The Canberra Raiders lost their fifth game in a row in the exact same fashion as the rest. They ran out to an early lead, looked borderline capable in the first half, before falling in a heap in the second half amidst a maelstrom of exhausted defence and impatient attack. This week the beneficiaries were the Newcastle Knights, who were losing 16-0 at halftime before rolling the Raiders 24-16. It’s the first time since 2014 they’ve lost five on the trot.
This was meant to be the game that turned it all around. The Knights were vulnerable, coming into the game on the back of several losses and looking insipid against top level sides in recent weeks. There massive forward pack was almost designed to be taken advantage of by the Raiders running nine and quick-footed forwards. With all the noise at the beginning of the week, it seemed Sticky had the 17 players on the field that he wanted, even if he had to burn a few bridges to get there. Canberra would win this one, beat the Dogs and then go into the bye with a major scalp of the Storm or the Roosters under their wings. The second half of the season would await, and the Milk would begin their old biennial tradition of a late season winning streak to roll into the finals in style. This could still happen, but it seems psychopathic to be hoping the Raiders can manage the second half of a chocolate bar right now, let alone a game or season.
This game could have been any other in the last five weeks. The games in this losing streak are so similar they could be franchises. Canberra won the middle for the first stanza. They rolled up the guts at will, taking 950 plus metres in the first half, compared to around 500 opposite. Papalii had 58. Guler had 81 (he would only end with 89 which is mind-bending). Young had 74, Tapine 73, Horsburgh 78. Only Papalii and Young ran for more than 50 metres in the second half. In the early going it was pleasing to see Canberra play with patience through the middle third or punching on their right, before swinging back to their structured movements and set plays out left.
They scored twice. The first came when Caleb Aekins punched a hole through the right, followed by the Raiders fiddling around, Curtis Scott straightening the attack, and Jordan Rapana taking a quick ruck as a opportunity to jump out from dummy-half and hit Joe Tapine on the burst. The second try came after an absolute monster of a kick from George Williams was dropped by Kalyn Ponga. The Raiders ran a set play off the scrum with Jack and Kris as decoys coming back towards the posts. Williams spotted the Knights winger reading in on Wighton, looped a ball to Bailey Simonsson who scored in the corner. It was good football.
While their defence held in the first half, it always felt vulnerable. The Knights only completed 11 sets in the first half, routinely dropping the ball almost any time they approached Canberra’s line. They still did enough damage to make any fan of the MIlk nervous. Lachlan Fitzgibbon made a bust through some flimsy defence from Josh Papalii and Corey Harawira-Naera. Kalyn Ponga couldn’t get a pass around an outnumbered Jordan Rapana. David Klemmer inexplicably got white-line fever instead of passing to Kalyn Ponga and an attacking line to his outside with a vast number advantage. But for once the Green Machine weathered some troubling times and rebounded to take control of the game.
No one was buying that, and when the Knights recovered a short kick-off to start the second half, the try that followed (after a repeat set) felt as inevitable as night following day. The Knights stopped dropping the ball in attack, and the Raiders were tested. They failed. It followed such a predictable pattern. Newcastle pushed up the middle, tired the defenders there, drawing help from the edges. Then they shifted the ball out wide and Canberra never recovered. The metre disparity did an about face and the collapse begun.
On the first try Canberra let in, Joe Tapine missed a tackle and Harawira-Naera had to help in. The Knights pushed back to the spot where Harwira-Naera had been, and Aekins and Scott couldn’t fill that hole. On the second try, Harawira-Naera had again filled back into the middle to defend, a series of offloads followed, and Ponga was isolated against Tom Starling, filling across to the right edge where Harawira-Naera should have been. He had no hope. The Knights took the lead when they punched repeatedly through the middle. The defence again were forced to help in, Newcastle shifted right, and when an outnumbered Simonsson did remarkably well to force Tyson Frizell back inside there should have been cover defence coming across to save the day. No one had the energy. By the time their last try sealed the result the Canberra defensive line was so exhausted that Ponga was able to take three steps in one direction, stop, and head in another direction before a defender got near him.
It’s a pattern that has been repeated so consistently in recent times that it is beyond frustrating. It’s hard to pinpoint just why Canberra’s middle falls apart so dramatically in second halves. Ryan Sutton and Joe Tapine both left the game with injuries. Jordan Rapana seemed to be playing on despite an injury. That likely had a profound effect on the fatigue levels, particularly of the middle forwards. Canberra have been unlucky this season with problems during games, and while one may suggest this is chance, it’s becoming so regular that questions need to be asked of the training approaches they’ve adopted (as well as of V’Landys rule changes, but that’s by the by).
However, there’s no question that bench rotations are a big part of this, and again this was a problem in this game. Sutton was forced off early, and Tapine by the 49th minute. The Raiders were down to two players on the bench, but Siliva Havili didn’t see the field until the 64th minute. He came on and tried to take every hit up and make every tackle, but by that time he was fighting a lone-hand. If only he’d been used earlier, either to spell Starling, or, preferably, to bring energy to the middle forwards. Such is the lethargy with which Canberra emerge from half-time, it may be necessary to make changes at half time to bring on rested bench forwards then. Regardless, this will be complicated if Josh Hodgson returns, either to the bench or the starting lineup, as it will limit which players can get a rest. It’s clear the middles need it.
The collapse of Canberra’s abiltiy to compete physically was compounded in the second half by a tendency to waste good ball. It’s hard not to think the Raiders were so desperate to turn around their second half fortunes that they lost their patience and tried to create miracles out of good position rather than be patient. Elliott Whitehead forced a touch pass on the Raiders’ first attacking foray in the second half. Jack Wighton knocked the ball on at the goal line, longingly trying to wrestle the ball to the line. Josh Papalii made a break through the middle, and inexplicable put a grubber in for a well-marked George Williams. Canberra were lucky to get a repeat set. Later Jordan Rapana turned a simply stunning cut-out pass from Havili into a big first tackle run, then threw it all away when he again grubbered for a well marked middle. All of these situations needed cool heads and simple movements to take advantage of the momentum and space created. All they got was panic.
It’s hard to blame any specific person for this. It was a team effort. Canberra had no cool head driving their attack when things get bad, no organisation or direction. They begun shifting with more hope than effect, putting the ball trying to push around the Knights with no effort to win the right. So much has been said about making sure Williams and Wighton ran the show, but when the middle isn’t making metres, it doesn’t matter how much ball they have. Ton Starling can ran off the back of quick rucks but he can’t create them. The Knights may have missed 39 tackles, but Canberra could only manufacture two tries.
There were positives. The Raiders left side attack continues to look its most fluid. Jack Wighton has built a good combination with Caleb Aekins in limited time, repeatedly trusting him to make the right read or play when Canberra spun the ball left. Some of their most effective attacking movements involved Aekins as the second man. He showed a smart abiity to play both inside and out, making several good choices to run. The Raiders may miss Nicoll-Klokstad in defence (and boy did it show on some of Aekins cover defence, most notably his miss on a no-try in the second half), but Aekins is doing a good job with ball in hand. Bailey Simonsson (15 for 150m) and Jordan Rapana (16 for 144m) were also exemplary despite often being in near impossible defensive situations, or being asked to repeatedly drag Canberra out of their own end, particularly in the second half.
But that’s where the positives end for now. There is simply too much going wrong, mostly in second halves as the Raiders suffer fatigue. Problems and weaknesses should be identified, addressed and fixed between games. If a problem exists it’s either structural (in the way they play), or it’s personnel (on-field or off-field). Canberra seem to have found a unique mix of them both. This shouldn’t happen to professional teams.
Each week the Canberra Raiders turn up to play footy in the hope that they’ll find a way to overcome their tired middle defence and their inability to make smart decisions with the ball. Each week they look mostly capable for somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes. Each week it falls in a heap in the second half, as if instead of drinking sports drinks at half time they are drinking poison. It’s so damn repetitive and feels inevitable. People would call it insane to expect a change, and we are past to point of looking at positives and finding hope. This season is in deep trouble, and there are problems both on and off the field. If something doesn’t change it won’t be just games that are lost, but Canberra legends.
Plenty will call for Coach Stuart’s head this week. Over the last few weeks cracks emerged in his player management that have compounded his poor bench management and what appears to be a unsuitable game-plan for V’Landys ball. He is to blame for this either through design or through negligence. These problems go deeper than personnel and I think they are problems that he should get first crack at fixing. Besides, if you’re trying to escape from hell, its best not to leave anyone behind.
There’s not a lot of upside here. We can throw words around like mathematical and note they aren’t far from the top 8 but that’s not really the point. Not many people are far from the 8 given how the ladder is panning out. I’m not going to patronise you by telling you there is hope. There can’t be hope until this team can find a way to look anything other than acutely exhausted for the entire second half. You can fix that with rotations. You can fix that if you avoid injury. But good teams that get in the positions that the Raiders continue to do at half time find a way no matter what. Canberra simply cannot find a way right now.