It was about as pretty as the artwork one creates on porcelain after a heavy night out, but Canberra’s 20-12 victory was hard-won and necessary. The Raiders battled themselves and their opposition to a standstill, managed to win a few key moments, and that was enough. There’s tougher days ahead, and they’ll need to be worlds better to win in the coming weeks, but this victory keeps them alive for now.
Both sides came into this game needing a victory to have any realistic chance of playing finals footy this year. The Raiders have the Storm, Sea-Eagles and the Roosters in the next few weeks, and the Dragons similarly find themselves preparing to face the biggest names in the competition. If either was to put pressure on the fringe-dwellers of the 8, winning this game would be a big part of it. Their opposition was without Ben Hunt, prominently featured Corey Norman, and lost a starting centre within a minute of kick-off. It should have been easy, but well, you know, 2021.
Perhaps because of the stakes both sides adopted a very tight approach, striving to play through the middle before doing anything fancy like letting the backs touch the ball in space. The two packs battled to a standstill, basically earning the same amount of metres (1476 for the Dragons to 1421 for Canberra) on the same amount of completed sets. The Raiders had more post contact metres, but these two packs were in an arm wrestle all game that no one ever won. Josh Papalii (13 for 113m) and Joe Tapine (15 for 125m) both cracked 100m, but no other Canberra forward did, and it took more big efforts from the backs – Jordan Rapana (163m) Matt Timoko (134m) and Semi Valemei (163m) all clearing 100 metres on the ground.
The Raiders were again physical in defence. This has been the biggest turnaround of recent weeks, but their ability to maintain line-speed and force of contact is a big part of their more successful recent period. This has clearly been a strategy – stopping teams from getting quick rucks by making sure you win tackles with initial contact. It was team wide, and everyone was in on it. As the the Raiders wrested control of the game in the second half it was on the back of continuously winning contact against a Dragons team that was losing the poke it had shown early in the game. Instead Canberra were dominant, and managed the game through their defensive prowess, forcing errors, keeping the Dragons in their own end, and barely being tested as the game wore on.
Of course, this was not flawless. Despite the efforts in the middle, the Raiders edges lacked cohesion and the connection and trust required to be an effective defensive weapon. Four line breaks were made by the opposition, all in the first half, and all against the more experienced personnel on the right. Hudson Young, Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker, all playing on Canberra’s left, were all over the shop early. One break came around the outside when Josh Hodgson was inexplicably outside Croker and Zac Lomax took advantage. A try came when Hudson read it and Jack didn’t, Adam Clune strutted through and momentum took Tariq Sims over (despite an incredible recovery from Young). Another break came when Hudson pushed out and Jack read in. On all occasions it felt like communications issues between players that are used to other people being around them. The other Dragons points were resultant from similar communications issues on the right, with Sam Williams reading in, Matt Timoko making his move too late and Harley Smith-Shields being stuck looking silly as a result.
But the Raiders cleared this up. They were untroubled in defence the longer the game wore on. At one point in the second half the Saints spent the best part of 10 minutes camped on the Raiders line. On occasion they pushed with momentum and tested the line, but the Milk never looked like breaking. The middle kept pushing up and taking space away from the opposition ball players, the edges picked their battles better, and the Raiders held on with relative ease. There were a lot of good performances through this little period. Elliott Whitehead made a crucial covering tackle. Tom Starling brought down Jake DeBelin at the line with a head of steam (with a little help from Rapana). Young made several important tackles on the goal-line, making up for the earlier issues.
But for me the most noteworthy efforts came from Matt Timoko and Jordan Rapana. Timoko rarely looked rattled in this period, remained remarkably patient as the Dragons kept coming left to try and target Sam William’s outside shoulder. Rapana was also astounding, operating almost exclusively in the defensive line on the goal-line, and making critical tackles around the ruck, and still managing to get clean up kicks and provide other defensive support and organisation.
The Raiders defence had to be good because the offence was staid, conventional and error-ridden. Even with a conservative approach they still found way too many errors (12 in total – a number normally insurmountable). Too many errors came off their own line, and they even extended the time the Dragons spent on their goal line with ill-discipline. They never pushed wide of the ruck coming out of trouble, and never generated the ruck speed to properly shift and give players like Young or Timoko the early ball necessary to test the edges at pace. When on occasion the Milk did, the attack felt more open with opportunity, but these moments were rare.
The redzone attack plodded like a drunk through mud. Their three tries were almost mistakes. On the set leading up to the first try, Sam Williams turned forwards back towards the middle on three separate occasions, rather than shift the ball at all. In the end Josh Hodgson played blind side on the last to Elliott Whitehead, whose grubber sat up and was expertly knocked back by Harley Smith-Shields into Rapana’s waiting arms. The second try came after an unthreatening attacking set ended with a good kick that Jack Wighton plucked out of the air. The final try came when Starling picked the ball up after a snail-paced ruck, ran at the weakside A, B and C defenders, and for some reason they decided not to tackle him. It was bizarre.
It’s not something that felt sustainable. Wighton was better than he has been in recent weeks, engaging the line more, testing the line with his feet, as well as ball-playing in the line. If Lomax hadn’t coat-hangered him in the second half he may have scored such was the head of steam he had. He got outside Lomax on one occasion, and put Jarrod Croker in a bit of space with smart ball-play in the line on another. But he still felt like he was feeling around for answers and searching for form. He made a couple of poor mistakes (such as passing to a confused Young standing in the blind on the last, or grubbering dead by about 20 metres on another set) and spent too much time catching the ball outside with limited space to create. The other players responsible for scoring points were also of marginal impact. Sam Williams offered little in attack other than his boot. Tom Starling ran well but offered little else to draw attention. Josh Hodgson had the least involvement in a game he’s probably had in Canberra (he only had 49 possessions, including just 11 touches in the second half). Rapana also had few attacking opportunities.
What the Raiders did here best was not panic. Their defence was holding, and while they couldn’t create points, they kept kicking themselves out of trouble and into better position. Both Wighton and Williams kept finding grass with their kicks, and the Raiders enthusiastic chase meant that the Dragons had to constantly work off their own line. The Milk then battered them into submission. It wasn’t pretty, it won’t beat many other teams, but it was necessary in this game, and without fluidity or flourish, the Raiders ground their way to victory.
It worked in this game, but Canberra will need something else in the coming weeks. After all we’ve seen recently it would take a brave person to suggest the Raiders are ready to do anything to trouble the top sides they’ll face from next week. They won’t get many tries like they did in this game against the elite sides of the competition. Their defence, their resilience, and their patience, which have all so improved since the nadir of the season, are enough to beat the mid-range of the competition, but to compete at the top they’ll need to find something with more engagement, more fluidity and more creativity to find points.
The good thing about this victory is that we know they get a chance. A loss here and from next week the season would have been academic. This victory was necessary to push that precipice out a little bit further, to buy some time to find that fluidity and consistency, particularly in attack. It may never come, and Canberra may play out the year in search of a cohesion and dynamism they couldn’t find at any point this season. But if they can replicate it in coming weeks, showing a willingness to fight is proof that while 2021 has all the charm of roadkill, this side is keen to prove their worth, and capable of building something more substantial in the future.