If history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, the Canberra Raiders 44-16 loss to the Sydney Roosters was nothing short of classic vaudeville. This was everything every loss of recent weeks has been. The Raiders led early. They showed promise. But they collapsed again, this time combining a porous middle with comical defensive errors. In the face of difficult circumstances, they showed little resilience. They are a beaten team. There is not a team in the league that needs a bye week more. There’s rarely been a fan base that so deserved a week off from the pain.
In another world this would have been a blockbuster. A replay of the 2019 grand final. Key players trying to prove themselves for Origin. But we’ve been here these last few weeks, we know this Canberra team resembles that side like some sort of ALDI knock off. It looks the same, but this product doesn’t work right. The absolute dumpster fire that is the club off the field meant no one was expecting much; and simultaneously hoping something might change. Like my man Red said, hope is a dangerous thing. Such is the mess that is the Milk that even after coming off a shock loss to the Broncos last week, the Roosters felt comfortable resting even more players than are already out with injury. Sam Walker and Angus Crichton watched. The Raiders can’t even beat the backups now.
As it has in almost every loss this year, this started with the fact that the middle forwards were again handed their asses. Josh Papalii seems more and more amazing each week he sits out, and the rest of the pack is unable to make a dent. Here’s how thoroughly Canberra were smashed. They were outgained by 500 metres over the game and 192 more post-contact metres. Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Siosiua Taukeiaho between them had more metres (426 all up – 222 for Jared, 204 for Taukeiaho) than literally all of the Canberra middle forwards (412m). Only Ryan Sutton (14 carries for 118m) cracked a 100, and only Corey Horsburgh looked anything approaching adequate (11 for 94m) with the ball. There was little help from the back five, none of whom none cracked 100 metres on the ground.
The same old story about an inability to corral the opposition that we’ve seen repeatedly recently was on show, and it meant that no matter the scoreline, the feeling is always one of just holding on. Canberra didn’t miss endless tackles, but rather just the right amount for the Roosters to take advantage. While the position and possession was relativity even in the first half, by games end the Roosters had had 60 per cent of the ball, reflecting the regularity the Roosters found repeat sets, or simply scored, in the second half. The Milk are already one of the worst teams in the competition in second half errors (as shown by the esteemed work of The Rugby League Eye Test) and they compounded their lack of ball with seven second half errors. The Roosters were giving them no out, and the Raiders acquiesced.
Here’s a good example. Around about the 55th minute Corey Horsburgh had the ball stripped. The next 6 sets of the match went: Roosters try, Roosters repeat, Roosters penalty, Roosters try, Roosters disallowed try and penalty, Roosters complete set. Canberra finally touched the ball around the 64th minute. Somewhere in there Tom Starling subbed on, but it took a solid five minutes to find out if he, or Josh Hodgson would be playing hooker, simply because Canberra didn’t have the ball. And the worst thing is that period wasn’t an isolated one but rather one of several throughout the match. The Roosters also went try, try, James sin-bin, try, to turn the game between the 30th and 36th minutes.
With the middle crumbling under the pressure there was little to expect from the edges. What was frustrating to see was the same errors that have been crushing Canberra for weeks. Forwards failing to replace edge defenders who are forced to cover for them (the Roosters should have scored first after Emre Guler failed to properly cover across in such a situation and James Tedesco went for a gallop). Neither Corey Harawira-Naera at the strong side A defender, nor the marker Sam Williams could help across a blind side ruck. Tedesco made another break that would end with Lachlan Lam evening the score as the game flipped in the first half. Curtis Scott thought to push in, realised he would create an overlap, and got caught between waiting for Sam and making sure he took down Morris. Then minutes later, with Ryan James in the bin, Wighton showed the exact same hesitancy, this time with Caleb Aekins at the A gap and Joey Manu running riot. He chose to come in a micro-second too late and Sitili Tupouniua scored. There were other more ‘normal’ tries like this. For the most part they came from the Raiders losing control of the middle, the edge expecting better efforts, or more help from the middle, and not being able to recover in time. Cohesion and trust, built so strongly over 2019 and 2020 has disappeared with lineup changes and losses.
These were tragedy, but there were so many other tries that were sheer farce. Aekins bungled an anodyne bomb into Joseph Suali’s hands for the Roosters first try. It was such an abrupt shift of momentum observers got motion sickness. Jordan Rapana had the ball taken from him in a one-on-one strip at the Canberra line, with Manu again Joey on the spot. Manu scored moments later when catching his own bomb over Aekins and Bailey Simonsson. Aekins was also late to the fight as one of about eight Raiders around a Tedesco grubber that only Morris had the foresight to pick up, and put down with minimal interference. If ever one was wondering if Canberra was missing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, this game was painful proof.
Each one of these tries belied a mindset that was hesitant. The ball was available for Canberra each time, but the opposition took it. That’s not technique or practice. That’s mindset, confidence, and a team of players who are so scared to fail that they are making it inevitable. In the after match press conference Coach Stuart referred to soft tries and a lack of spirit. To hear him say that confirmed what everyone saw, and it still hurt to hear. The confidence has been knocked out of this side, and it’s clear they’re struggling to find a way back.
There were things that worked. Josh Hodgson was easily Canberra’s best, setting up two of the Milk’s three tries and scoring the other. When the game was going pear-shaped he had the presence of mind to set a strong kick for a 40/20 instead of accepting defeat (if only Teddy wasn’t lightning across the park). Outside of Harawira-Naera’s break, and Sia Soliola’s high-energy efforts in the second half, it was one of the few examples of the Milk refusing to accept the catastrophe unfolding. As we’ve noted when reviewing Tom Starling’s play recently, there’s little to be done when the forwards are getting trampled. Hodgson’s brilliance is that he managed to turn such a tremendous defeat into two tries, each coming from a prop on a crash ball.
The Raiders attempt to target Lachlan Lam on the Roosters left edge was also successful to an extent. Harawira-Naera had a strong outing and led the Raiders forwards in metres (142m), making some good runs and a brilliant line-break early in the second half. Of course it ended in an error. Curtis Scott similarly had some good moments, and is proving that he enjoys the greater focus that the various right halfbacks have had in recent weeks to feed him early ball. This has been a game-plan adopted to shifts on both sides, and it works great on the right, but on the left it means the ball is going outside of Jack Wighton’s sphere of influence too early. He barely troubled the line in this game, and he misses Jarrod Croker as a secondary creator outside him. Aekins is playing that role, but his timidity on the carry exacerbates the challenges caused by the enthusiastic east-west shifting.
Two and a half reasonable efforts out of 17 isn’t winning many football games. There will be questions asked about line-ups in the coming weeks, and you can go through the line up and find reasons to question the position of lots of players. Aekins had his worst outing in green. Kris had a third consecutive poor outing. If there ever was a time to make changes it’s through a bye week. It seems clear that some players should stay where they are (Hodgson, Wighton, Harawira-Naera, Scott, Sutton, Rapana), but you could talk me into almost any other combination in the 17. Papalii and Tapine should return when available, and that might free up Sutton to play a more steady role instead of having to be stable and destructive at the same time. Young should also return. Kris could be tried as a middle forward to take advantage of his pace and power (and the quicker game) rather than highlight his lack of lateral agility. You might be excitable and argue we should be looking at Matt Timoko, Xavier Savage, or Brad Schneider. Mostly I just want someone with a bit of poke. It can’t possibly be any worse than this.
Each loss recently has brought on a new stage of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I’m not at acceptance yet. Wallowing in the sadness of what could have been, and what has become, feels appropriate. It’s hard to wonder how they turn it around. This team that was pure hot blood and courage over the last two years has no resilience. As soon as the game momentum flips it becomes perpetual. They have no willingness, no ability to re-orient, and find their way back. This is mental, and it’s not hard to look beyond the field and wish something could be done to quieten the noise around the club. Take the heat off everything, and find a way to agree if it’s all going to end, either for Stuart, for Hodgson, Williams, Tapine, and whoever else may be on their way out the door, at least go out with a bang rather than a sad moan. I hope they can do that.
For now this team is broken. This farce was proof. It’s theoretically possible to fix this, but any sane human shouldn’t be hoping for quick turnaround. Hug your friends, hug your family. Things may not get worse than this, though it tempts fate to suggest so, but better times are not around the corner.