The Canberra Raiders’ 35-10 loss to the Parramatta Eels was the most disappointing performance of this era. Their vaunted middle was destroyed. Their edges collapsed under relentless targeting. There was little offered in attack other than errors and hesitant shuffling. This wasn’t the end of Canberra’s contender-ship, but they need to address several areas, and quick.
This loss was so profoundly disappointing not just because of what Canberra dished out, but the advantageous position they dished it from. They were at home after a sour loss, with an extra days rest to their counterparts, and should have been ready to tear them a new one. They were playing to re-assert themselves as a force. Yes they’d lost Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, but they replaced him with the calmly effective Caleb Aekins. Their opposition had lost their starting five-eighth, a starting back-rower, and were coming off a loss in which their middle was destroyed. The Raiders had the reasons, and the personnel to win this game, and instead they melted.
For the second consecutive week Canberra’s middle forwards were dominated in defence; and that was the key cause of this loss. The Milk were outgained by nearly 300 metres. Three members of the Eels starting pack cracked 150 metres on the ground, but even that doesn’t tell the entire story. Simply the Eels collapsed the Green Machine’s engine room. The physicality in defence the Raiders had displayed to great impact at moments this year was nowhere to be seen, replaced with a much friendlier version. The Eels had no difficulty getting their metres, and combined with a sublime kicking game from Mitchell Moses, meant Canberra spent much of the game trying to get out of trouble. Caleb Aekins did well in yardage (196m on the ground), but Bailey Simonsson struggled (61m) before his game was ended by the concussion protocol. When Rapana is your only outside back routinely breaking tackles in yardage sets then you are always going to be struggling.
But more than just field position, the Eels used this ability to turn the Raiders’ middle defence to mush to give them the space and time to mercilessly target the right edge defence. They did so with a plan, waiting for Hudson Young to make a tackle, and then pushing back at whomever filled his spot. The first two tries came with Young at marker, and first Josh Papalii unable to bring down his namesake, then a good ball from Gutherson exposing that no one had filled the numbers across resulted in the second. Later Papalii scored again when the Eels domination of the middle had stripped Canberra for numbers, forcing Curtis Scott to choose Opacic or Papalii. He chose Opacic, which, bruh, but the fact remained that the problem was not of the edge’s creation. A carnivalesque try to Shaun Lane came when Sivo broke open the right edge with a good offload and Canberra could never recover. In all culminated in Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead, Canberra’s two best defenders, being run over by Tom flipping Opacic. It’s hard not to think that this imbalance and paucity on the right edge would have been less with Nicoll-Klokstad around to coordinate the defence.
The middle was almost never on top, and the wear and tear this did to the edge culminated in this torrent of chaos in the second half. But part of the reason the middle was so thoroughly dominated was because the Milk simply couldn’t get out of their way in attack. They had a plan; target the ruck with Josh Hodgson, then after a won middle, shift left, playing Williams and Wighton alongside each other, to hopefully go around the Eels. It was an odd philosophy. They’ve been so effective punching up the guts this season, and the Eels had shown against the Dragons that they were susceptible to frankly exactly what they did to the Raiders.
But the Milk could have made it work if they’d not made so many errors. Wighton and Croker both threw the ball away on these movements. Whitehead should have been called for a forward pass on one occasion. And even when it did work out, Jordan Rapana’s tentativeness finishing on the left meant that he was forced into an error, or into touch, on multiple occasions. I’d suggest Canberra went to this shift too often, but it’s hard to separate the problems of overuse, insipidity, and execution. The one time they got it right came after the Raiders had won the middle after some very good work from Ryan Sutton. Then we saw how this is meant to work. The threat of Joe Tapine on a crash ball kept the middle’s attention. Josh Hodgson threw an inch perfect ball to George Williams that got him outside the Eels’ edge. He dug into the line (and almost could have taken it to the try-line himself) before perfectly shifting to Jack, who sent it on to Rapana for the try. It was but a glimpse of how those shifts could work, and how Canberra could use a balanced attack to offer more ingenuity and variety to their play.
Apart from that, the most useful attack the Raiders offered was through Josh Hodgson. He was working smartly with the middle forwards, engaging the markers and giving people like Sutton (17 for 143m), Papalii (12 for 119m), and Tapine (12 for 124m) plenty of space to run. He engineered the Raiders only other try, punching through a middle destroyed by Papalii’s offload to Aekins, before setting Williams free. He took on more kicking role (his long kicks have been missing this year, and they remain Canberra’s best option to find metres and grass).
It felt while Canberra was in the game they had managed to find the ethereal ‘balance’ in the ball-players, they just couldn’t find the execution. The Green Machine we tying up the middle, penetrating, and then getting both halves involved, but just not able to make anything of it. This is worth noting and would have been very exciting if the Raiders hadn’t collapsed in the second half. This all fell in a heap in a set just before Hodgson was taken off when the middle couldn’t get a quick ruck and Hodgson couldn’t get the ball out to the halves. He made a terrible choice to kick, executed it even worse and that was him for the game. His replacement in Starling offered the same game plan, but with less ruck manipulation and tireder forwards.
There’s a take that Hodgson is overplaying his hand and I’m the only person who doesn’t think this. Regardless of what I think though, he was hooked with the game in the balance. If that’s not a red flag then I don’t know what to tell you. He pushed the ball earlier to Williams and Wighton, putting the onus on them to create after Canberra won the middle. Wighton had the most possessions he’d had in any game recently, and Williams had the same amount of possessions that normally has with Hodgson (which, again, is more ball than he gets with Starling). Canberra looked fluid in the decisions they were making, just not in their execution – and this was noted by Sticky in the after match press conference. Blaming Hodgson feels safe because there’s an exciting option to replace him, but the real questions need to be asked of their halves, the execution of more creative movements and what that means for the game plan.
Regardless this is a side issue. There’s no point worrying about connections when you’re getting so thoroughly dominated in defence that you spend the whole game playing between your own 20 and halfway. For two years now Canberra has relied on relatively conservative game-plan, working up the middle to a kick, before trying to trap the opposition in a corner. This requires defensive solidity from the middle, something that Canberra has only offered in spurts this season. It’s frustrating, because there is the personnel to make this work, but outside of the Tigers and Sharks games, they’ve rarely offered it. I suspect this is because they’ve been asked to play bigger minutes than they can muster while managing to be physical in defence. This game-plan may no longer be sufficient. At the very least it needs to be better executed.
One thing the Raiders need to do is change the point of attack more. There’s an opportunity there to make opposition defences have to account for more than the middle third. This isn’t (only) through side to side shifts, but changing the way they target opposition edges. It still needs to be through, not around. This is on all three major ball-players. Most will pin the blame on Hodgson, but Williams is more likely to turn a forward under while idling sideways as he is to directly test the line with options on either side. The outside backs rarely get opportunities with the ball outside of set shifts. Ask yourself when the last time you saw the right centre get the ball outside of yardage or broken play. You need to win rucks to shift, but you can win rucks with players other than forwards. Related to this, I’d like to see Jack operating at first receiver on the left more. Now that Williams is sitting at first receiver on both sides of the ruck, Wighton isn’t getting the ball until the options available to him are limited and unidirectional.
Secondly, Canberra need more flexibility on the bench. This is their third loss this year, as well as the third time they’ve ended up with backrowers and middle forwards defending in positions they’re not suited to. It means not only do you have people defending in wrong positions, but middle defenders playing minutes they’re not suited to, potentially creating (and at least contributing to) the defensive issues we highlighted. This can be solved by carrying someone – anyone – on the bench that can cover an edge defensive position. Harawira-Naera and Kris are the most obvious choices, This would potentially allow a three-forward bench, and the big men more capacity to expend their energy in defence in the knowledge they’ll get plenty of breathers. This means making a decision about Havili or Starling that neither deserve, but this is about balance and flexibility rather than effort or execution.
For most outside Canberra this loss will be enough to draw a red-line through them for the season. One thing they don’t have is time though. Canberra are standing at the precipice. While they are still sitting in the 8 (and will likely be unless the Warriors win this weekend), they have games against the Bunnies, Storm, Roosters and Knights over the next six weeks. They have a tough trip to Townsville that is now critical. If they offer up more performances like the last two weeks in those games, they can kiss goodbye to a top four finish.
But while the frustration from everyone in Raiders HQ should be palpable, they have the personnel and the connections to make this work. They know they can play elite defence. They’ve shown they can find balance in attack, and when they get it right it looks penetrative. While Canberra have been vastly off the pace in the last two weeks, it’s never felt that they’re were that far off finding their best. Both games they found themselves with glimpses of what they’re working towards, and it’s looked really effective. If the Raiders can get out of their own way there is no end to the potential. But it’s only been moments so far. Things are bad right now, but there’s a way out, and there’s a pathway to get there. There’s no time to waste.