When the obituaries are written about Canberra’s 2021 season, they’ll tell stories of the chaos, the great expectations not met, and the end of an era of unusual success. It will be portrayed as one of those seasons where nothing clicks, an inevitable and unescapable slide into the mire. But if the Raiders are to improve, they need to remember they are the masters of their own demise. And that was no more obvious than their 22-20 loss to the St George-Illawarra Dragons.
The Raiders had no excuse. They had the same 17 backing up from the previous rounds drought-breaking victory over the Brisbane Broncos. Canberra were rested, coming off a full seven days rest. Their opponent had just been beaten – handily – by the goddamn Canterbury-Bankstown stinking Bulldogs. They were missing their star fullback and future Canberra Raider Matt Dufty, and only had five days to sort their shit out after last Monday’s debacle.
The thing was, this loss wasn’t like all the other ones. For starters, the Raiders middle never collapsed, and it never died from fatigue. The Green Machine’s engine room outgained their opposition (1503m to 1449m per NRL.com), dominated the post contact metres (408m to 275m). Josh Papalii (17 for 184m) was excellent as always, continually bending the line, earning quick rucks and turning around the momentum of sets. When Canberra needed big carries he continually put his hand up – more than once late he took multiple hit ups in a set desperately trying to drag Canberra down the field. He was ably supported by Sia Soliola (13 for 107m) and Joe Tapine (11 for 109m). The back five weren’t as dominant as last week, but Bailey Simonsson (20 for 212m and 64 post contact) and Jordan Rapana (18 for 164m) got through a mountain of work, and Semi Valemei had some powerful carries in yardage.
In the middle of this was Josh Hodgson, around whom almost all Canberra’s best movements revolved. He put Corey Harawira-Naera in with one of the best shimmy-pass combinations you will see, and constantly probed around the ruck, inviting defenders to focus on him while good things happened elsewhere. On the Harawira-Naera try, Corey Norman had turned his entire body to focus on Hodgson and had no chance at tackling the big Kiwi. On Joe Tapine’s second half try, Hodgson’s two steps out of the ruck were enough to drag the defence tight, and Ryan Sutton’s goddamn glorious ball to Joe Tapine showed that the Canberra’s middle aren’t just brawn, but beauty too.
In defence the pack was never overrun, and even when the Dragons had momentum they kept holding the middle They remained physical in defence until the end, and only had 13 missed tackles across the game. With the game on the line they were still screaming around in defence – such as when Dunamis Lui’s frantic efforts to keep Ben Hunt after Jordan Rapana’s excellent try-saver, or Sia Soliola’s hit on Mikaele Ravalawa, that held him up, before the cavalry could come to drag him into the in-goal to keep Canberra’ hopes alive.
So many games have come down to the Raiders not being able to match the middle of oppositions, and the rest of the side being made to pay. But in this game the pack did the job, and even then Canberra still couldn’t finish the job. There are a few reasons for this.
As soon as the ball left the middle third, Canberra couldn’t muster effective attack consistently effective attack. On the left, they played with hesitation, too often tip-toeing toward the line like they were running shapes they’d only just learned (perhaps that’s the case). Jack in particular looked stuck between two worlds. He either ran (11 times for 89m), and admittedly looked dangerous doing it, or he passed early, putting the onus of creation on either Elliott Whitehead or Bailey Simonsson. I’m all for trusting those two to ball play – the Raiders second try came exactly from getting Smelly the ball close to the line, watching him hit, spin, and offload to Kris to fall over the line. But the ongoing inability of Wighton to consistently attack the line and create at the same time is allowing him to contained more easily than a man of his talents should be. Not only that, but it puts the fulcrum of ball-play a step wider than it needs to be, reducing the space those outside have to operate.
This wasn’t helped by the backs generally dropping far too much ball. So often the Raiders would punch a hole in the middle, and as soon as they’d earned the right to move sideways, they’d shift into an error. In the first half Jack dropped a pass cold when Hodgson popped a soft pass to him. It felt a ready made situation for him to take advantage. Sam Williams had an error, and with the game on the line pushed a pass to Harawira-Naera on the face of a shift movement when it should have gone out the back. Seb Kris dropped one bomb instead of scoring, and took another beautiful line working off a set play out left back to near the posts, only to drop it cold.
I can’t help but wonder too if the Raiders failed to take advantage of the punchiness of their edges until it was too late. Particularly shifting right they looked excellent getting Harawira Naera and Matt Timoko the ball early with space to move. Both players tested the line repeatedly when given a shot, but it wasn’t until the game was on it’s death bed that the ball began to shift that way with any consistency. Many would be tempted to point the finger at Josh Hodgson, but he was sending the ball to Williams and Wighton with regularity – in fact it was those two, like George Williams before them, who were most intent on sending a prop or second rower back towards the middle rather than play with width.
It’s clearly a game plan coming down from the box, but I would have loved to see the Raiders test the edge of the Dragons earlier and with more frequency. Jack Bird missed 7 tackles on the Dragons’ right edge, and Corey Norman was on the left edge. Both players got taken advantage of at different points in this game, but too often the Canberra got as wide as the backrower and came back to the middle. Until Matt Timoko popped his head through late and out Jordy into space, I’m not sure the old man had seen the ball outside of kick returns and yardage work. Add to this a series of ineffective or poorly executed last tackle options and the Raiders were creating a rod for their own back.
Defensively the edges were not much better. Completing one of his least impressive performances in recent times, Jack had some egregious errors, such as on the Dragons first try of the second half when he failed to cover Ben Hunt on his inside shoulder, in the hope that Smelly would be able to get across. Wighton took no one, Hunt waltzed through and points resulted. Earlier he had been given a bath by Jack Bird, and only saved face with an excellent chase down tackle of Gerard Beale. It was the full Jack experience. On the other edge it wasn’t better. It was this side that the Dragons peppered effectively for metres and breaks. The Dragons first try came because Corey Harawira-Naera was playing stuck in the mud instead of defence on his goal line. It didn’t help that Emre Guler over-pursued Hunt. Later, Harawira-Naera couldn’t get enough on Paul Vaughan one-on-one on the goal line to stop a brilliant offload that put the Dragons ahead. In between all this the Dragons made what I’d call an indefensible try off a chip kick regather and offload. They could try that a million times the rest of this season and it will never come off again.
And there were some curious rotation decisions. When Seb Kris left the field, and after the sideline officials worked out that Xavier Savage wasn’t allowed to replace him (seriously, he should be allowed, that rule is dumb), the Raiders were effectively down to 15 players due to Sticky’s unwillingness to play Tom Starling. This is obviously because Josh Hodgson has been playing really well lately, and he doesn’t want to remove his influence from the game direction. When he did come on, Hodgson proved capable and remained influential, so it’s not like it can’t be tried at other points of the game. I get there’s a defensive worry playing Hodgson and Starling (and Williams) together, but trying to win a game so heavily influenced by fatigue with essentially one less player than the opposition is punishing the players for decisions made before game day. That Starling came on to spell Papalii with 8 minutes to go and the game in the balance only highlighted the inefficiency of the use of this rotation
When it came down to the Dragons made plays and the Raiders made errors. Two tries came from scintillating offloads, they kicked two 40/20s, one on the first set of the second half, one to set up the winning try. Canberra got themselves into the position to win, but couldn’t find the execution that the opposition did. It wasn’t a bad performance by Canberra, and should be considered a step up from so many of the performances in recent times. They did not go gentle not that good night. This wasn’t a loss borne from attitude, or fatigue or the structural collapse of everything they stand for. Canberra were just beaten, by a team that made the challenging plays in the heat of the moment. They simply weren’t good enough at critical moments.
While Canberra missed an opportunity to put themselves into the thick of the scrum around the eight, they did show they’re learning. This week was a continuation of last rather than extension of the worst of this year. It wasn’t perfect, but there was enough to suggest things are getting better. But this might be what Canberra are: a team that battles of the table. That’s better than the tyre fire of a month or so ago, but it’s not good, and time is rapidly running out. We can point to easy draws, close ladders, Origin absences, and other advantages that might suit. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to game day and you don’t execute as well as your opposition. The Raiders might beat the Titans. Or the Sea-Eagles, or whoever, but they’re just as likely to not right now. And soon the season will come asking for more sacrifices, and the Raiders have few left to give.
They’ll rue tonight, as the memories of Townsville, or the Warriors game, fester in the corners of minds. There’s been so many moments this season where they’ve drawn a line, only to let the opposition dance across it. It’d just be a bit less painful if they didn’t dance with them.