Misplaced worry?

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders “only” scored 20 points on the weekend, and combined with some other discussion points, this has led to people (including the man-child football commentator and coach Brad Fittler) to question their ability to score points, and therefore their legitimacy as a contender.

Before we get too carried away with disagreeing with Bradley, let’s start by noting that the Raiders agree with the point to an extent. Multiple players acknowledged that the attack still required development. There’s been moments during the season where Josh Hodgson has held the ball too much, George Williams has run too sideways, and Jack Wighton has just done that thing where he can’t hold the ball. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad may never be a ball-playing fullback like Darren Lockyer (and that’s ok). Ryan Sutton and Hudson Young have individually scored as many tries as Raiders outside backs have from structured play; and this is an arrow they’ll need in their quill when they face more sturdy defence. They still haven’t worked out how to manage the defensive challenge of having Tom Starling on the field with Josh Hodgson (and this is why Starling didn’t come on until the rampaging Titans pack was gassed last round).

So there’s improvement there.

But the level of consternation doesn’t match the level of the issue. For starters we’re talking about four games, one of which was played in a swimming pool, the other in which the Raiders lost their bench by the 15th minute. They’re doing this while adapting to a frantic style of football which sees the pace of play ramp up at the start of halves, before falling into a heap as players lungs get that burning sensation with the metallic taste and you do that puke which doesn’t make you feel relieved just sad.

They’re also putting together a new attacking structure – one that puts George Williams on both sides of the ruck rather than splitting it with Jack Wighton. This means they’re still developing the structured ways in which they get Jack the ball in the ways that best deploy his skills (i.e running straight at the defence with limited pass/run decisions to make).

Having said that, through four games (small sample size alert) they’re averaging 23.25 points a game, which is more than they did last year and more than they did in 2019. Outside of the flood game, and increasingly in the last two weeks, their two primary playmakers have looked like synchronised in their goals and understanding, if not in execution (although that too has improved each week). Their forward pack, despite injury, has performed excellently against very good opposition. They’re yet to unleash their outside backs in structured play, but those backs have shown their capable of taking advantage of broken play.

I suspect much of the hand-wringing is a reflection more of the game plan Canberra has adopted more than their effectiveness. The Raiders have quite obviously (and occasionally explicitly) focused their attack around the middle third of the park. This isn’t some tug-o-war between Hodgson and Williams, but rather a deliberate ploy on behalf of the Coach. It makes sense: it’s where their strengths are. Hodgson and the forwards are able to tire out, and dominate, opposition packs. Hodgson has four try assists in four games (good for 8th best in the competition) primarily through crash balls. Williams has 3 try assists on the season, one from a crash ball and one from a face ball to Seb Kris. He set up a try against the Titans with a ball to Elliott Whitehead so subtlety beautiful that the national gallery considered buying it as an NFT (good investment). Jack’s best involvements have been when his shoulders are facing north south rather than pushing out to the wings.

It’s also where the game is going. We’ve harped on the good work done by the Rugby League Eye Test before, but he’s essentially established the game is being played more and more one pass from the ruck. This is a response to the new rules which put a premium on manipulation of tired middle defenders. It’s hard to know if this is a positive or negative response (i.e does that make it better to push through the middle third or just easier?) but it’s definitely happening.

Of course it’s possible the Raiders have succeeded in the middle because they’ve focused there, rather than the other way around. However, when Canberra have veered from this plan there’s been a notable lack of success. In the first half of round one their play was side to side and Coach Stuart demanded a more linear approach. They scored 24 points in the second half, two tries of which were by forwards and one was set up by a forward run. For much of the first half against the Sharks they tried to shift around the defence but the wet and their opposition made that seem ineffective. At the end of the half their best attack came when they tore up the guts of the opposition and Hodgson put Hudson Young over. Against the Warriors they scored four first half tries without the ball getting wider than Jack or George. In the second half they simply didn’t have the troops to muster anything substantial.

So why the worry? Well for starters as a team looking to challenge for a premiership, it’s hard not to notice fellow contenders happily putting near 40 or more on their oppositions like the Panthers, Storm, Bunnies, Eels and Roosters all did on the weekend. Of course none of them played the Titans (who might actually be good). Canberra have put 30 plus on the Tigers and Warriors, and frankly without extenuating circumstances could have had more in both games. The Green Machine’s attack may not be elite, but the gap isn’t as wide as you think.

The second aspect that may be contributing to the worry is the fact that the game plan isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Sweeping structured play is almost always seen as a sign of more sophistication in attack than well-worked play close to the ruck, regardless of its synchronicity. People would rather watch a bunch of passes thrown to no effect than less obvious gains made closer to the ruck. Perhaps we’ve grown so used to the same block plays moving to the left side that we’ve begun associating that with good play, forgetting another world is possible.

Pointedly though, the Milk aren’t trying to emulate the styles of play of the Roosters or the Panthers (though they do steal some plays from them). I can see why. Play to the strengths of your squad, rather than those of other teams. The Roosters and Panthers have run highly structured attacks for years. Canberra have instead developed a more direct style, supported by a package of set plays for the red zone using Jack and Smelly’s connection as a fulcrum. These aren’t traditional sweeping structures so they can be missed in the wash-up (see Seb Kris’ try against the Sharks). It’s worth noting some of these plays are stolen from (or stolen by) other sides, but Canberra uses them more as a surprise, whereas other teams use them as a standard approach.

Even in their best years, the Canberra attack is more focused around the middle and on the individual creative ability of key players, supported by a very good defence. They’ve got that again, and they’ve matched their attack to the game style that best suits the fucking awful controversial new rules. Align your system to the situation and the talent you have, rather than traditional ideas of what works. It’s smart footy.

I’m not here to tell you it’s all perfect. The sample size has only been deployed this year against teams that frankly won’t be playing preliminary finals. It gets a test this weekend against a side that almost certainly will, and who has only leaked 16 points all season (comparatively Canberra is conceding 15 points a game). But even if it doesn’t come off this weekend I won’t be worried (presuming a reasonable range of outcomes). There’s plenty of time left in the season, and plenty of evidence the Milk can create enough points, and defend well enough to provide a buffer to allow them to perfect their attack. Canberra have a clear game plan and style to succeed in 2021. There’s plenty of work to do, but as yet, little reason to worry.

Unless your Brad Fittler I guess.

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