Sometimes when things are at their worst all you can do is focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t solve your problems, but focusing on the simple stuff, the next moment, is enough to get going again. The Canberra Raiders 30-16 victory over the Manly Sea-Eagles was one foot after the other, stepping resolutely forward. There’s nothing in that victory that will scare the competition, but right now all that matters is heading in the right direction.
It had been a shit week for the Raiders. There’s been more chaotic, dramatic weeks in recent times, but this one just felt sad. The nature of last week’s loss had been so feeble, it felt like a team going gently into that good night. All anyone wanted out of this week was a bit of anger, a bit of desire, someone to show that they weren’t happy with where they were and that they were willing to fight their way out. They had but a few days to turn it all around, and would be missing arguably their two most important players to Origin duty, and Elliott Whitehead. Manly were missing their two best to origin too, so it felt like a fair swap. The only difference being the Silvertails had been tearing teams apart in the meantime, while Canberra had done that to itself.
The Raiders game plan brought all the complexity of one foot in front of the other. The aimed up in the middle, desirous to tire the Manly forwards by testing them repeatedly in defence. The ball barely got outside the second row. Whether it was Starling or Hodgson at the ruck, or whether Williams or Frawley got the ball at first receiver, the run would come back to the middle. They barely tried anything in attack save for punching a hole in the middle of the Sea-Eagles’ defence. They almost never shifted, and more often that not when they did a half was playing a face ball to the second rower. They combined this with the most robust defence they could muster. It was a game plan borrowed from before the Green Machine existed (or perhaps Matty Elliott, you choose).
Such a simplified game plan is easy to implement but hard to win with. To do so you need exemplary performances from your forwards, the ability to muster and maintain possession, and to find points when given a chance. The Raiders forwards held their part of the bargain. Joe Tapine (21 for 234, 86 post contact) and Ryan Sutton (23 for 181m) in particular stood up in the absence of Josh Papalii. Tapine had his best performance of the season, one more reminiscent of his tremendous 2020 efforts. He kept finding extra metres and fast rucks from using his quick feet in the line. Sutton preferred power, and they were ably supported by Hudson Young’s motor (17 for 138m) and Emre Guler’s offloads (10 for 92m, 4 tackle breaks and 3 offloads). The forwards were helped by the back five, with Jordan Rapana and Semi Valemei cracking 191m and 175m respectively despite not touching the ball in space. Rapana in particular was inspirational, routinely taking tough carries as well as supporting debutant Xavier Savage on his runs.
Just punching through the middle is pointless if all that happens is you get sixty metres and turn it over. But Canberra also got something they’ve not gotten at any point in recent years. When they got in good field position, they kept finding repeat sets. It was an exemplary kicking display. They forced 8 drop outs in this game, through excellent kicking from Matt Frawley, Sam Williams and Josh Hodgson (even Jordan Rapana forced one). This allowed them to dominate possession for significant portions of the game, such as the second twenty minutes of the first half, where they had a dozen or more sets to Manly’s three. The halves barely manufactured anything approaching fluid or structured attack, but they managed to make sure Canberra got more ball. And the Raiders kept testing the Manly middles, who eventually cracked.
In the end the Milk outgained their opposition by 400 metres. They had 57 per cent of the ball, and completed 90 per cent of their sets. They simply wore the Sea-Eagles down, hit up after hit up after hit up. Then they manufactured points without moving the ball. Tom Starling simply ran through some of the most tired middle defence you will ever see. Then Sam Williams did the same twice at first receiver, once with an assist from a Sia Soliola push. Emre Guler’s try might be considered the most expansive Canberra try of the night, simply because he got the ball one pass wide, and rolled over feeble defence to seal the game late. And in the meantime Seb Kris got a bonus try when a speculative bomb falconed off Moses Suli’s head into his path.
None of this was pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Canberra barely tried anything creative. I don’t remember if either Seb Kris or Jarrod Croker touched the ball in any attacking movement. Jordan Rapana routinely veered into the middle to run alongside Josh Hodgson or Tom Starling because it would be the only way to get the ball. Semi Valemei was probably wondering if he said something to piss off his team mates before the game, so lonely was he in the attacking half. When they did shift it looked stilted, slow and dislocated. It made sense they stuck around the middle. The only thing that looked remotely expansive was Josh Hodgson ballplaying one pass wide of the ruck. He played with more width, willing to engage the line and push players into holes. It was scheming and creative and a sign that there’s more than one string to his bow. He worked well in tandem with Tom Starling, allowing Tom to poke out for runs around the ruck while providing creativity in attack. Hodgson also gave Starling a support runner when he jumped out of 9, something the Englishman did early several times early, only to find himself wondering where either his forwards or backs were.
The success of this game plan built on tiring the Manly middles was that their defensive frailties couldn’t be exposed to the extent they have been in recent weeks. That’s not to say they weren’t there or have been rectified. The Raiders right side remains a weakness, a source of opposition metres (either through or around) as well as a place to attack in the redzone. Sam Williams got beaten by Dylan Walker in a facsimile of Jamal Fogarty’s try last week. The same issue with Keiran Foran holding the ball would have resulted in points in the 64th minute if not for Joe Tapine’s brilliant try saver. Corey Harawira-Naera could have helped but he just didn’t, for some reason that I’m still not sure of. Harawira-Naera also played a role in Moses Suli’s late try, throwing an arm out when he misread the situation, and also stone cold missed a Manly forward coming up the guts which nearly resulted in a try. Seb Kris was great in contact, but as soon as he’s tested laterally he struggled – more than once turning his back on the ball trying to slide. And poor Sam may as well have a target on his back rather than the number 7. All opposition attack focused on him. Between them they had 17 missed tackles (7 for Kris, 5 for Harawira-Naera, and 5 for Sam), and if the possession leger were more even it could have been a problem.
Manly also scored two tries that underscored the challenge of playing Hodgson and Starling together. On one Joey Tapine made his only error of the match, going low on Haumole Olakau’atu, losing his legs, and leaving Starling, and then Xavier Savage to get steamrolled. Hodgson was slow coming across too on Moses Suli’s outside-in line, and when Harawira’s arm tackle slapped off the big man, a try resulted. In an ideal world you’d have one of Williams, Hodgson and Starling in a defensive line.
But there were good things to see in defence too. The middle held strong in the large part, though this was likely helped by the weight of possession. The left side held remarkably strong in the absence of Wighton and Whitehead. Jarrod Croker had a couple of smart defensive plays, such as a powerful read to come in on Olakau’atu early in the game and bring him down close to the line. Hudson Young was back at his stable best, and he’ll be pushing Harawira-Naera if his defence doesn’t improve.
Stuart also mostly got his rotations right. Bringing Starling on early and keeping him there was the right decision. It was the perfect game for Starling to play big minutes and it was pleasing that he finally got down first half minutes. With the Raiders pack dominating he could run at will, and with the simple game plan there was no pressure on him to create for others around the ruck (though he tried with some success). He brought Tapine on when Dunamis Lui departed early in the game, providing impetus to a pack that had been in a battle to that point. And Sticky brought early rotations in the second half to ensure that the energy never dropped. I would have liked to see Sia Soliola and Ryan James used more, but the weight of possession meant Canberra didn’t have to go to their bench for major input beyond Tapine and Starling.
A word too on Xavier Savage. He had a tough introduction into first grade, routinely struggling to match the physical prowess of those opposite (such as when he was steamrolled on the Olakau’atu try). But he was safe under the high ball, and was given rare chances in space in attack due to the game plan. Unfortunately for him he dropped the ball in the tackle on one, and unsuccessfully grubbered for himself late. It was pleasing to him continually take on the line and as the game wore on he became more effective with his carries. He’ll need to put on weight, but Canberra should be careful to do so while maintaining his speed. That’s his comparative advantage, and one that he’ll use to great effect over the coming year.
This win wasn’t a win that the Canberra should try to replicate in terms of tactics. This isn’t a game plan that will work other nights. Even this plan wouldn’t work against this Manly side in a weeks time with Tommy T and DCE in tow. The Raiders still need to find a way to utilise their edges, and their outside backs more effectively. they need some penetration, and some cohesion outside the middle third in order to score points against better teams. And they can’t hope that every team they face will so starved of possession that their right side defence can escape with minimal damage as they did in this game. But they need to replicate the effort, the resilience and the willingness to scrape a victory together, however the circumstances warrant.
This is not a revival, but it can be the start of something better. Thinking about anything beyond this week is a fools game, but you can’t build a garden without planting seeds. The Raiders needed to prove to themselves that last week was the aberration, and while they may not be anything remotely approaching their best, they have the will and the resilience to face their problems and try to get better. Like Erica Savage said, the only way to face tough times is to keep your chin up and your heart full. This week, Canberra did that.