The Canberra Raiders 26-16 loss to the Melbourne Storm was torrid and frustrating. It was a physically brutal game, one that saw the Raiders match the intensity and physicality of the competition leaders, just not their execution. Ultimately the difference between the two sides was the Storm’s focus on exploiting Canberra’s weaknesses, and the Milk’s inability to overcome them.
This wasn’t so much a must win for the Green Machine but a ‘show us what you have’. After winning four out of five, hope, that dastardly and beautiful thing, was sending ‘u up?’ texts to Raiders fans everywhere. Nothing in the last few weeks had been easy, but the Milk had showed they had the the heart, if not the style and execution, to take the last spot in the playoffs. The Storm were riding on a wave of victories, and were expected to roll over their opposition by everyone except the hardiest Canberra fans and people paid to promote the game.
The Storm played with a simple game plan. Punch at the Raiders right edge and the middle, drag the defenders all towards the right edge, and swing back to give Hughes and Hynes, and the runners they brought with them the chance to test the Raiders left edge defence in space. Canberra could have stopped this at three points. The middle never got a handle on the Storm attack. The pace at which they play, and their willingness to shift the ball, forcing those middles to move across, cover for edges, and generally make effort play after effort plays, put so much pressure on them, and had them redlining from fifteen minutes into the game. The effort was there from these defenders – on one play Josh Hodgson covered for an error the A defender on the strong side by tearing across from the weakside A to make one of his 48 tackles. It wasn’t an isolated play, and was indicative of the effort these defenders were putting in. They kept coming, and kept hitting hard,
But the Storm middles rolled. Jesse Bromwich, Brandon Smith and Christian Welch all cracked an efficient 100 metres on the ground (124m, 125, and 145m respectively). The Raiders did their best, and kept tackling with vicious intent throughout the game, but defensively the battle was tough. It wasn’t so much missed tackles, because the middle was getting a body in the way, it’s more that to control the ruck they needed a near perfect tackle. Otherwise Melbourne found their belly, or an offload, and the test continued.
This had two profound effects. First it meant that the middle was cooked and this cost points. It did so directly, such as when Joe Tapine, Sia Soliola and Hodgson were all so cooked after making tackles through the middle, helping across to the Raiders’ left after a break, then having to cover again when second-phase play brought the ball back to the middle. Tapine never got off his man to help in. Hodgson, who had helped across from three defenders wider almost stopped in stride like a car running out of petrol. And Soliola folded on the spot like a powered-down robot as Chris Lewis ran through the exact spot he was meant to be. They did eventually get to a more even standing – not in the least when Ryan Sutton came on – but the middle was chasing the whole game. This meant the defence always felt like it was only just hanging on, even though they kept Melbourne try-less for the last sixty minutes of the game.
This also meant that on each of the Storm’s successful shifts, there was a tendency for the middle defenders to leave an acre of space for their playmakers to work in. On the short side, it meant that often Matt Timoko was one-on-one with Cameron Munster or Justin Olam. He was cold beaten a few times, but did admirably well to keep his powder dry for the most part. Only one try came down that edge, and that was after the right edge handled a shift towards them easily, only for Jordan Rapana at the A gap show why he’s a temporary fullback and overrun the play as Brandon Smith rolled it. As the game wore on Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields felt more and more comfortable on that edge together, and handled a series of raids with aplomb, not in the least when Smith-Shields took on the Foxx one-on-one and took him into touch (which made up for his penalty in a similar situation in the first half which gave the Storm the attacking set that became their first try).
The left side though struggled having to keep such as dynamic attack in check in so much space, particularly through the first quarter of the game. The Storm repeatedly got around the Raiders, once around the outside of Jarrod Croker, on another around Jack Wighton. The Milk were routinely stripped for numbers by the aforementioned pressure on the other part of the ground, and it put this edge in constant array. Players had to make critical covering tackles, and when they didn’t (such as when both Jack and Jarrod missed ball-runners before the Storm’s third, or when Rapana’s covering tackle on Hynes came up with nothing but air on the opposition’s second), points resulted. More than once Wighton jogged behind the play. More than once help defence from inside made covering tackles Jack could have made but didn’t. It was disappointing to see and stood out given the courageous, if ineffective efforts around him.
This constant battle to keep their opposition in check sapped the Raiders strength, and matched with the ferociousness of this game, it’s hard not to see that fatigue in some of the errors that followed in their play. Sam Williams dropped the ball cold twice, as did Timoko (once in the act of trying to score what would have been a significant try). Josh Hodgson skewed one kick from dummy-half so poorly that even Wighton was shocked. He added two high tackles (one of which became two points after following a similar penalty against Sam Williams) which to me were borne from arms trying to do the work tired legs couldn’t handle. Wighton failed to find touch on a penalty late in the game when the Raiders could have pushed for the tying points. He also kicked on first tackle for Bailey Simonsson (I guess) when Canberra had a minute left before halftime and good field position. It got a repeat set, but essentially meant they only had two tackles to attack instead of six. And it all culminated in Corey Harawira-Naera’s high tackle on Jahrome Hughes that ended the game. We won’t be seeing Corey for a while. It was standard 2021 Canberra fare. Too often they couldn’t get out of their own way.
It was a shame because in attack they played some enterprising football that may have been more successful against a less disciplined defence. Again the middle never quite got a roll on – the back three almost had as many metres (378) as all middle forwards (379) combined, including Hodgson and Tom Starling. The Storm outgained the Raiders by 300 plus metres (the difference coming in the first half) despite post contact metres being practically even. It was always harder for the Milk in the middle.
Instead Canberra really hit the edges. When they went left, Hudson Young (9 carries for 110m and 11 tackle breaks) was the focal point. On the right, Matt Timoko (13 for 147m and 5 tackle breaks) was effective, constantly putting pressure on the Melbourne left edge to make tackles in space. Both created problems that Canberra was unable to take as much advantage of as they should have. Elliott Whitehead (10 for 114m) also helped on both edges, swinging from the right to left side when Jarrod Croker left under the Head Injury Protocol.
This was a fine plan, and it definitely was an effective way to get metres on a defence that wasn’t giving much space in the middle. Too often though it put the ball in the hands of people who’s job it isn’t to create (Young and Timoko) in situations that needed creativity. Too often the Milk saved Jack’s involvement for red zone only, and he was instead lurking out the back of Young hoping for an offload (in fairness Young had two) rather than getting the ball in space and tearing towards the line. It was a missed opportunity in my view, and continued the confusing trend to get Jack the ball at the width of a traditional centre, rather than closer to the ruck. I worry it limits the space in which he can play.
Wighton did however look terrific in close quarters. He finished with three try-assists, two of them mirror-image cut-out passes to Bailey Simonsson. One the first, Hodgson sent a lovely ball twenty metres to put Williams outside his defender, who fed Wighton. The second was early in the second half, the only difference was Hodgson’s excellent pass was thrown from first receiver instead of the ruck. Both situations Wighton made the perfect read, and threw passes that gave me that feeling where you wonder if you can be attracted to a pass. The only issue was that for the rest of the game he threw variations on the theme, only the Storm defence decided to hold their width. More variety is needed, but it was pleasing to see some improvement. It was also pleasing to see a Raiders first receiver engage the line as Hodgson did. It’s been rare to see this season from the normal halfbacks.
But this was not enough, and Canberra wasted too many possessions. One a rare redzone set they shifted too early, and Young was cramped for space trying to force a pass to Simonsson when the Raiders could have scored. On others Wighton went too early (and too loopy) sending the ball to Simonsson, who had no space to work and a defender in his face the second he caught the ball. He went from only playing short in recent weeks to only playing long. Obviously finding the right choice here is a work in progress.
Outside of giving Timoko early ball, they had little impact on the right-hand side. Sam Williams is a handy player, and he by no means had a bad game, but he’s not a threat to the line on the right, and teams are too happy to slide off him, sometimes before he’s even gotten rid of the ball. They must find a way to keep defences honest on that side (it may come with rumours of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s return and some hard run lines on his inside shoulder). Too often they got to the last and bombed, which surprisingly worked a lot (such as for their third try, and for Timoko’s blown effort) but it felt like this was kick and hope more than targeted work. It probably would not have been so successful if not for Rapana’s rampant desire to pressure the catcher or knock back the pass. Partly this was because they were constantly fighting to get into a position to attack, partly due to lack of variety in their thinking.
It was simultaneously a frustrating and heartening loss. The best team in the competition by Emma McKeon levels of magnitude, and Canberra pushed them the whole way, despite a substantially outgained, exhausted and hanging on for large periods by their fingernails. Hell, they kept the most point-scoring offence in history to penalty goals for sixty minutes. How can you not be impressed, whatever the circumstances? Before this game I would have taken a moral victory. Now it’s passed midnight and I won’t be able to sleep for ages because I’ll be thinking about every error and what could have been. Bring this level of play against most other sides in the competition and they would win – which makes it so much more disappointing the season is in the hole it’s in.
It was a messy game, but this Canberra side doesn’t do clean and classy. After being unable to find a way to be slick, they’ve turned to gritty, and it’s pleasing in a sense. They’ve shown that while they aren’t perfect, have several key players out of form and haven’t probably got an ill-matched roster in terms of compatibility to Vlandoball and each other, they’ve decided they’re simply going to outwork other teams. The Raiders probably not even fit enough to do this, but they’re trying anyway. It’s their best shot. One on hand Stuart has made an error well prior to this game in terms of how this team has been structured and how it plays. On the other he must be applauded to have a team that nearly fell apart in May and June drag itself off the mat, willing to claw at the face of the cream of the competition for a chance to play in September.
If you were simply taking this game, and the effort, and extrapolating it over the next few weeks I’d put money on Canberra making the finals and even pushing into the second week. But that’s been the thing about this season, and the flaws of this team. Sometimes the effort disappears for a second, and the flaws open up like gaping sores. It’s hard to know what’s coming against Manly and beyond. The Milk could make the finals. They could also not win another game. Neither scenario would surprise me.