The Canberra Raiders’ 28-16 victory was ostensibly over the New Zealand Warriors, but really Canberra overcame themselves. They overcame their handling errors, defensive malpractice and poor choices in attack, and found a way to let their best selves rise. By getting out of their own way they turned 16-0 deficit into 28 unanswered points and a serving of that most dangerous and addictive drug, hope.
It shouldn’t have been such a chaotic mess. For the entirety of the eighty minutes the Canberra pack smashed their opposition through the middle. The Raiders outgained New Zealand by 600 odd metres, and this was built on the back of a bruising performance through the middle third. Josh Papalii (14 for 140m, 66pcm) bent the line on every single carry, and even though he had a single offload for the game, that arm terrified the Warriors on every carry, lest it get free. Joe Tapine (15 for 183m, 81pcm) was maybe even better. Every single run ended with him between defenders as they scrambled to bring him down. Late footwork in the line just broke the hearts of the defenders, and Tapine would keep going for metres after contact, even with hands still on him. The two of them tilted the game whenever they were on the field.
And while in many previous outings the stand-out performances have been limited to these two players, give or take a Sutton, the rest of the pack chipped in. Hudson Young (21 for 196m, 63pcm) was the standout and got through a mountain of dirty work, that right arm being more of a jab than a fend. As important as the pack was the work of the backs through the middle in exit sets (and beyond). Jordan Rapana had 277 odd of the angriest metres you will see, hunting people to run into, bounce off, and move past. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (16 for 167m) looked like he was back to his best, manoeuvring through the defence like a rally car. And the ‘rookies’ got in on the action with both Harley Smith-Shields (11 for 123m) and Matt Timoko (14 for 138m) making incisive and important runs. The sheer dominance of these combinations in the middle provided a pathway for everyone else to follow and even players who had less stellar nights found metres.
It allowed Canberra to play with a pace not seen often this year. They were hitting the ball at pace, attacking the defence and shifting with ease and space. They should have been able to punish the Warriors weak middle defence. They should have been able to test the edges more than they did. They should have found life easier than having to dig themselves out of a 16-0 hole. It shouldn’t have been that hard, and that dramatic.
They put themselves squarely in that hole. It wasn’t through a lack of effort but rather a failure to execute basic skills. A lot of handling errors were made. Sometimes it was coming out of their own area – like Tapine, Horsburgh and Hodgson all did. Sometimes it was in good field position – like Sutton, Guler, Horsburgh and Wighton (with an assist from Timoko) did. Sometimes it directly led to points. Bailey Simonsson failed to defuse a kick he would normally handle with ease, and it resulted in the Warriors second try. Seb Kris did similar, bafflingly butchering a kick that resulted in a try and put the Raiders on the precipice of disaster. Sometimes it led to what should have been points but the Warriors couldn’t quite manage. They also mixed in some poor defensive efforts. The most galling of these was Hodgson and Sutton’s defensive failings at marker on the first set. Their initial forays into attack were too conservative, playing to Sticky’s fading game plan. Hodgson played (too) tight early, Frawley felt intent on proving he could engage the line at the expense of the talent outside him, and Jack insisted on find the wrong choice in nearly every situation. So while they gifting possession, position and points at one end, they were unable to muster anything to mitigate their frivolity at the other.
And so that’s how it got 16 points to the bad guys. It was not New Zealand’s doing. Canberra simply were digging the grave for their 2021 season, and the opposition were just watching. When they started playing with a modicum of direction and discipline it emerged just how dominant the middle was. They could move with pace, change the point of attack with ease and shift with a relative fluidity. It was almost cohesive. How very un-2021.
Canberra’s first try came by wearing down a defence through the middle, and then hitting the right at pace. When Hodgson isolated Charnze on Sean O’Sullivan the crash-ball try had come from one end of the field to the other on the same possession without offering anything dramatic. The next three tries expanded on this formula. All came by winning the middle and then punishing the Warriors right edge defence. To open the second half they went 60 metres without going more than a pass wide of the ruck. Following up with physical defence meant the next set started at the forty. The back three tore up the middle for easy metres, allowing the Raiders to shift one way, and back to the other for a well worked try. The third try followed the tenor if not the blueprint. Papalii, Tapine and Nicoll-Klokstad providing the grunt up the middle, dragged the defence in, and then the Milk shifted around with relative ease to tie the scores. With moments to go in the game (and when they should have been working for a field goal) the pattern went Horsburgh, Nicoll-Klokstad, Tapine, Young, Papalii, before the shift around the Warriors right won the day.
It was an impressive reversal, but one that felt rooted in the dominance of the middle. Canberra dominated that the entire game, but their own mistakes stopped them from taking advantage. As soon as they found a way to not get in their own way, they found themselves in a much stronger position that their opposition, and with a little patience, 16 points didn’t feel enough to win the game.
This dominance reversed all the foibles of the first half and revealed some pleasing aspects. Hudson Young revealed some impressive ball-playing instincts, rarely used before this game. In particular, his willingness to hold the ball up perfectly, setting Wighton up for a 3 on 2 was impressive. On the game winning try he took a dead ball into the line, hit his defender with an in-and-away, drew the outside defender in, putting Seb Kris in a position to set Rapana free down the sideline. It was positively Bateman-esque (the English Bateman, not the handsome Queenslander). Jack Wighton had some of his best involvement this season on these tries. On the second try he held the ball up exquisitely before hitting Nicoll-Klokstad out the back. His pass to Rapana to set up the third try was as perfect as it was flat. He’s seemed happier in recent weeks ball-playing at the line. Sometimes it hasn’t come off, but the Raiders have looked impervious when it has.
On the other side of the ground, Matt Timoko was brilliant again, and that he and Harley Smith-Shields are already so important to Canberra speaks to their talent and makes one wonder what took so long to get them in first grade regularly. In between it all Nicoll-Klokstad has brought a ball-playing game back from his time away. He looks comfortable and made several good pass (such as picking out Kris for a try). His only error in connection was when Frawley served him on a platter to Montoya.
It’s worth considering whether Canberra are beginning to find a bit of a foundation that could be built on into the future. It was the most fluid, cohesive and sustainable attack the Raiders have offered recently, if not this season. For a brief moment (i.e. the last fifty minutes of the game) they found a style of play that they can win with in 2021. If only they’d found in twenty rounds ago. It’s hard to say if its replicable – it’s rare a side will gift the Milk such dominance in the middle from which to branch their attack – but it’s a sign that at least they know what to do.
It’s important to note that despite the up-and-down nature of the game, this wasn’t a game changed by effort. Outside of the opening set, Canberra’s effort could not be questioned. The defense was physical and resolute. Several players made crucial defensive efforts. Papalii saved a certain try when he helped across in cover around a defender (Guler) who was struggling to get to the ball. Tapine made a crucial tackle pushing in and out from the middle on a sweeping movement. Even Hodgson made up for his heinous start late in the game when he pressured Reese Walsh to push the potential winning field goal wide. It’s something Hodgson constantly does to kickers (on field goals or otherwise) and it’s rarely noted, but it’s reflective of a set of players willing to put their whole heart into winning the game. Canberra’s effort was exemplary all game, through physical defence, and through a willingness to push their bodies to make extra plays. It’s just not clear they’ve always got their mind on the job.
In fact, even when they were dominating the last half of the game they were still making dumb errors. Horsburgh’s drops are fine examples, but there were also moments of bizarre strategy. The Raiders gave Rapana a shot at penalty goal from 40 metres out to win the game with minutes to go. That’s a tough kick for Jarrod Croker, let alone his back-up’s backup’s backup. They had a rare chance to work for a field goal with a full set in attack, only Corey dropped the ball on an anodyne tackle on the first ruck of the set. Then with the game on the line and a field goal needed, captain Elliott Whitehead inexplicably shifted the ball to the blind side on the 4th, where Matt Frawley threw it back to the strong side almost in disgust. That the Milk then shifted the ball (Hi Corey) instead of settling for a hit up and a field goal shot was objectively the wrong decision, but it worked out great. Hudson Young’s game-ending try also came off a bomb Matt Frawley didn’t need to kick. It gave the Warriors a chance with the ball, however minute. Again it came off. This wasn’t smart footy, but it was enduring, tireless football, mixed with a bit of skill. And it was enough to keep Canberra’s slim hopes alive in 2021.
Getting carried away about whether any of this is sustainable or repeatable is the domain of a person who hasn’t watched the 2021 Canberra Raiders. This side spent most of this game trying to beat themselves. Lord knows what will happen against a side that will refuse to do that (the Roosters) or god forbid, in a playoff situation. This side is always five minutes from rain and five minutes from sunshine. There’s no point checking the weather. Just pack sunscreen and an umbrella and be done with it.
But hope is a helluva of a drug. Next week brings opportunity. Canberra showed in this game that they have the defensive intensity, the rampaging middles, and the skills in attack to find a way through or around their opposition. But then that isn’t the problem. I’ve no doubt the Raiders can beat the Roosters. It’s whether they can beat themselves. In this game they managed to. After that there’s no guarantees.