The Canberra Raiders 34-18 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was brutal. They beat the Sharks to a pulp in the middle and both edges, before unleashing the rare talent of Xavier Savage in space. That the score was close for much of the game speaks more to the flaws that still exist in the Raiders play, and in their game plan. Two wins in a row is worth savouring, but there’s little time to do so and much improvement to make if the Milk are planning on going on a hot streak through the back half of the year.
The absolute chaos of this week, this season, and just life in general made predictions for this round hard. Adapting to playing in front of sparse crowds, in a stadium that’s no one’s home (maybe not even the Titans) would be a profound mental challenge. Add to that the carnage this season has wrought on the Raiders and it felt like a spiritual one too. But they only had two players backing up from mid week origin, and a nine day turnaround from their last game, a win. They’ve had such advantageous circumstances before this season and turned them into nothing. After last weeks victory there was a want to hope, but also a knowledge it was just as likely to all fall apart. Again.
We needn’t have worried. The Raiders smashed the Sharks both through the middle and on the edges. Up the guts they ran hard, won quick rucks and offloaded – a season high 21 times. It created a lot of space for Canberra to play. They hit edges, getting Corey Harawira-Naera and Hudson Young early ball to run at the diminutive Sharks halves. The Milk hit these three points across the park interchangeably, working between the middle and the two edges with such confidence it was confusing as to why they haven’t used this approach more. Unlike previous weeks, where winning the middle has been the start of everything for Canberra, this approach created a much more symbiotic relationship across the park. Did the middle open up space for the edge forwards? Or did the broken defensive line caused by the brilliant edge running create quick rucks and easy metres for the middle men? In truth it was both.
Harawira-Naera was stunning, punching a hole in the line on every carry (nearly, he had 12 tackle breaks on 14 carries for 143m). He had seven offloads, and while only one directly led to a try (the first of the game), the omnipresence of this option harried the Sharks’ defence and created space for Xavier Savage to run. Hudson Young (12 for 127, 9 tackle breaks, 1 line break, 2 offloads) was no slouch either, running with such brutality that Shaun Johnson began to simply opt-out in defence. His try in the second half was his easiest carry of the night, as the defence took everyone but him on a sweep movement. In the middle Emre Guler (16 for 151m and Ryan Sutton (14 for 120m) were strong, and Joe Tapine (9 for 100m and 3 offloads) built on last week’s brilliance with another good effort off the bench. Josh Papalii only played 33 minutes, but still managed to start a try with one of his two offloads, and generally looked damaging whenever he touched the ball. The back five also played a role in this, supporting the middle with tough yardage carries. Only Jarrod Croker (8 for 86m) had less than 100 metres for the game, and Semi Valemei (13 for 171m) and Jordan Rapana (19 for 182m) were both powerful carrying the ball in exit sets.
On the back of all this they unleashed Xavier Savage (16 carries 246m, 63 post contact, 9 tackle breaks, 2 line breaks, 2 offloads and a try), making all watching realise they believed in love and humanity and the potential of us all finding a collective truth in the swerving run of a 19 year old football player. It was exhilarating to see but a momentary realisation of his unending talent. He invigorated the Raiders attack, and either working off Harawira-Naera’s offload, or as a second man on rightward sweeping movements, he offered an agility and a pace through the line that Cronulla’s defenders were helpless to corral. He created the Milk’s second try (scored by Jack Wighton) by taking a Papalii offload and tearing a hole in the middle of the Shark defence like it was the space-time continuum, as well as playing a role in the first. On so many other occasions he created a spark that has rarely been part of the Canberra attack this year. Andrew Voss in commentary said “a star is born”. I’m too broken to print the shirts yet, but if Savage didn’t make you feel something in your soul in this game, then check your pulse, because your heart’s not beating.
In the end the Raiders outgained their opposition by near 500 metres, broke 61 goddamn tackles and basically destroyed the integrity of the opposition defence. The only problem was despite this dominance in the middle, in the edges, and through the work of Savage, Canberra came away with only 22 points until the Sharks decided comedy was the best medicine at the end of the game. This was a reflection of where Canberra is. The work of the pack, the back five and Savage meant Canberra were always making it into foreign territory. But the creative players were unable to capitalise on that position as much as one would hope. That occurred for several reasons.
For starters the conservative game plan they have used all season wasn’t abandoned in this game, just amended. The Raiders took penalty goals on two occasions when there wasn’t really a strong case to. The repeat sets of last week were gone like a fever dream. Only one came, from Jack Wighton, and I can only remember one other attempt to put the ball in the in-goal by a Raider. The desire to punch a back into the corner on the last rather than grubber for a repeat returned, though one must wonder how often it’s an ‘over’ call from the back. It wasn’t helped with handling errors by Jack and Hodgson in good field position.
While Canberra travelled up the field with ease, once they got into the redzone, they played with no precision and no structure. Their lone try that started in the redzone came from Harawira-Naera taking a cornered shift back against the grain, standing in a tackle, throwing a miracle ball which eventually ended up in Jordan Rapana’s hands, who beat two defenders to score. It’s hardly the stuff of replicable legends. Too often they played sideways, with not enough engagement of the line. Sometimes that was a function of hitting the edge runners with early ball, but too often they were still stuttering in their movements and they ran out of space when they tried to play structured ball. Only once did they get close to scoring on structured play, and it ended with Semi Valemei being forlornly pushed into touch as he tried a miracle grounding.
Defensively the Raiders built on the pressure their attack wrought. They continually won the battle for position on the back of this, and often used it to make the Sharks kick from disadvantageous positions. They were physical for the entirety of the game, as evidenced by them scoring two tries in the last ten minutes of the game directly from forcing errors when the Sharks had the ball. Young and Harawira-Naera were both excellent in defence too, routinely shifting between helping the middle handle quick rucks or shifting out to protect the more vulnerable defenders outside them. Harawira-Naera had a brilliant try saver late in the first half too. The outside backs made several good defensive efforts, and in particular its worth noting Jarrod Croker did a surprisingly good job keeping the much bigger Jesse Ramien in check.
This good defensive effort made the three tries conceded all the more infuriating. The lack of threat that the Sharks’ middle offered meant that the Raiders had to escort the Sharks up the field to score. On the first try it came from a failed strip by Ryan Sutton (six again), and a handful of set restarts to bring the Sharks into scoring range. The second required Semi getting taken into touch catching a bomb. The third came when Canberra backed off on the last expecting a kick, and the Sharks took their chances. Each try revealed a weakness in Canberra’s defence we’ve seen before. Jesse Ramien cut back against a line that wasn’t moving up as quick as it should’ve been, and Tapine’s effort wasn’t a forceful as it needed to be. On the second Wighton didn’t trust Young to get across to Shaun Johnson, and the Raiders numbers were out as a result. Semi jammed in and didn’t clean up the ball, which happens too often. On the third, Kris got caught between helping Sam Williams on his inside shoulder, and Connor Tracey on his outside.
Regardless, it was Canberra’s best performance in some time. For possibly the first time this year they were dominant for the entire game, and even when things got close it felt like they had more points in them, and would be able to hold their opposition when needed. The Milk got stunning performances from players not necessarily considered ‘stars’, and continued good efforts from players they expect them from. It showed there’s an upside to this team that perhaps still can be reached. Last week we said that game plan wouldn’t work on better sides. This week’s approach is closer to what’s needed to beat the good teams they’ll face in the coming weeks. But the ability to shift between the two showed a flexibility that hasn’t felt present since early in the year. The Raiders will need to be able to win in different ways over the coming weeks, particularly if either Wighton or Savage succumbs to the injuries suffered in this game.
The hole they’ve created over these few months will take a fair bit of digging to get out of but the last few weeks have showed the Raiders are willing to try. It may ultimately be for nought – their run to the finals is tough, they could be missing key players, and in all likelihood they’ll have to do it almost exclusively away from Canberra. But the road back to relevance has to be paved with victories like this.