In their 19-18 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles the Canberra Raiders were not beaten by a superior side. Rather, they lost because that opposition had a better game plan for targeting their weaknesses, and were merciless in its persecution. The Raiders again were valiant in effort, but again couldn’t get out of their own way, on the field or in the work of those off it. In the end a one point loss was a fitting end for 2021: proof that Canberra are good enough to dance with the top four, but not enough to overcome all the flaws this side has carried all year.
Canberra came into the game into a must win game in a weird position. They’d performed relatively well against the Storm, but injuries meant they had to find some new troops. In a locked-down world this complicates matters because there’s a good chance the people you bring in have barely played in recent times. Manly were without Tommy Trbojevic, which meant they went from being a lightening strike of attack to a klutzy mess of ball runners and people that look like they are really in to rowing (Rueban Garrick I’m looking at you). No side played fluid footy. Instead, they tried to break each other with competing game plans. Canberra’s was more traditional. Punch a hole in the middle, and shift off the back of good rucks. Manly countered with an acknowledgement that their middle forwards are past their best. They hunted the Canberra edges, only ever coming to the middle as a resting point when there wasn’t enough space to get to the other side.
It was a battle early, but slowly Josh Papalii (16 for 135m and 55 post contact metres), Ryan Sutton (16 for 143m and 48 post contact ) and especially Joe Tapine (17 for 173m and 65 post contact) won control. The Green Machine are lucky to have three such brilliant players, who can be so impactful for major minutes across the game – they played 56, 64, and 53 minutes respectively. But Canberra never capitalised on this work while the going was good. There was a range of reasons for this. Despite the metres, offloads were rare (the middle forwards had as many offloads as me tonight). It meant that while they bent their opposition line, they couldn’t break it in the middle. A terrible kicking game meant they never reinforced field position. Jack Wighton nailed the Silvertails’ back three on the chest with such precision one might worry he’ll follow Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt to the AFL. Josh Hodgson went the full Wighton on his only kick early, and it left Sam Williams unthreatening bombs as the ‘best’ of the Raiders efforts for much of the game (although later Jack had some better short kicks, and Hodgson had one gorgeous long kick).
Normally this would be fine. Canberra still had plenty of good ball to shift on the back of. Indeed all their tries came from this. When they pushed to the right the focus was getting ball to Matt Timoko and letting his work. It’s exciting to see him be so successful. 14 runs for 139m and 11 tackle-breaks understates his impact. He was the focal point on the right, and he did it with a halfback that created nothing for him. All he did was his own doing, such as when he put Harley Smith-Shields in with a gorgeous flick pass for the first try. The trust the Raiders have in him was in display on that play. Hodgson played to him on the blind late in the set with relatively even numbers. It was old school BJ Leilua stuff. Get him one on one, let him beat his man and create. I’ll keep it in my pants, but suffice to say, it was pleasing to see. But the other edge was frustrating. Not because of Hudson Young’s performance (13 for 129m, 6 tackle-breaks). He was stunning again, and even chucked in a few moments where he threatened to be a bit more creative. Like Timoko he should be pencilled in to start in the position he played this game for the near future. He was used as the fulcrum at the, with Wighton mostly operating outside him, particularly fond of run-arounds to get there. This continues to fascinate and frustrate.
Canberra seem insistent on simplifying the game for Wighton by getting him the ball wider, reducing his decision tree from short/long/run to run/pass. It creates a problem in attacking movements on that side. It means that someone has to handle the ball at first receiver on any shift to the left. Usually that is Sam Williams, and usually he presents no threat to the line, meaning that even when Wighton gets the ball there’s not a lot of space to operate in. On the one occasion Williams engaged the line, it (along with a good decoy run from Seb Kris) kept the defence occupied long enough that Wighton made a good catch-pass movement to put Bailey Simonsson in. It was a sublime movement, but raised the question why that wasn’t possible at any other point. Partly that’s because Jack can’t pass it to himself, partly it’s because he’s stationed himself out at centre instead of closer to the ruck. It’s a flawed plan that results in their best player hiding out while the game occurs elsewhere.
Defensively Canberra were for the large part very good, but they couldn’t overcome key weaknesses. Sam Williams was just demolished by Moses Suli. Suli had 18 runs for 208 metres and 11 tackle-breaks, and they almost exclusively came from running at Williams. Almost every set the Sea-Eagles had was aimed at getting either him, or Josh Schuster running at the Raiders’ halfback. He was powerless to stop it. Matt Timoko did his best to help – he was jamming in so hard at Suli that he often chased him back towards the middle like an angry dad getting the neighborhood kids off his lawn. But Manly used the play well, repeatedly having Suli run outside in, removing Timoko from the game, and forcing Elliott Whitehead (or whoever had filled in for Smelly after he made a tackle) to cover across against the massive Suli at full force on a slippery service. It was an obvious target from the get go, the Sea-Eagles never let up, and Canberra never came up with a solution.
All their tries started here, even when they didn’t end at that spot. In fact all three tries were scored on the other side of the field, after Manly had powered up the field through the Canberra right. On each the Raiders made an excellent effort to bring Suli down before the ultimate damage was done, but then when the ball shifted they couldn’t recover. Once Jack jammed in on Haumole Olakau’atu, turning a two-man tackle with Hudson Young into a missed effort by him (and a try) just by his lack of body control and patience. Two other tries came from a mix of Manly’s good work and the inauspicious first moments of Nicoll-Klokstad’s return. He dropped a kick return which became the Sea-Eagles second try, and was out-of-position on a grubber, hesitated to clean it up and suddenly
Bailey Paul whichever Sironen was putting the ball down. Maybe Josh Hodgson could have got there first, but he rightly assumed the clean up was the fullback’s job.
Again the Milk lost key moments. After their first try they went error, error, error and Manly should have scored. Nicoll-Klokstad made too many errors in his initial return and they were so costly (though he looked fluid chiming in as a secondary ball player. Hello, is that exciting or what?). Smelly dropped clean ball in attack. Seb Kris panicked in space late in the game. Emre Guler nearly ended the attacking raid that became Canberra’s second try before it began when he dropped the ball in the tackle (and his defence was frustratingly lazy on too many occasions). When push came to shove Cherry-Evans nailed a field goal that the Raiders were too gassed to challenge, and Rapana’s effort to win the game dribbled along the ground as a fitting symbol of the promise, and return, of Canberra’s season.
Some, if not a substantial part of the blame for this, needs to be put at the feet of Coach Stuart. This loss revealed the limitations of his thinking in 2021. The Raiders were gassed for too much of this game because Canberra carried three people on the bench that between them played less minutes that Ryan Sutton. They were so tired at many points and it had real impacts, no more so than the middle being unable to cut down the space that Suli was running into on his forays past Sam Williams. Bringing Matt Frawley on to the field as a straight swap for Williams would have been bizarre on any other day (who carries back up halfbacks?) but on this day the defensive weakness was so pronounced it should have been done earlier. Even when Sticky’s bizarre team selection lucks into working, he can’t get out of his own way.
It is also Stuart that keeps pushing Jack wider and wider, and while it’s made Jack more successful on the stats that people like (four try assists in two games!), it means the rest of the time Sam Williams is ambling across the field like me after leg day. Sam then shifts to the left to play as a link man that nullifies Jack’s success out wide. Moreso the absence of Williams as a creator means that Whitehead has become the default halfback on the right, and while he does it like he does most things (well), it means instead of being a supprotive creator he’s being asked to play a lead role.
Here’s hoping going forward Sticky can at least get the back five right. Playing Rapana in the middle late was not it. Rapa is rad (I mean, if you don’t think I love the guy read this, this, this, this or this) but he’s too excitable to be so close to the attack. At one point late an attacking raid lost momentum because Hodgson had to loop a pass over Rapana to make sure he wouldn’t snaffle it instead of Frawley (and Rapa wouldn’t move when Hodgson told him too). The solution now is simple. Harley Smith-Shields must play his best position (left centre). Seb Kris may have been a mini revelation this year, but it’s clear that he shouldn’t be a starter with the talent on this roster.
This loss is frustrating because yet again Canberra have proven themselves their own worst enemies. There is talent on this roster, and they would give the finals a real shake if they make it. There are green shoots too. The play of Timoko and Young, Nicoll-Klokstad ball-playing, Bailey Simonsson being safe as a house under high kicks and getting through plenty of yardage work, are all things that should make any fan of the Green Machine excited for the years to come. If they had more time, or were better placed, maybe this season could have been something different.
But there’s the rub. They’ve spent so much of the season chasing their own tails that hope is now out of their hands. They have to win out, and make sure other results go in the right direction. It’s not impossible, but put simply, the Milk shouldn’t be in this position. They do however, deserve to be where they are.