The Canberra Raiders 30-10 loss to the Penrith Panthers was an important reality check. The Panthers were fast and ferocious. They tested and tormented the Milk for the entire 80 minutes, and while beaten, Canberra did not wilt. There is plenty to improve, and a gap to cover over the rest of the season if the Raiders are serious about contending late into September. But they were not found out in this game.
This was always going to be a test for Canberra. The Panthers were looking imperious in their unbeaten start to this season. At total of 16 points were scored against them over four games this season (a total Canberra would have matched if Croker had grounded his first effort). The hard thing about playing the Panthers is the velocity of the game. Every tackle is brutal, every run rampaging. The physical toll of keeping them in check is vast, but necessary. If you want to beat them, you have to match that pace, match that ferocity, across the park for the whole 80 minutes. Canberra were looking for a test to see where they were, and they got it.
This was a challenge for Canberra’s defence. The Panthers try to punch holes across the park, shifting between the middle and the tram-lines to try and find a quick play the ball that they can take advantage of. It puts a significant pressure on defenders, particularly in the middle forwards to make good decisions and good contact. The Raiders were not necessarily poor here, but they did not win the tackle enough to dominate. The physicality of previous weeks was still there, but instead of allowing them to control their opposition, it was just enough to hold on.
By the end of the game the Panthers had outgained the Raiders by 500 metres, coming at Canberra in unending waves. Spencer Leniu and James Fisher-Harris were particularly tough, and when the Milk did manage to get on top of a set, the Panthers simply shifted around the compressed Canberra defence, finding a vulnerable point to punch through. Each of the Penrith back five cracked 100 metres. Brian To’o (23 for 263m) kept finding half a hole to put momentum into sets that lacked it. It was demoralizing.
The difficulty was exacerbated when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad left the game early under the Head Injury Protocol, never to return. It not only removed a critical part of the Canberra attack, it forced a defensive restructure. Jordan Rapana shifted to the back, Jarrod Croker to the wing, Elliott Whitehead to centre and Siliva Havili to the edge back-rower spot. This was the worst of all worlds. Rapana did not have his best game. Havili continues to prove that while he’s an excellent utility, his lateral quickness isn’t sufficient to defend on an edge. Moving Whitehead to centre was necessary, but it meant that not only was he removed from helping the middles out, he was also put at a severe pace disadvantage in dealing with the Panthers backs in space.
There was an outrageous amount of pressure on the edges to shut-down attacking raids with a multitude of fast, cohesive, runners in their faces. It was one thing to ask the relatively inexperienced Hudson Young to play a big role in doing. That Canberra were forced into asking Havili to play a major role in it showed their disadvantage. Young missed five tackles, including one that Kikau took fifty metres the other way. Havili missed five of his own, and several times was simply beaten by more agile attackers. Whitehead had five tackles misses out at centre. Even Seb Kris missed three (and had two ineffective tackles).
The edges didn’t actually defend poorly, they were often just put in difficult situations that they had little chance of fixing. Penrith played with such pace, and had such dominance over the middle defence that they were being asked to fix a lot of problems. Young in particular did his defensive reputation no damage in this game. The edges simply could not fix every problem. All four non-intercept tries from the Panthers came when they punched a hole in the Canberra middle, pushed quickly to an edge and the Raiders simply ran out of numbers (it’s also worth pointing out that twice it was Nathan Cleary who’s running game punched the initial hole in the middle). There were some small individual errors in that. The first Panthers try came when Stephen Crichton was simply too quick for Elliott Whitehead at centre. The second try came when Bailey Simonsson was faced with two defenders, and was caught taking neither. But there was little Canberra could do about the others, other than deal more effectively with the initial movement.
Given the defensive pressure they were under, Canberra needed to be near perfect with the ball, and they were simply not that. Thirteen errors wasn’t as many as their opposition (who had fifteen), but it was too many for the position deficit they often found themselves in. The Raiders looked cleanest punching through the middle third, as they have so often this season. Josh Hodgson was a bright spot, brilliantly manipulating the markers and finding metres for the Milk pack. So often he’d shift the eyes to the strong side of the field, before sending a big man (or Sebastian Kris) up the guts from the weakside. He used this theme on some crash plays to near success. He even took off running a few times, one wonderful run taking plenty of metres, and chucked in an excellent early set kick for good measure. It was an underrated effort from the Canberra captain, one they can build their attack from.
When the ball shifted beyond the middle third success was more mixed. As is to be expected, the most expansive and cohesive attacking movements came shifting left. Wighton threatened throughout the game and even though there was limited opportunity, the result should have been three tries down the left. His try came from some good lead up work in the middle and a great offload from Whitehead. He nearly created another try from nothing with a well weighted kick for Croker. The left again scored again in the second half, shifting after another good Young run. Whitehead’s ball to Croker was perfect. It was heartening to see – this side continues to offer successful and reliable attacking movements. That it nearly created three tries against a side that had conceded three all season showed how well developed it is.
But Canberra still is yet to manage anything approaching connection on the right. All its attack on this side came from strong one-out running by Young and Kris. Both had powerful runs in this game and it’s a shame they’re not being utilised in more expansive play. Bailey Simonsson must be the loneliest man in Canberra. Williams had a night to forget, reflecting the challenge of playing behind a pack that was under such pressure. He often was caught heading sideways (twice being called for obstruction), threw a forward pass, and ended the game providing a try-assist for the wrong side. In between he never really conjured anything threatening on the right.
All in all it was a difficult night. There will be a tendency to want to draw a line through Canberra purely based on the scoreline. I would strongly warn against this. Despite the obvious areas for improvement, the Raiders were ahead 6-0 (and it could have been 12), and holding their defensive integrity before Nicoll-Klokstad left the field. As we said, this created a reshuffle, which required Canberra putting people in positions they are plainly unsuited for. It’s worth noting it’s the second time this season they’ve had to manage ill-fitting pegs and holes, and it makes one wonder if there’s a need to carry a back, or at least someone that can more adequately fill in on the edge in defence, on the bench. Corey Harawira-Naera seems a possibility there, but perhaps when Curtis Scott returns, Sebastian Kris can fill that role (as well as take more strong runs in the middle).
If anything, Canberra should take the fact that despite the result they have a clear idea how to beat the Panthers, and the knowledge that if they can stick to that plan (and not lose crucial players to injury) they have a way to win. They looked effective punching through the middle, and were able to successfully manufacture points against a side that make that near impossible. They showed their resilience, nearly finding a way back into the game despite the number of challenges faced by the reshuffle, and despite their continued lack of attacking fluidity outside the middle third. There’s plenty out of tonight to show that they are a force in this competition. They’ll need to pick themselves up quickly though, because they need wins in the next few weeks, and the competition, while not as hard, will still be fierce.
There’s a step up to make. Penrith gave Canberra a lesson on what that looks like in this game. Now it’s up to the Raiders to reach that bar.
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