Raiders Review: The Grind

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 20-4 victory over the Gold Coast Titans was mature, hard-fought and critical. Whereas last week they had all the heart and none of the troops, this week the Raiders mustered both, and what resulted was a gutsy and resilient defensive display. A win like this does not make a season on its own, but you can’t succeed without them.

This was a critical two points. The Titans clearly saw this as a chance to prove their bonafides. In contrast Canberra came with an empty tank, and with a real risk to their table position. A start of 2-2 would not have sufficed – particularly when the Panthers, Eels, Souths and Knights are all in the immediate future. Given how much was spent last week, it was surprising to see Coach Stuart put the same middles that had mustered every ounce of their energy last week out to face the music again. I should not have worried, they did not disappoint.

This game was won with gritty defence and the goal line defence was the most impressive. There was of course three no-fooling try savers. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had one on Mitch Rein, and another on Anthony Don. Jack Wighton had his own minutes before Nicoll-Klokstad. These efforts were incredible, the kind of plays that are game-changing moments half made of determination, half made from athletic prowess. These moments were spectacular but there was much more resilience to the defence than just scramble. The physicality we had spoken about before was there, and this time it wasn’t so much about dominating an opponent, as it was a necessity to stop Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, David Fifita and Moeaki Fottuaika’s brutal power game. Almost every player on the side made critical tackles in the defensive twenty. They kept hitting the big men hard, forcing the Titans to find more than ‘throw it to[insert barnstorming forward here]’. The Titans had a mountain of ball close to the line (at one point in the second half they’d eclipsed 30 tackles in Canberra’s twenty). They kept pushing to score. They could not. It was an impressive display of fitness, technique and trust in their structure by Canberra.

There were several individual efforts worth noting. Hudson Young and George Williams were both impressive in their efforts to keep David Fifita in check. The big middles did their best to keep the Titans corralled. Josh Papalii and Ryan Sutton made several extra defensive efforts, as did Josh Hodgson. His defence is often maligned, and he’ll be more remembered for getting bowled over by Tino in this game, But several times when the Raiders got rolled through the middle he was at the A gap covering across the ruck to make a critical tackle.

The defence wasn’t perfect. 39 missed tackles (including 24 in the first half) speak to that. The try-savers came because the Raiders got bashed through the middle, and consequently there was too much time and space for Titan ballplayers to work. Mitch Rein stood up Ryan Sutton in the A gap, and Dunamis Lui at marker was still trying to get back. Nicoll-Klokstad got enough contact to bring the Titans hooker down short and force an error. On the fullback’s second try-saver, Jarrod Croker and Jordan Rapana jammed in on the attack and both failed to bring down the ball carrier. Wighton’s effort came after a perfect ball from AJ Brimson (who is really flipping good) caught Croker and Rapana out. On the Titan’s only try, Sebastian Kris and Williams tried to bring down Fifita, but he popped a ball and the Raiders could never muster the numbers to keep the Titans out. But it wasn’t about being perfect. It was about making enough plays and covering for enough errors to make the Titans do one better in order to score.

They matched this defensive resilience with a relatively conservative attacking plan. They didn’t just play direct; they barely moved outside the scrum lines. This wasn’t some issue with Hodgson and Williams either. They both kept tipping runners back towards the ruck in order to make the Titans big men tackle and tackle and tackle. It was the long-con. While I think they could trust their edge players a bit more, the game-plan clearly worked. By the end the Titans were so out on their feet that any pretence of being able to attack was thrown out the window and they resorted to exhorting themselves up the field before throwing a prayer into the air in the form of a untethered bomb.

Such a plan only works when you’ve got players like Ryan Sutton (20 carries for 180m), Ryan James (12 for 107m) and super sub Josh Papalii (20 for 186m). Each of these players deserves recognition – James for his performance in a tough opening period, Sutton for his uncanny ability to just. keep. going, and Papalii for bending the line on almost every carry he took, and being the biggest threat to offload (he only was registered for 1, but it felt like a possibility on every carry). They were also supported by Siliva Havili, whose 9 carries (for 105m, 43 post-contact) were critical in support of Papalii in the middle rotation. These carries were even more important given Dunamis Lui had a relatively anodyne opening stanza (replete with a dropped ball) and wasn’t seen again.

When the Raiders did find points it was pushing through the middle. Rapana’s try will be remembered for Croker’s stunning flick pass, but it came from George Williams putting Elliott Whitehead through a gap between Jamal Fogarty and Kevin Proctor. Josh Hodgson put Josh Papalii over with a beautifully run twin crash ball, which Tom Starling performed an almost exact replica of, this time putting Sutton over to seal the match. All of this came from pressuring the Titans through the middle, wearing them down, and working them over.

Hodgson was excellent, and his connection with Williams continues to grow. Many of the players said in the post match that the attack still felt clunky, and while it wasn’t perfect, it always felt like Williams and Hodgson were in sync about the direction of play. Hodgson only once over-played his hand in the red zone (sending a pass into touch) and Williams built on last weeks effort, continuing to engage the line more before sending the ball to his outside. The nature of the plan meant that Jack Wighton didn’t get as much ball as he normally would (only 31 touches in this game), but when the Raiders did run set plays he (and Whitehead) remained the fulcrum (for example, they ran Smelly and Jack’s pet run-around play which nearly came off). While it was less minutes this week, there was also more evidence that Hodgson and Starling can spend a bit of time on the field together, and they combined well in the lead up to Sutton’s try.

Of underrated importance here was Nicoll-Klokstad. He was simply sublime. In addition to his brilliant defensive work he also did strong work around the ruck with the ball. Some of it was simple yardage (you don’t crack 250m on the ground without it), but this work was more than that. He was penetrative around the tired defenders, probing repeatedly and finding small gaps. Even though he didn’t make a big break, his runs were often a critical part of almost everything good the Raiders did (for example, it was his good run and offload that provided the space and momentum for the Papalii crash ball to work). He chimed in as the second man in some sweeping plays, and while there’s often a worry that his decision-making ability is still developing, he made the right choice each time to run the ball back into the middle.

The attack wasn’t perfect, but the game plan, and the lack of ball (and ball in attacking position) combined to put points at a premium. The Raiders defence held the fort while the attack ground their opponent into submission. There’s development in this side. The defence is robust and courageous, and the attack, while still developing, is starting to find an identity and clarity about how it best scores points. Their work through the middle third with the ball can be elite, and combined with their defence, will hold them in good stead no matter the weather or competition.

Of course, it could have gone worse – maybe Don gets one of those tries and the game changes. But when the game was up for grabs it was the Raiders that made plays, it was the Raiders that held on, and it was the Raiders that kept grinding. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years it’s that the difference between hot and not isn’t massive. These wins aren’t sexy. If you remember the time the boys grinding out a workmanlike victory over a willing opponent in early April then it wasn’t a very exciting season. But they’re critical in compiling the reps in working to win, and knowing how.

There’s a bigger step up next week. The Panthers are red hot, and Panther park (whatever it’s actually called) will be humming. The last time the Milk went there it was 24-0 before most people had finished their first beer. Canberra can’t hope that Wighton or Nicoll-Klokstad will be there to save their bacon again. But the Green Machine have a solid foundation, and they’ve proved they have an effective game plan. Time to put it to the test.

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