawira-Naera finds a spot there without injury (or Origin) being involved.
Any time the Sharks tried to go around through the Raiders they got smacked in the mouth by a defence that swarmed them. When they tried to go around the defence covered them like white on rice. They scored twice from kicks, and it never felt like the Sharks had a sustainable way through. It took penalties and errors to get them into a position to score, and kick and hope to get the points. In the end it surprised me they made it to 10, let alone more. If this defence stays this robust it will such a weapon for Canberra. It not just protected their meagre lead in this game, it will keep them competitive in many games in the future.
So it wasn’t pretty, but winning in the wet rarely is. A better side (hello again Roosters) wouldn’t have been so generous. This was a victory that took a little luck, and a lot of brute force and desire. It’s not a victory that anyone will identify as a turning point or as evidence that Canberra are the real deal. The Raiders will need to start showing there’s a full performance in their kit bag soon; mixing and matching halves of pretty good footy won’t be enough.
But not every week can be sex and candy; this was a vital two points. The Raiders showed they have work to do, but that they have a foundation of brutal and efficient defence that can provide them with the space to work out their attacking difficulties on the fly this season. Winning ugly is what good teams do when things aren’t perfect.
Time to get to work.
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