In their 34-24 loss to the Newcastle Knights the Canberra Raiders surrendered meekly. After achieving in recent weeks despite their flaws, in this game they fully embraced them, allowing an equally limited opposition to open them up with precision. Despite all they had to play for, Canberra capitulated with little resistance. The season isn’t over, but hoping for anything more than ‘also-ran’ status is a fools errand.
The Raiders really should have come into the game all guns blazing. After three wins on the trot the Raiders were within striking distance of relevance. They’d proven they were capable of beating good teams. They’d had an age since the last game – some nine days plus the chaos of Saturday – to recover and prepare for this game. Their opposition was essentially marked as dead man walking after a series of inept losses. This game was so obviously critical in terms of Canberra’s final hope; a four-point game to jolt them into the top 8 and put fear in the back of the mind of the Eels, Roosters and Sea Eagles. Yet for all this they turned up with the intensity of koala on a eucalyptus bender.
It started with middle defence, because that’s where most of their problems start. The Knights had simple plan – punch through the middle then shift to hit the Raiders’ right edge. The Milk played their part by being unable to corral the big Newcastle forwards. The line-speed and physicality, so proudly prevalent in recent weeks was particularly absent in the first twenty minutes. The Saifiti brothers and Sauaso Sue found quick rucks as defenders gave them too much space. So often Canberra middle defenders somehow got isolated without help. Tackles weren’t really missed here, but rather ineffective, and the Newcastle middles were able to roll. No middle defender was adequate, and notably Hudson Young was removed after 20 minutes and wouldn’t have come back if not for Corey Harawira-Naera getting the hook with fifteen minutes to go. The decision to bench Josh Papalii is a poor one in hindsight, but one I didn’t question before the game. Papa has had success providing impetus through the back of the first half. This time it was all too late.
The second part of this plan – to hit the raiders’ right edge – was a glaring success for Newcastle and abject failure for the Raiders. While the middle was losing, it wasn’t collapsing. But it did mean that Kalyn Ponga was able to get early ball, size up Sam Williams and skip to his outside. This forced a decision from the edge defenders, and Seb Kris was exploited too easily. Kris was playing stuck in the mud – halfway between helping in, not quick enough to help out. His trust for Williams in the face of Ponga was (rightly) non-existent, and it meant he kept creeping in, getting beaten outside. Two of the three early tries occurred this way, and five of six overall down this side. Each time the game threatened to get close, the Knights simply got a quick middle, pushed to Ponga to beat Williams, and havoc was the result.
It’s such an obvious flaw in Canberra’s defence. Williams isn’t powerful or quick, and most NRL standard players would back themselves to beat him one on one. It forces the defenders around him to help out, and Kris, while handy face on in contact defensively, lacks the sideways agility to keep up with players like Ponga and Best, as well as the physical strength to use power to make up for his errors. In previous weeks the help has been good enough. This week Kris was hooked at halftime for Timoko – who actually did a pretty good job performing that difficult role. On one effort close to the line he kept Best in front of him while shading in to force Ponga to get rid of the ball. Unfortunately Harley Smith-Shields got trigger happy jamming in at winger and let his man get outside him. Even when Canberra fixed a weakness, another emerged, like a cartoon character trying to plug a leak.
While Kris was poor, Harawira-Naera’s defence on this edge was equally so (and is also a reason why the missed tackles statistic is of limited utility). He provided almost no support for Williams, showed no aggression in defence and was a key contributor (alongside the middle defence) to the space offered to Ponga that allowed him to get outside Williams and force Kris into these difficult decisions. Ultimately he was hooked when he just didn’t tackle Ponga, allowing him a chauffeured run to the line to ice what meagre hopes the Raiders had. And for all this calamity, the success of the Raiders cover defence was nowhere to be seen. Jordan Rapana, Harley Smith-Shields, Kris, and Tom Starling all made the efforts to get into position to stop tries, and often looked like they’d made a big play, only to fall off a tackle at the last second. It wasn’t necessarily their fault, but they got into position, and didn’t complete the task.
Such was the failure of this defence that Canberra were out of the game before they could really even fire a shot. They were down 12-0 by the time they were on their third set and it barely got better from there. The Milk didn’t get the same impetus from the middle their opposition got. Only Josh Papalii (12 carries for 102m) and Joe Tapine (13 for 113m) cracked 100 metres. The entirety of Canberra’s middle rotation (including Hodgson and Starling) barely eclipsed the metre work of the Saifiti brothers and David Klemmer. It meant the backs had to do a lot of work, and yet again Jordan Rapana (26 carries, 193m, 6 tackle breaks) threw himself at the task. Harley Smith-Shields (13 for 118m, 40 post contact), Semi Valemei (17 for 133, 52 post contact) and Jarrod Croker (12 for 110m, 41 post contact) were all willing too. But they were fighting out of difficult spots too often, trying to win a middle that the forwards were unable to.
It meant that Canberra were chasing the game early, and so when they camped on the Knights line and came away with little (thanks to in order of significance: an error by Harawira-Naera, some clunky and uninspired sideways shifting, some poor involvements from Jack Wighton, an inability to win the middle, and a tackle where Hodgson overplayed his hand and nearly got Sam Williams killed), it felt like a big moment. Then Jack gave away a penalty, the Knights swung around Canberra’s right again, before kicking back to the left side where Kurt Mann out-leaped Croker and the Raiders were down 18-0 after as many minutes.
Behind a middle that was dominated it’s perhaps unsurprising that for the most part the Raiders halves offered little, but it’s particularly jarring to see Jack Wighton so quiet. He is clearly a man in search of form, vacillating between being completely uninvolved and trying to do too much. I don’t think this is him not being prioritised – for example, on one play in the first half Hodgson ran sideways from dummy and threw a twenty metre pass in an attempt to get Wighton the ball. Rather he camps so far out on the left edge that it has to hit so many hands before he gets it. I’d love to see him more often at first receiver. When he did get involved he played short to Croker with unflinching regularity. Sometimes it was justified, but more often than not there were options that he should have taken and didn’t (such as passing long – I swear he used to make that pass almost too much, now it’s disappeared). Once a hospital pass to Croker ended a promising raid, when there was Valemei with no one in front of him outside. Another time he kicked for himself on the third tackle, an admission that his decision-making and form were a question he was searching for an answer to. The try he set up for Hudson Young underscored the importance of Elliott Whitehead to Wighton; it was a replay of his misplaced kick for himself, only this time he had a partner in crime, and the only bright moment of Jacks’ day resulted.
Sam Williams and Tom Starling’s impact was hampered too. Both operate in reaction to the game rather than to drive it. Starling is like a sportscar; he’ll never hit full pace behind a pack that isn’t paving a road. Williams too can’t manage a game that Canberra is out of by 18 minutes, and he doesn’t have the creativity or athleticism to turn a game himself. Josh Hodgson had some bright moments, creating one try at first receiver with a beautiful engagement of the line and out ball to put Rapana into a hole that became a Smith-Shields try. Then he set up Guler from dummy-half late for a little bit of too-little too-late goodness. It’s nice to see him comfortable at both hooker and first receiver, and with Jack woefully out of form, his ability to create at both positions becomes even more important. Defensively it’s tough for Canberra to carry him, Williams and Starling at once, but perhaps there’s an alternative that doesn’t involve choosing between him and Tom.
This game fell apart because too many points the Raiders were asking the wrong people to do the wrong jobs, because the people who should have done that job failed. Sam Williams was trying to defend Ponga in space that should have been removed by Harawira-Naera. Seb Kris was having to defend Ponga and Best and ended up doing neither. The backs were doing the jobs of the middles, who were exhausted from defence. Tom Starling was asked to come on and lift the pace, but can’t do so if the middles aren’t making some space for him to run. Josh Hodgson’s creativity took on such great significance because Jack Wighton is so out of form and Sam Williams is Sam Williams.
This was an abjectly depressing performance from the Raiders. They had no excuse. Every was building to this point, and while the situation of the game wasn’t ideal, if anything that had the advantage of plenty of rest leading up to the game. After showing resilience when it seemed like they were done for the season, they capitulated when they finally had earned something to play for. It was frustrating, for us, the players and Coach Stuart (who hooked a middle, a centre and an edge forward all in the one game).
There’s a sad kindness in it though. Another win and Canberra would have been the talk of the town, and we’d all have to start to wonder, you know, if IT was possible. Instead, the Raiders offered us a quiet way out, ghosting on the season like they’d never even fought to get back into it. There’s still hope and the Raiders hilariously sit in 8th position. But with performances like that the situation feels forlorn and unearned. Canberra still have it on their own back to change this, but it’s hard to get excited. The time came for the Milk to stand up and show the competition what they were capable of. They did so, meekly.