The Canberra Raiders 20-18 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs wasn’t a well played game. It didn’t prove that the Milk have solved all the problems that have plagued them over the previous five weeks. But it did show they still have the heart to fight for this season. For today, that was plenty. but bigger challenges await.
To say Canberra were desperate is a misnomer. They were beyond that point, a damaged shell of their former selves. They weren’t desperate for a win – they were desperate for a way. All their well laid plans had been rendered inoperative by their second half fades in recent weeks. A win here wouldn’t put there season back together, but it would perhaps provide a small sliver of light to suggest that maybe it could be put back together. More than that though, a loss here might end an entire era.
They used the same conservative game plan they’ve been using in all their games. Punch to the right in order to open up the left. It’s a game plan that relies on the middles forwards and the right edge runners really making a dent in their opposition. The Raiders did in fact work the ball into the right tram-tracks. Corey Harawira-Naera had 14 runs (for 120m), Curtis Scott 18 (for 176m), reflecting the desire to test the right edge, particularly around Brandon Wakeham. The middles matched to an extent, but only Josh Papalii really punctured the line in any consistent way – nearly half his 100 run metres were post contact, and he broke four tackles. Emre Guler (12 for 106m), Hudson Young (14 for 112m) and Corey Horsburgh (12 for 127m) all cracked 100 metres too, but only Young had more than one tackle break, and Guler had none.
It was the first time that half George Williams has consistently got the ball to the right side attackers this season. And it was promising, but occasionally the Raiders were too focused on heading horizontally and not enough burning down the ruck. It’s not surprising that Canberra’s only first half try was born from Josh Papalii destroying the opposition middle, dragging 35 defenders (approx) to bring him under control, dropping an offload which shifted rightwards and Williams found space stepping through a massive hole. His pass to Caleb Aekins wasn’t perfect, but Aekins offload to Harawira-Naera was. But after Papalii went off around the 20 minute mark, Canberra failed to find a way to bend and break to the Bulldog middle defenders, and for the next forty minutes they rarely tested the worst defence in the competition. Defensively the Canberra middle was dominant in the first half, repeatedly winning field position for the side by backing up the kicking game. The Raiders kept holding the Dogs to less than 40 metres a set, and it put the Raiders in field position they really should have taken better advantage of. They didn’t, and eight points felt mighty empty.
Each game in this losing streak has seen the Raiders middle defence become a sieve in the second half. This second stanza started out with such a familiar tune people thought it was an ice cream truck. A flick of a switch and the Raiders suddenly were conceding 50 metres on each set, and the defensive frailties that had been papered over the first half came to the fore. It was familiar – the middles’ the line-speed and physicality disappeared, the opposition rolled through them (or rather up to them, such was the line-speed). The edge defenders were put under pressure to be perfect. They weren’t. Harawira-Naera missed seven tackles, five of which came in the second half. Elliott Whitehead missed four. Seb Kris also had five missed tackles in the second half. He was given a bath by Will Hopoate once in the first half and Canberra recovered. In the second the dose was repeated, a break followed and Nic Cotric scored from dummy half. Bailey Simonsson’s try saver had been for nought. Williams was a smidge slow pushing out Wakeham, Scott hesitated for a second, and it was all the space Nick Meaney needed on the goal line.
Before the Meaney try Jack Wighton was sin-binned. After it Josh Papalii was sent off. The Raiders were down to 11 men, and would finish the game with 12, and somehow had turned an eight point lead into a four point deficit. They were down, and after the last five weeks, you would have not been surprised if they were out.
Sometimes it takes things to look their worst in order for them to turnaround. The Raiders second halves have been so comical NRL Twitter was making jokes about the 93-8 number becoming the new ‘Damian Cook is a beach sprinter’ of overused tropes. It had become a mental block, and while these pages had spoken about the practical things that could be done, the consistency of collapse had made been so routine it was hard to know whether fatigue, or the expectation of collapsed was causing the problem. Maybe the Raiders needed all expectation and hope to be removed. Maybe they needed to stop having to think, and just do. All that was left was the next run, the next tackle. The six inches in front of Al Pacino’s face. Find a way. Somehow.
They found a way
There’s a lot of things to notice in this last twenty minutes. The Raiders defence was more aggressive that the previous twenty minutes. The line speed improved, despite being down men. It seemed the Milk decided the best way to stop the Dogs getting around them was cutting off the opportunity to shift. Canterbury did try to get around, and they got into some space occasionally, but the defence kept pushing up, and out, in a way they hadn’t previously in the half.
The attack was more equal opportunity. Canberra pushed up the middle and shifted to both sides. They won rucks more often, and while they were shifting the ball, it was mostly within the middle third of the ground early in sets. This gave them the space to work off; suddenly halves had metres before the line to play with the ball. They had the audacity to run a set play down four with 12 or so minutes left. Jack swung around to create an extra man, the ball shifted, Caleb Aekins held it perfectly long enough to allow Scott the space to find the line. Then minutes later, Canberra hit Guler up the middle for his second important hit up in the set. They shifted left off the back of it, Hodgson and Wighton both engaged the line, and Aekins ball to Kris was perfectly executed. The centre burnt through the line and made Dallin Watene-Zelezniak look like he was from an And-1 video. It was perfect footy perfectly timed.
Hodgson, who had come on early in the second half when Corey Horsburgh left for a HIA was dynamic operating as a loose something. Sometimes it was an extra ball player in attack, most at first receiver. Sometimes he took a hit up, He did exactly what was needed when it was needed. Even out of position he seemed to be the Raiders best creator; he made a line break, he chimed into the line perfectly on set plays like he’d been playing as a half his whole life. While his role in each of the late tries wasn’t massive, it was effective, and he was able to come on and bring some dynamism and flexibility to the attack. It did push Williams wider, which, when the whole point of moving Hodgson from dummy-half was to get halves the ball ‘earlier’ ball, seems counterproductive in the longer-term, but today it worked. He, Jack and George all found a way to find a place and role while they were all on the field. It didn’t necessary look perfect but it looked cooperative.
The back five were instrumental in this victory. Caleb Aekins was the key attacking player on both second half tries. While we noted Kris’ defensive errors earlier, he cleaned that up when things should have been impossible, making several important one-on-one tackles. Scott got beaten once but not again. Bailey Simonsson made several important tackles. Aekins defended in the line for the last 20 minutes or so. While Semi Valemei didn’t have a lot of defensive work to do, he was solid under the high ball, and had some crucial runs (including one escape from the in-goal that was a massive moment). Each of these players did tremendous work in yardage.
It’s also worth noting that the bench rotations resulted in the most even spread of minutes in the Raiders pack in months. No one played less than Lui’s 26, and no one played more than Hudson Young’s 39. How much that was affected by Papalii’s ejection we’ll never know. But here’s hoping Coach Stuart noticed that their was gas in the tank come the end of the game, rather than the walking husks we’ve seen in recent weeks.
The major question now comes to sustainability. This was such a strange game; more a three act play than a footy match. It’s hard to know what will carry forward. Josh Papalii’s importance to the middle will be noted because chances are he’ll be spending weeks on the sideline (whether or not we think that’s fair being beside the point). Wighton and Hodgson may join him. Hodgson is still a brilliant ball player, but good teams will rejoice having him and Starling in the defensive line. He was excellent in this game; his threat with the ball kept the defense hesitant enough for him to run with effectiveness. But good teams won’t offer him the space at first receiver he had, particularly in the last twenty minutes. The coming challenges facing Canberra mean that the offence of the first half, or the defence of the early second, simply won’t be good enough. One does not face Melbourne or Easts and bits and piece it to a victory. It’s hard to think another team in the competition that would allow a team with eleven players on the field to manage anything but pain.
Somehow though, Canberra turned the tables on fate. It was a thrilling victory, and if the MIlk hadn’t had to go to the seventh layer of hell to find their ‘why’ against the worst team in the competition I’d suggest this could be the start of something. They didn’t play perfect football, but they showed that they have the heart for the fight when the tables turn against them. This is the kind of game that good teams win. They fight outrageous fortune, and they win. For one day, rather one twenty minute period, Canberra stood up and found a way. It was just one moment of sunshine. Enjoy the warmth. Hopefully more good days follow.