Far and away the biggest problem Canberra has faced in recent weeks is how to manage the fatigue of its pack. Three weeks in a row, and four in five, the Raiders have been the tired team at the end of games. Since round 1 they’ve scored 22 points in the second half across six games at average of ohmygodwhatisthat. They haven’t scored a second half point since Josh Hodgson and Tom Starling finangled some crash balls for Josh Papalii and Ryan Sutton respectively against the Titans. That was the beginning of this month. Some of this is game flow, some of this is structure, but more than anything, the Green Machine has sputtered under fatigue.
The good news is that this is an eminently solvable problem. The Raiders have the personnel. They have the flexibility. They just need to better deploy their resources to prevent fatigue and allow them to perform better in the second half of games.
The first part is getting a properly balanced bench that allows the defence to play with the necessary physicality and effort throughout the full 80 minutes. This was a hallmark of the Raiders early season form; an acknowledgement that the new rules meant that winning a ruck had to start at first contact. And it has been present in there three wins this year. Even against the powerful ball runners of the Gold Coast Titans the Green Machine played with aggression, both in line speed and contact, and by the end of the game they had all the running. It seemed to be part of the blue print.
But it’s disappeared in the last three weeks, particularly as games wore on. Sometimes this was because injuries were forced upon the side and rotation options were lost. More than once Tom Starling was left sitting on the bench as the Raiders needed literally anything but another goddamn hooker. Other times this was by choice; Sticky riding and dying with certain players while rotation options sat and watched.
It’s had profound effects. For example, While they out gained their opposition by near 400 metres in the first half on Saturday, they were worn down, and had the tables almost perfectly turned on them in the second half. The Cowboys rolled to near 1000 metres in the second half. What was curious (frustrating? Infuriating?) is that after about thirty minutes it was clear that the Raiders pack were tiring, but both Hudson Young and Siliva Havili sat on the bench. Young has been one of the Raiders best forwards this year, and Havili was acknowledged as similar by the coach. It’s not that the side fell apart immediately without their rotation in the first half, but the seeds of exhaustion were sewn then. It was an opportunity missed.
Having a bench mob that can properly rotate the middle forwards while also covering for potential injuries to backline players is a challenge. Luckily the Raiders have two players that can cover edge and middle positions, allowing existing edge players to shift wider. Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera should fill the right edge and a bench position going forward. Both can offer middle rotations while filling in if injuries to outside backs force Elliott Whitehead to centre.
Canberra should maintain multiple specialist middles on the bench too. This means abandoning the three hooker concept (thank. god). I’ve argued before that a decision needs to be made between Siliva Havili and Tom Starling. This decision can be delayed until Josh Hodgson returns, but when he does there’s simply no point only carrying one specialist middle on the bench (alongside an edge/middle hybrid, a hooker and a hooker/middle hybrid). Two middles and Young/Harawira-Naera provides the Raiders with plenty of flexibility.
It’s not just enough to have the right personnel in the right spots. They also need to be used correctly. At the moment there is no rhyme or rhythm to the minutes distribution for the forwards. The Raiders had multiple forwards play near 60 minutes on the weekend, while two ostensibly middle forwards sat on the bench collecting dust (and ended playing 19 and 8 minutes). Two others played in the low 30s. I would have no issue with that minutes distribution if it wasn’t clear that for much of the second half they were gassed. It’s no surprise that one of the big minute players (Ryan Sutton) was involved in an uncharacteristically bad miss on the goal line in that resulted in a cheap try for Reece Robson. That miss was alongside Tom Starling, who’s sudden uptick in minutes was met with 7 missed tackles (per Champion Data). He had no misses at half time, and it’s not rocket science that both his defence and attack may have benefitted from a mid-game break.
Better rotation, and a more even distribution of minutes will allow the Raiders to play with more defensive intensity for longer. This will give them more instances of field position they can attack from, rather than kicking to a corner and trying to force an error. And it will make the rare occasions they do get into attack feel less fraught, and perhaps we’ll see less of unearned side-to-side work that plagued Canberra’s second half attack last Saturday.
It’s a small change but it can have profound consequences. If the Raiders are serious about turning around their season, this is the place that it can start.