Mid way through the first half of Canberra’s 34-10 loss to the Melbourne Storm, captain Elliott Whitehead held up a dislocated finger so out of shape that it made all watching wince. With no response from the sideline, he waved again, hoping that someone on the sideline could do something to help the mess that was his hand. It was an apt metaphor for Canberra’s night, and their season.
They came into this game with plenty of firepower missing, but there was enough on the park to hope that the job would get done. Jack Wighton, Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii and Josh Hodgson were all watching. If you’d told me before this season that we were trying to
climb Mount Doom beat the Storm without those players I would have laughed. But their opposition was similarly hamstrung, missing an entire spine, and should have been as vulnerable as they’ll be at any point this season. Even without halves they still put 34 points on Canberra.
At that was because they didn’t need halves to beat the Milk. The game was won and lost in the middle, and the Raiders barely turned up for the battle. Their early 10 point lead camouflaged a middle that got pasted for the entire game. They got outgained by 500 metres, and to be honest that feels like it obscures just how demolished they were. From the get go the Raiders were struggling to find metres, instead matching slow rucks with telegraphed, one-out runs. Each set was a battle, and it felt like every second set ended with Canberra kicking from inside their own 40 with “22 metres gained” popping up in light green as if to timidly ask if anyone was worried yet (I was). It’s no surprise no middle forward averaged more than 9 metres a carry in the first half. This seemed to get worse the more fatigued the middles got, and Ryan Sutton (15 runs for 124m) was the only Canberra middle to carry for more than 75 metres.
And they couldn’t hold the Storm front. Brandon Smith had 120 metres by half time. Tui Kamikamica cracked 180 for the game on just 16 carries with near 70 metres post contact. Nelson Asofa-Solomona had statistically the least impressive night of any Melbourne forward and he still managed two tries and near 100 metres on 10 carries. Canberra simply never got a handle on the middles. They were outgained on average by 12 metres on each set in the first half (43-31) and despite the routine second half rout, those numbers basically stayed the same. The game was played so thoroughly in Canberra’s half that even when they led the game they’d only been in Storm territory a handful of tackles.
In fact, the Canberra defence actually looked best for much of the first half because Melbourne’s inexperienced fill-in halves kept trying to shift wide and go around the Raiders. Semi Valemei and Bailey Simonnson both made good tackles to take Storm wingers in to touch. Canberra barely looked phased when the shift was on, until the game fell apart late, probably because there was simply no threat to really ball-play from either half. The ball just shifted sideways and the Milk could hold it.
But when the Storm stuck around the ruck it all fell apart. The set leading up to their first try started on their 20, and went: two pass hit up, one pass hit up, one pass hit up, dummy half run, shift to edge hit up, crash ball try. It was a pattern repeated for much of the game. Their first three tries essentially came the same way. When they needed metres they punched either up the guts, or if they were feeling adventurous, they’d hit the Raiders’ right edge before shifting back to the middle. It wasn’t until Reimis Smith gave Seb Kris an absolute bath (his second in consecutive weeks) for Melbourne’s fourth try that they’d been forced to go wider than one pass from the ruck for a score.
When you’re getting so thoroughly hosed in the middle battle on both sides of the ball there’s little that can be done by the spine. Tom Starling tried admirably given his physical state (he picked up an ankle injury) but it was not his best outing. He’ll earn a try-cause for both Asofa-Solomona efforts (but cannot be blamed for either – Corey Harawira-Naera was the other forward on the first, Corey Horsburgh came up with air on the second), and added five missed tackles (including four in the first half) as he became the target for the Melbourne props. He also had little impact in attack. As we’ve noted, Starling plays best behind a pack that is winning the middle so he can run. He couldn’t in this game, managing just 25 metres on just four runs probably exacerbated by an ankle injury late in the first half. This was such a stark contrast to the bowling ball with knives in his opposite number that was terrorising Canberra’s defence. Starling’s service was also patchy – he had three first half errors, one when he threw the ball into Smelly’s knees, another when he hit George Williams with a forward pass, and another when he had the ball stripped, and he routinely failed to engage or deceive the markers in any material way. While it wasn’t his best performance, as we said in the offseason, the rise of Starling in 2020 was actually a story of the success of the forward pack. His relative quietness in 2021 is a story of its decline.
Given the struggle of the pack, and Starling as part of that, it was surprising to see Canberra stick so steadfastly around the middle. The Raiders rare moments of sunshine came when getting away from the middle. Their first try was pure chaos, but their second came from early ball out to Curtis Scott, who beat a defender one-on-one, going 40 odd metres up the field, before a Sam Williams pin-point grubber was pounced on by the captain. The only other bright moments in attack came in similar fashion, with Scott, and to a marginally lesser extent, Harawira-Naera, taking early ball and playing a bit of footy. It should have resulted in a third try in the first half, but the Kiwi international passed to Scott with no space when he should have just, you know, scored.
George Williams’ foray into being the dominant creator was given limited room to breath because the middle was so thoroughly dominated. He had some bright moments but little to write about (literally and figuratively). His kick to Bailey Simonnson for the first try was tidy play. I’d suggest he stop lumbering sideways across the field looking for a ball-runner, but no one else must think that’s a problem given how much he does it. It gives the defence another free hit on whoever gets the ball. Sam Williams’ kicking game was a delight – it was nice to see so many kicks find grass – but it was an uphill battle given he was usually kicking from well inside his own half. When he found touch down 20 late in the second half it felt more as though he was kicking for respite than for territory.
The rest of the side was a symptom of the cause in the middle. Caleb Aekins’ ball-playing ability is useless when he has so few opportunities in attack. All that was left was him being the guy in every try-scoring poster: always there a second too late to make a difference. Bailey Simonsson and Semi Valemei had some yardage work, and Semi in particular looks so damaging when he carries the ball. But Simonsson’s error in picking up a overhit kick a smidge too early in the second half was heartbreaking. Seb Kris looks great running damaging lines but he’s been cold beaten for pace in consecutive weeks by bog-standard attackers.
Diagnosing what went wrong is the easy part of all this. It’s patently obvious to any observer. What to do about it is a harder question, because we’re six weeks deep in this rut and one of the smartest minds in rugby league hasn’t been able to solve it. What’s more he’s offered nothing publicly that would suggest the turnaround is anywhere near. All we’ve got is George Williams going home, Josh Hodgson probably leaving. Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine seemingly upset, and Jarrod Croker getting injured while he’s injured. This is the blurst of times.
It’s hard not to think that Canberra simply aren’t good enough this year. I can whinge about rotations, and about playing the best people at their best positions, but perhaps the squad is just a bad match for Vlandoball. The squad of players is unquestionably talented, but something is going critically wrong, and its worse the longer games, and the season, go. Nine times this season a side has given up a double digit lead to lose a game. Canberra have done it five times on their own. We’re not even half way through – we might fade in the second half of the season too. It’s confounding given the relative ease of adjustment to Vlandys’ multiball in 2020. But I guess here we are.
A few deep breaths and a swig of sadness whisky will remind you that Canberra aren’t far from the eight, and even higher, but that feels like false hope at this stage. There’s simply no evidence the turnaround is coming. There’s real issues in the middle that aren’t showing any sign of redress, and part of the reason no one wants to talk about them is that if they could be fixed, it probably is through a different approach next offseason. For now, one win may begat another, and perhaps all the Milk need to do is show some hot blood and courage next week and the season will skip away. But I’ve thought that every week for six weeks now, and it just gets more deflating each week.
Like Elliott’s finger, and my spirit, this season feels broken.
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