The Canberra Raiders 34-31 loss to the New Zealand Warriors was heartbreaking but not season ending. The precise combination of injuries suffered before the match, and during, created a perfect storm that the Raiders stood against, but eventually could not hold out. Despite the calamity of the loss, Canberra actually furthered their credentials in 2021.
Canberra came into this match with a surprising amount of questions around their legitimacy as a threat for the crown in 2021. Commentators were pointing to their lack of points in round two as evidence of a problem that had to be solved with rash change. As we said during the week, sometimes when you have so many options available there’s a natural tendency to focus on greener grass elsewhere.
Canberra also brought into the game a surprisingly makeshift right edge. Hudson Young was injured, and that in itself was a dramatic loss. The man has come so far so fast; it’s incredible to think he’s already one of the Milk’s best. Rather than replace him like for like, the Green Machine allowed everyone’s favourite 2021 tale, Seb Kris, a shot at filling the gap. It was a resounding vote in confidence in Kris’ abilities. Tom Starling joined the bench. It meant they were bringing just three forwards on the bench in Peter V’Landys’ “no rest” rugby league competition, but it felt like the Raiders thought they’d seen enough in the first two rounds to know they could expand the minutes of the middle forwards and carry the luxury of a purely backup hooker.
What was already a makeshift right edge became a catastrophe when Kris was injured. Siliva Havili slotted in, but anyone who was watching knew he was the back-up to the back-ups back-up. Liva is a beautiful Swiss army knife of a player, but even he would admit he’s not designed to play 60 odd minutes as a edge forward. Stationing Havili on the right edge only exacerbated the chaos caused to the middle rotation by Ryan James hurting himself in the same tackle as Kris. James, of course, was only on the field because the Raiders’ best forward of 2021 Joe Tapine, had rolled his ankle minutes earlier. Oh, and Curtis Scott had tinker playing with a broken rib, and at one point Jarrod Croker seemed to be having his finger
undislocated relocated put back in.
All in all it left the Raiders in a parlous state. For large parts of the game they were playing three hookers across the defensive line. With Bailey Simonsson, Jarrod Croker and George Williams’ relative lack of heft, it meant Canberra were like a bunch of tiny under twe.lves playing against an entire team of the big guys. There couldn’t have been a worse set of circumstances to have to try and survive in a competition which now removes any ability to combat a rolling middle. If people are keen to ask questions about Sticky’s selections I wouldn’t argue, but I would suggest it’s a fools errand to try and prepare for this precise set of circumstances the Raiders faced.
It’s not hard to see how the Raiders middle just simply got overwhelmed in the second forty. They were outgained by about 370 metres in that period (per Champion NRL data). Nearly three-quarters of the way through the half, the Warriors had gained more than 80 per cent of the territory. The Green Machine engine room were unable to stop this, and through sheer tiredness, and the presence of physically less dominant players they couldn’t implement the plan they had established in the previous two games of simply beating the crap out of teams. Instead the Warriors found the small guys and ran at them. The massive New Zealand pack was the worst team to be forced to play small ball against. The Raiders had no option but to try and stand in the way.
The middle collapse meant the makeshift right edge was put under pressure that it simply did not have the mettle to stand up to. Kodi Nikorima scored because Siliva Havili didn’t have the lateral pace to keep up (nor should he. He’s normally a middle. Scott, who had pushed in to help in the middle was turned around trying to recover). They also got beaten on that edge when the sheer weight of damage down the middle meant George Williams was forced to bring down a bigger player, got legs, but an offload followed and there was no help (Scott had overrun the play). It went the to the left edge too. Again they got rolled up the middle, giving away a late-set set restart, and when Jack Wighton got stuck at marker, the Warriors attacked the left edge. They had numbers, beat a tackle, and scored through a giant hole around the gap where the middles were simply too gassed to help across. And then of course even when they scrambled valiantly to keep out an attack on their edge, they got beaten through the middle, as Bailey Sironen crashed over.
All these tries started with a middle that couldn’t offer resistence. It’s not consistent with what we saw in the first two rounds, and it seems fair to me to put that at the feet of the fact that the Milk’s middles played an astounding amount of minutes. After no Raider middle hitting fifity minutes through the first two rounds, Ryan Sutton played 73, Josh Papalii 69, Siliva Havili played 67 and Uncle Sia Soliola played 52. That was not the plan. And even though each of these men were admirable in their performance and efforts, it was simply too much to ask in today’s NRL.
It’s simple and true that the injuries to the Raiders pack hamstrung their efforts to win, but it’s not like they didn’t help. Wighton kicked a ball out on the full just after the Raiders first decent set in about 15 minutes. When the Raiders got their first red-zone set in eons, Elliott Whitehead spilled a ball back to no one early in the tackle count. When Canberra had an attacking set with five minutes to go and a small lead, Starling and Williams engineered an overly conservative set. And of course Rapana could have grounded the ball. But all these things took on disproprotionate importance because of the dramatic destruction of the Canberra middle caused by injuries early in the match.
The silver lining on this is that this is not a situation the Raiders are likely to face again. Hudson Young will return next week. Joe Tapine, Ryan James and Seb Kris will all return in the coming weeks, and the Raiders have plenty of troops to cover their spots in the meantime. This is not a situation they’re likely to face again, and if they do they at least are battle hardened for even the most bizarre circumstances.
Even more importantly they began to prove that their attack is not the problem that so many had claimed after their rain-affected output last week. The attack looked perfectly balanced, working off Josh Hodgson’s mastery of the ruck. Hodgson worked with his forwards to directly create two tries (to Sutton and Soilola), identifying the space for a George Williams try, and giving the Warriors ruck a thorough working over that allowed George Williams to isolate Jack Wighton on Kodi Nikorima. He, Williams, Wighton and later Starling targeted the middle third, playing directly through bringing forwards on to the ball or attacking the line with their feet. It revealed what the Canberra attack will look like at its most fluid – more like a flying V through the middle than a side-to-side affair.
The Raiders also found a way to work Tom Starling and Josh Hodgson together. They looked effective working off each others runs – more than once they followed each others carry with either a run of their own or by engaging the line before sending a middle forward. Starling played mostly around the ruck, and Hodgson simultaneously played as an extra half , mostly standing at first receiver on the left, and occasionally as an extra forward. Hodgson and Williams even combined across the park before the English halfbacks beautiful ball found Rapana in space for his near steal of the game later. And while these smalls were overwhelmed on occasion defending the middle, they still aimed up, and forced a drop-out late in the game because they are rad dudes who don’t give up.
But it wasn’t enough. Sometimes efforts like this aren’t victorious, and you’re just part of someone else’s story. But the Raiders were courageous, and while not perfect, they showed that all the pieces are now in place. They have an effective defence, a cohesive attack that can pile on points when it attacks the middle with ferocity and persistence. They have built a roster that can sustain these injuries and still thrive (more on that during the week), and the heart to punch out huge runs and scramble even when their legs wouldn’t support them.
Call me a dreamer because I just had a kid and Tim Gore and AJ Mithen combined to get Uncle Sia to send well-wishes but this game did not leave me thinking that the Raiders were flawed. They lost because a situation that they simply weren’t prepared for, and that will likely never happen again, occurred. They nearly managed to hold on, and indeed probably should have won if either a forward pass had been spotted or if Jordan Rapana had nailed his put down. They persevered – and in this game someone else got the fairy-tale. I’m not worried about whether they can respond. They have the troops. They have the knowhow. They have the connections. They’ll find a way back.