If ever you wanted evidence that wanting it more isn’t always enough, Canberra’s 34-20 loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs proved it. The Raiders gave their all, but simply made too many errors at crucial times. When they needed to hold their nerve, they faltered, and a better side took advantage. We’ve seen this procession too many times, although this time there was a different, more heartening tinge. It’s hardly the end of Canberra’s season but the margin for error is shrinking.
If the Raiders hadn’t come in to this match with enough chaos they found a smidge more when George Williams hurt his hamstring in the warm-up. It mean that Elliott Whitehead shifted to seven. Hudson Young came into the starting side in Whitehead’s spot. Not many sides would survive losing their halfback in those circumstances. Against this Souths side that can score points at will, it took a steep task and made it verging on the impossible.
Without Williams, Canberra’s approach didn’t really change, just the weighting. More emphasis came on winning the middle, and less on using shifts to change the point of attack (at least early in the game). Tom Starling did a job in the first half engaging the markers to either take the metres himself (he had 82 for the game per Champion data), or use a big man coming off his shoulder. Emre Guler was the pick of the starters (14 carries for 124 metres) and Joe Tapine looked best of the bench bunch (9 carries for 90m). It was really pleasing to see the back five get through much more work in support of their forwards. Curtis Scott (12 for 127m) and Bailey Simonsson (13 for 123m) both pleased with their willingness to take hard carries and earn quick rucks.
Jack was given more responsibility and flexibility to create. He mostly stuck to the left, and the Milk maintained the split sides of last week (for what it’s worth). The Raiders scored twice early heading left. Canberra’s first try came when Jack got a good ball to Caleb Aekins, who threw a gorgeous cut-out ball to Jordan Rapana. Then Jack put a well-weighted grubber in that Souths failed to clean up and Seb Kris scored. But Jack wasn’t stationary out there. He had plenty of licence to roam and we saw late in the game the value in him popping up all over the shop. He was a terror taking on the line and playing old-fashioned “eyes-up” footy. There’s something that needs to be utilised more.
Out on the right Elliott Whitehead kept it simple. It’s such a blessing that he can shift into almost any position in the side and provide a decent facsimile of that job. His early touches were mostly runs, and his early try showed the old workhorse still has a mean fend and enough ability with the ball for the defence to give him a pathway to the line. This came on the back of some handy offloads from Guler, Starling and Harawira-Nauera. He involved the right side more again in attack, and Curtis Scott in particular seemed to benefit. Early ball from Whitehead to Harawira-Naera led to Scott looking dazzling in the most space he’s seen in his Canberra career and Rapana scored his second. It worked because both the entire attack were running direct at the line at pace. All options were available, and each Raider took the right one. Here’s hoping that sort of attack is seen again when George Williams returns.
For a while there is looked like while still a tall order, the Raiders were providing something that could broadly work. The middle were doing enough, and they created three tries in the first half. They were being helped by their opposition, who was happy to hand over the ball many of the times they approached the Canberra line (Souths only completed 67 per cent of their first half sets). This was aided by an energetic defence that hit Souths with the kind of physicality we had been hoping to see in recent weeks.
But Souths righted their ship and put the onus on Canberra to win the game. They tightened up around the ruck and there was less opportunity for Starling to run, and less metres for the big men to take. The Raiders could have used more creativity and manipulation around the ruck to give the forwards some space, but that was sitting on the sideline. Suddenly 40 and 50 metre sets became 20-30 metre sets. They desperately needed a barnstorming run, an offload or a successful shift to get out of their own end but simply couldn’t find it. Canberra was constantly kicking for distance, and hoping for an error. The Bunnies refused to offer one, and instead continuously trapped Canberra in their own 20. The Bunnies were beginning to find metres in the middle with more ease, and the Raiders were putting pressure on their edges to make difficult decisions.
It was a moment where the game was ready to break, and it conceivably could have gone either way, but it was Canberra who succumbed. They capitulated by giving Souths the ball in good positions and paid for it. They did this by making handling errors and ill-discipline in defence that put Souths in positions to attack. Corey Harawira-Naera gave away three penalties, which is impressive in a game where there was only eight. Two of those saw tries scored on the next Souths possession.
The position and possesion put pressure on the edges to solve Canberra’s problems again, and again they could not. We’ve been here before. Hudson Young had two poor reads that led to Souths tries. On one he should have been helped by Aekins, the other by Wighton, but Young was the primary defender who made the mistake on both. He seems lacking in confidence since being abruptly dropped recently. Three tries came down the Raiders right, where Simonsson and Scott were put in unenviable positions against a swarming attack, asked to choose between attackers that outnumbered them each time. They were on a hiding to nothing. On each of those tries you could feel the defence bending, creaking, before finally collapsing as too many runners poured at the Raiders right edge.
Again the bench rotations were baffling. Ryan James played the opening slot, and then was never seen again. Siliva Havili only got 25 minutes. Sia Soliola played just 9 minutes. Joe Tapine only got 33 minutes a week after spending a game on the pine. Attitude wasn’t an issue in this game, but in a game that now tests player’s fitness so dramatically, there simply just has to be a better way to use those minutes. We can’t know for certain that some earlier rotations through the middle of the game would improve outcomes, but I dunno, maybe it’s worth a try.
On the surface it could have been any other loss in this run. The Raiders started brightly, wrestled control of the game for a brief period around the twenty minute mark. Then the opposition fought back and scored an important try before halftime. When the Milk came out again, they faced a different foe, that played disciplined, tactical football. The kind of football you either need to match with equal precision or brilliance. They had neither, and as happened against in each game of this losing streak, they lost the game in the twenty minutes after halftime. You might be infuriated. You might be sad. I feel defeated by the inevitability of it all.
But all hope is not lost. There was a change this time. The spine of this side showed in the last quarter of this game. This Canberra team didn’t give up and kept pushing to the end in a vein search for success. They pushed and pulled right to the end, frustratingly finding the line three times in the last 15 minutes but couldn’t win the approval of the video referee. Even as the game was slipping away early in the second half, and the defence was bending, you could see players trying to find more physicality in their hits, trying to force an error. The team know there’s a problem to fix, and recognising it is half the battle. They weren’t off the pace in the same way. They were right there, battling with the bunnies and themselves. There was no attitude issue and they showed that the answer to any concerns about their attack is to play straight and get Jack more ball more often. They showed that can shift to the right as well, and seeing Scott in a bit of space reminded that he’s a talent that can be utilised more. There’s good lessons here, and good platforms laid in this game. Are these the green shoots of recovery? I guess we’ll find out.
None of this will improve the defenses ability to provide stout resistance for a full game though. But there are ways to aid this. To start with they need to put less pressure on the defence to win the game by supporting it with more disciplined play. They can rotate their forwards earlier to allow a more even spread of minutes, and hopefully more ability to muster the physical defensive effort they’ve needed to win in 2021. This will put the edges in fewer difficult positions, and hopefully allow them clearer heads to make better decisions. I don’t believe the personnel is the issue, but they can’t succeed by making every game as hard as possible.
The Canberra Raiders 2021 season is not over. 3 and 5 is not the end of the world. There’s not much margin for error now. I could tell you about how they’ve four games before the bye, and if they simply win three then they’re back at .500, back in the 8 and have something to build on for the back of the season. But that’s theoretical maths at this point. Put it simply, the Raiders must win next week. That’s all that matters now.