The Canberra Raiders lost 40-16 to themselves, the Roosters and anyone else they could gift victory to. With their season in the balance against a quality side they needed to be perfect. Instead they were as flawed as any other week this season. Instead of being able to reign in the game, a better side put them to the sword. It’s cold comfort but sweet relief. Now eyes can turn to 2022, because it can’t be anymore frustrating than this.
There was so much to play for – a finals position was ostensibly the lure, but in addition there was an opportunity to salvage something from a year that should have been killed by the horrors of the mid-season. Canberra had shown courage to drag themselves back to relevance, and had an opportunity to prove themselves worthy finalists. Instead, they showed that their collapse after the Panthers game was every bit a part of them as their better play towards the end of the season was.
There was no issue with effort but there was with discipline. Canberra never took a backwards step – unless it was to pick up a ball they’d dropped. Handling errors are an odd mixture of focus, technique and luck, and the Raiders had little of any of these. They made six first half errors, handing the Roosters nearly two-thirds of the possession in that stanza, then added nine more for good measure in the second half. Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh came on in the 24th minute of the game, and had one carry between them at half time. It’s hard to beat bad teams when you’re in such a possession deficit, let alone a proper good one like the Roosters.
The errors were goddamn costly. Semi Valemei had one of the most painful efforts since his game in the preliminary final last year. Five errors, two of which cost tries, one of which arguably blew one, and another in which he potentially did both, handling a kick well, looking like he might go the length, slipping, dropping the ball and putting the Roosters on the attack again. The poor kid is developing, and has played football only intermittently this season. No one would benefit more from the return of the NSW Cup and a chance to iron out his issues with catching kicks in relative obscurity. It cost the Raiders at least twelve points in this game directly, and meant that instead of asserting dominance at points, Canberra instead had a gaping wound the Roosters happily jammed their blade into.
Semi had a terrible night, but he wasn’t alone in making glaring handling errors. Every starting back had an error. Sometimes they were from trying to do too much (such as when Matt Timoko skipped to the outside of his defender and was dragged out). Sometimes they were evidence of a still developing game (such as when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad threw a pass arguably to Hudson Young, only no one, including Charnze, was entirely sure. Sometimes it was proof of a team shuffled too much throughout the year with no time to build cohesion (such as when Frawley threw a face ball to Young so late it was nigh on impossible to catch). Other times they were just comical, such as when Jack went to the effort to catch a pass thrown behind him with one hand at speed, only to rifle a pass into the shoes of Harley Smith-Shields. Or when Jack ran to the line and threw the ball in the air like losing a bar of soap.
It ended up being 15 errors, which is too many in my professional opinion. Hell they only completed 20 sets. That’s not a good proportion. In addition the the Green Machine conceded eight penalties (some of which were more deserved than others) and it meant the Roosters had near 80 more runs than the Milk, and they ploughed through near 700 metres more on the ground. Canberra simply put their opposition in the position to succeed, and they needed no further invitation. Great teams can cover a case of the dropsies with impeccable defence but the weakness on the Raiders’ right was exposed by the Roosters. They sliced apart this right side defence, firstly through kicking at Semi, then as the game wore on by targeting Matt Frawley and forcing the rest of the edge defence to save him. Sometimes they did, but too many times they didn’t. Instead points came aplenty.
The second try came when Timoko read in on a well-worked shift. Semi didn’t follow; and so when Angus Crichton got the ball as the second man out the back there was too much space and too many players for Valemei to cover. Adam Keighran scored three times down this edge, once from a sailing kick defusal, but later from the Roosters isolating Frawley in defence and the Raiders not being able to cover. The game breaking try isolated Keighran one-on-one with a back-peddling Frawley. Another try came when Hutchison stepped Frawley and passed inside to Marschke to score. Then Sam Walker came on and went right at Frawley. Timoko backed off to create space to help, Rapana tried to bat-down the a pass, and it still ended up in Rooster hands in the in-goal. In between all this Keighran picked up a try when Rapana rushed out of the line, creating a gap for Tedesco. Timoko did well to run him down, but the cover defence could do little but usher Keighran into the goal-post. Four defenders should have done better.
It was a challenge that they were unable to meet. The Roosters clinically targeted that weakness. They may have had less opportunities to do so had Canberra held the ball, or if they hadn’t given away so many penalties. But it was rampant, and as the game wore on the Milk had little answer.
It’s a shame because despite the scoreline, they were competitive with the Roosters when they had enough ball to maybe not hide their weaknesses, but at least give it a break to recuperate. Their best work happened around the middle. Josh Papalii (13 for 134m and five tackle busts) and Joe Tapine (15 for 168m and 67 post contact metres) were exemplary. They both bent the line at will, carrying defenders for metres in their wake and constantly threatening to offload. Papalii scored, and his offload started the movement that became Canberra’s late try. Tapine felt like he had more than the two offloads recorded. His form at the back half of the year has been outstanding; a return to his 2020 heyday and a promise for better things in 2022. Josh Hodgson was excellent too. With Papalii and Tapine in tow the Raiders rake looked to be manipulating the Roosters’ middle well. He set up Papalii for his try, expertly identifying a target for the big man to hit at the goal-post, allowing Papa to hit and spin without facing cover defence. He put Whitehead in space on the blind in a move that should have resulted in more than just Valemei surrendering the ball to Tupou.
But there was little else of note. Charnze’s offload for Whitehead’s try was an impressive feat of strength. The back three got through excellent yardage work. Both Timoko and Smith-Shields cracked 100 metres on the ground, taking some damaging runs and proving that Canberra has plenty to be excited about with regards to their futures. But too often once it shifted beyond the middle, the plan was little beyond “hit Timoko/Smith-Shields/Young and hope”. Movements went west before north, too often seemed tentative and impatient (a weird mix), and it meant that someone (usually Timoko) would be forced to make something happen in order to crack the opposition line. And they would have needed to do that a lot to make up for the errors, both handling and defensive. This was not successful.
It was frustrating it ended like this. For the seven months of this season Canberra have battled themselves. Sometimes they’ve won, sometimes they’ve lost, but the challenge has always been whether the Raiders could do the right thing first, and then handle what their opposition was doing second. Last week they conspired with their opposition to put themselves in a hole and then climb out of it for fun. This week was like the scene in fight club where the narrator first fights Tyler Durden. We thought we were watching a team battle with the devil opposite, when instead the whole time they’d been beating themselves to a pulp, with stunned onlookers gawking at the spectacle. The Sydney Roosters ostensibly won this game, but they were bit players in this destruction.
All that’s left is to let 2021 go. The Canberra boys gave their all. There was no shame in their effort. But their execution was terrible, a mix of ineptitude and bad luck brought them to a spot they couldn’t recover from. One might wonder if they were trying too hard in recent times, and it impacted their ability to perform. But even that is reflective of a different problem created by their own sword. Goodnight, sweet princes, you cannot hurt yourselves anymore. The battle of 2021 is lost and now it’s time to rest. But hopefully not too long, because the challenge of 2022 starts soon.