The Canberra Raiders 38-16 victory over the Brisbane Broncos was blessed relief. Relief that their forward pack was able to dominate an opponent for 80 minutes. Relief that they held a half time lead and didn’t capitulate. And relief that for the first time in ages, when push came to shove they made the right plays, and took a game away from an opposition. It wasn’t perfect and beating the Broncos doesn’t make you superstars, but for a week at least they can go back to work on Monday with the confidence of their capability.
That no Raiders fan felt comfortable coming into this game should tell you how the season is going. The Broncos are a shambles and were starting Karmichael Hunt in his first NRL game this decade. They lost their starting halfback the day before the game, and an origin star in the warm up. Any half-decent team should have put near 40 on them comfortably. Nothing is easy for Canberra right now; they even lost (Curtis Scott) to the bye. So frankly anything could have happened. Instead of farce, instead of capitulation, the Milk came, they saw, and kicked some ass.
They did this primarily because for the first time since the victory over the Titans, the Raiders comprehensively won the contest in the middle. There was no a poor player in the pack, and the Raiders consistently won the power battle. They outgained the Broncos by near 500 metres across the game, averaged 8 more metres per set on average, and particularly through the first sixty minutes seemed to routinely find 50 plus metres a set and keep their opposition around or below 40 metres. It was through power of the big men, and the tough runs of the outside backs that they laid a platform to win this game.
Josh Papalii (18 carries for 178m) was back to his brilliant best, not only giving the Raiders a strong start, and a critical set of minutes in his second rotation to help settle the stand off the second half started with. He was joined by Sia Soliola and Dunmis Lui in the first rotation, and it was in particular great to see Sia play with such pace. Recently Canberra’s forwards have seemed to amble towards contact. Particularly in his first stint, Sia careened at it.
It set a standard the rest of the pack met. Emre Guler (15 for 153m) was excellent coming off the bench, matching Sia’s intensity. And the pack was supported through the middle by back three that had their most effective game in support yardage since Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was injured. Bailey Simonsson (20 for 237m) routinely broke or bent the line, winning quick rucks that the Raiders could build from. Semi Valemei (13 for 182m), Jordan Rapana (18 for 152m) and Matt Timoko all took difficult carries coming off the Raiders line and won the contact. The involvement of the backs in yardage is such a critical part of V’Landoball because it allows rest for forwards in a game with less stoppages, and gives pace to sets that would otherwise be lumbering.
Of course this was orchestrated by Josh Hodgson. He was excellent, manipulating markers, drawing attention and isolating defenders for the big men to run at. He set up two tries, both coming off crash balls when he found a big man (in the first half Guler, in the second half Papalii) a one-on-one close to the line. Both players won, Guler with his quick feet, Papa with power. The Papalii try was a particularly ballsy play by Hodgson. The game was in the balance – for twenty-five minutes around half time the game had been in an arm-wrestle familiar to Canberra fans. Too many times this season they have gotten into this staring match and blinked. On this occasion Hodgson saw an opportunity on the last and Papalii delivered. It was pleasing to see Hodgson back himself despite the knowledge the commentariat (and probably his coach) would have howled in derision had it not come off. The moment was critical and the Raiders’ best delivered in tandem.
With the middle won it put the backline in good stead to play some footy. Jack Wighton had a relatively quiet game, and still set up two tries and scored another. For the Raiders first try he took the line on, and hit Bailey out the back who played it perfectly for Seb Kris. On Canberra’s second he shifted to the right, hit Harawira-Naera on a beautiful outside-in line. It was exhilarating. If there was a criticism of his game it was that on all other occasions he was too happy to move to ball on without pressuring the line. It’s something he’s done a lot of lately, and he should do it less – he basically created three tries from the four runs.
The breakout star of course was Bailey Simonsson. His ball play out of fullback was as patient as it was excellent. He continually engaged the line, waiting to the last minute to put his outside men through (as he did on Kris’ first try), or to take the line on (and then slip as stunning pass, as he did on Semi Valemei’s try (shouts to Semi for an impeccable pickup and pirouette). He helped set up Williams’ try, shifting across to get outside a defender, isolating Matt Timoko with Dale Copley (whom Timoko shed like a second skin) before finding Williams in support. Bailey even contributed when he didn’t get the ball – for example Tevita Pangai Junior’s focus was firmly on Simonsson when it should have been on Harawira-Naera when he broke through. Combined with Bailey’s impressive yardage work, and his general safety under high kicks, it was an impressive display from Simonsson. He seemed to have all the time in the world, a function of his patience and the middle’s dominance. As we wrote earlier in the week, a performance like this should guarantee a longer opportunity and perhaps a rethink of recruitment by Coach Stuart.
This was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t perfect. Canberra’s defence was fine when the game was being played conventionally. As I said earlier, the middle’s physicality and intensity went a long way to corralling the impact of the talented Brisbane pack. But as soon as things got unconventional, or second-phase play got underway, the Raiders looked much more fragile. Brisbane found 21 offloads in this game, and for a period the Raiders seemed incapable of stopping Pangai Junior from passing out of a tackle. All of the Broncos good movements started with offloads, and while Canberra mitigated their impact, they couldn’t eliminate them.
The Raiders also lost their way towards the end of the game. After Hetherington was oddly sent off, Wighton sealed it and Hodgson had a rest, the Raiders got a bit loose. After the month(s) they’ve had you can hardly blame them. It’s a hard taskmaster that would complain about a 22 point win, but it felt like they lacked a killer instinct when faced with 12 men. The Broncos even scored when they somehow got a numbers advantage on the Raiders left. This lack of headiness was also on display when Ryan Sutton forced a pass on the first tackle after Canberra had taken a 22-4 lead nearing halftime. The Broncos scored (again, after Canberra couldn’t contend with chaos), and the losing team had a sniff when they didn’t deserve one.
So it wasn’t perfect, but it was exactly what Canberra needed. There’s actually decent football teams to face in the next few weeks, and if the Milk have any intention of making this game a turning point then there’s much more work to do. Good teams won’t let them dominate the middle like they did. Good teams won’t let them play loosely like they did at the end. Good teams will use offloads to create points rather than just containable movements. They’ll need to be better each week from here on in. That’s the challenge. We’ll see if they’re up to it.
But for now, they’ve found some answers to the questions that have plagued them. They know they have a capable fullback. They know how to win the middle, through both the forwards and the support of the backs. And they know that when push comes to shove they are able to stand up to the pressure and make the right decisions at the right times. One shower won’t grow crops but for the first time in ages everything doesn’t feel so hot. There’s still plenty to work on, but for a week at least, the Raiders can get to work in a good mindset without the harried panic of a losing situation.