The Greatest Weakness

BY DAN

Prior to the start of the 2021 season if there was one thing the rugby league community believed, it was that the Canberra Raiders forward rotation was going to be a weapon.

2020 had seen career years for several players. Josh Papalii had not so much reached new heights, but extended the period he was delivering his best at. Joe Tapine had broken out and become the dominant force we all knew he could be. Dunamis Lui had turned from a ‘sometimes’ into an all day every day thing, made origin and generally become a critical part of the starting line up. And Hudson Young had come in, proven himself worthy of not just first grade, but potentially bigger things and more important roles.

Adding to this pile was the return from injury of young guns Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh. Ryan Sutton had cruelly missed out on the finals with injury, as he had in 2019, after a season in which he too had shown he was ready for more minutes and more responsibility. And Sia Soliola’s face had healed, and suddenly he had become a father figure that we speculated would be more guiding star than on-field tank. When Canberra added Ryan James to this pack it seemed they were almost gluttonous. They had so many damn middles that the bigger challenge was going to be how they were going to handle finding necessary minutes for them all to stay match-fit throughout the year.

To start out the season it played out just how we thought. They rolled the Tigers with great effect, and the defence was brutal throughout the game, leading us to speculate whether the Raiders would use their big bench to maintain the rage for 80 minutes. Fast forward through some hit (the Titans game) and miss (everything else) moments, and all I can do is cry laugh at the hopefullness of it.

Now, the middle is an abject weakness, and rather than allowing them to deploy resources at full throttle across the entire 80 minutes, Canberra’s second halves are now a league-wide joke. You’ve no doubt heard how they’ve been outscored 93-8 in the second half in this losing streak. Matched with this is being out-gained on the ground by an average of 207.4 metres in these stanzas (per Champion data). It forms such a contrast with the first half – last week they outgained the Knights by near 500 metres in the first half. In the second half it was almost the opposite.

Gone is any semblance of a rock solid defence, with second halves rendering an average of 21 missed tackles and 9 ineffective tackles. The overwhelming majority of these missed tackles are occurring in the forwards. Now to an extent you’d expect that – the forwards tend to make more tackles in a game. But when the gross numbers of these are well, gross, it points to a bigger problem.

Essentially, what was meant to be a strength – the depth of the middle, the competition for position and the likely even share of minutes – has eventuated to be anything but that. There is no even share of minutes, no relentless physicality from a defence that becomes inexplicably exhausted as soon as the halftime bell sounds.

The problems of the middle are now being compounded by the injuries suffered by Ryan Sutton and Joe Tapine over the weekend. If there was a star of the Raiders middle in 2021, Sutton is it. He’s been the most consistent performer, and has been relied on to play as many minutes as he could handle, and sometimes more. Fatigue has been an issue for him, but only at the fringes of his ability when he’s been asked to do too much.

For his part, Tapine has been a disappointment compared to his gobsmacking 2020. He averaging 92.8 metres a game, down from 125 a game in 2020. It seems his production seems to be dropping in line with his minutes, rather than his running or ballplaying ability. His tackle breaks (13 season to date) are broadly in line with his game-average from last year, although his offloads (7 from 7 games) are down on his massive 2021 (34 from 21 games). He’s been off the field so much because his defensive execution has been not as good as last year – and a return to the style that always held his success back prior to 2020. In a sense he is a reflection of the club more generally. It’s not that he’s missing lots of tackles (his tackling efficiency is at a respectable 92.8 per cent). Rather, he rarely wins a ruck with his defence, and too often edge defenders are forced to clean up his mess – ask Corey Harawira-Naera how he feels about tries being scored on his edge because he was busy cleaning up the middles’ mess.

Regardless, Tapine’s potential game breaking running will be missed alongside Sutton’s indefatigability. Canberra desperately need to find a way to be more physically competitive, particularly in defence, and particularly in the throes of the second half when the game has been repeatedly lost. Without these two at hand, their options to do that have been limited at a time when they need literally every player available for consideration.

We’ve talked about the need for improved rotations ad-nauseum in these pages. The Raiders have traditionally brought a double rotation on after 20 or so minutes (usually one a few minutes after the other), then a big break until the next subs are made, usually ten minutes into the second half. It seems this period needs to be addressed, and Canberra needs to bring a rotation forward to either the 30 minute mark or halftime. Normally I’d be hesitant to use a rotation at halftime because the break should be enough, but something is happening in the sheds that needs a change.

A better spread of minutes is also needed. Some teams have, and continue to win, this season with players on the bench playing little or no minutes. Moses Suli didn’t get on the field for Manly yesterday, and Cade Cust only played 12 minutes. But it’s pretty clear this is not working for the Milk. A spread of minutes more similar to round one this season – no bench player appeared for under 20 minutes, no starting middle for over 50 – seems a much more sustainable appraoch.

Another option is to rely less on brawn and more on pace. While size can play a big role in winning rucks on both sides, the Milk’s big middles haven’t been able to do that this year. Taking a more mobile approach is a good idea but their are limited options available to Canberra.

Hudson Young should be playing on an edge in my view, but given that is off the cards for the time being, he’s a critical rotation that needs to be deployed as part of a bit of pace and space footy at the back end of the first half with Tom Starling. Normally I would suggest that he be accompanied by Tapine and Sutton but that’s off the cards for the short term at least. Ryan James has some mobility about him, Sliva Havili is definitely an option, and perhaps the utilisation of Corey Horsburgh as a offloading fulcrum for second phase play could be an option as part of this. And in a world where the Raiders had all their backline options available, using Seb Kris as part of a faster middle rotation could be a fun idea. Alas, he’s needed elsewhere right now. If things continue on their current pace the time will come to think about Darby Medlyn or Harry Rushton getting a shot as a rotation forward.

None of this matters if this rotation isn’t swarming in defence. There’s no forward immune from criticism of their defence this year. While they’re not racking up the try causes (pray for the poor outside backs who get to register those stats because the edge defenders have all disappeared to clean up messes inside), they’ve each had moments where they have been responsible for easy metres, momentum, or outright breaks by the opposition (seriously, Papalii and Harawira-Naera letting Lachlan Fitzgibbon run through them made me so sad). More energy from better rotations should help, and more pace and mobility could help control the game as it opens up after the early battles.

Canberra’s strength is suddenly a weakness, and something can be done to address this. They need to find a way. If it was as simple as I’ve outlined above the Raiders probably would have fixed it already. But we’re five weeks deep in a losing streak, and while these are small changes, I dunno, try something, so I don’t spend Saturday evening crying myself to sleep frustrated with another loss. Turning around the season is a mammoth task, and it has to start by turning the middle back into Canberra’s greatest strength.

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