The Canberra Raiders’ 32-18 victory over the Sydney Roosters was a heartening start to the season. Even without their stars (and even their backups to their stars) they showed they’d learned some lessons from 2022. In addition, they showed they have some weapons for the future. It’s a good start to 2022, but that’s all it is.
There is a massive caveat about taking too much from this game. The Roosters named a team that had next to no regular first graders, and played like it. They dropped so much ball in the warm weather that the Milk’s defence was barely troubled. Canberra were playing a youth heavy team also, and that was exacerbated when Sam Williams and Matt Frawley were pulled put under Covid protocols on match day. This forced Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad into a starting half position, and gave the dummy-half keys to emerging player Adrian Trevilyan. He took a head-knock mid way through the first half, forcing Adam Elliott into hooker. The Green Machine also lost Trey Mooney to the concussion protocol, and Peter Hola to what was reported during the match as a potential medial ligament injury in his knee. The heat (and conditioning) took several players by way of cramps, and by the end of the game Jarrod Croker was playing five-eighth. How good is trial footy.
We weren’t expecting a fluid outing (and nor did we get it). There were plenty of errors, many moments of miscommunication and a plethora of fatigue. It looked like a trial game. Players got into good positions and dropped ball they usually wouldn’t. Errors followed errors. It was a spotty outing. The baseline usefulness of this game wasn’t so much working out whether Canberra is “back” but rather whether they’d made any system changes since last season, and how emerging or new players fit into that.
The most obvious stylistic difference was in the attacking system. The Raiders played with a lot more width, and a lot more ball play from their forwards. In his limited time in the game Adrian Trevilyan showed why people are so bullish about his potential, sending passes from the ruck well across the field to switch the point of attack repeatedly, particularly when Canberra were playing in the middle. Forwards would attack the edges, using short offloads between them to create small gaps. It was a much greater variety than their attack often offered in 2021, and was made possible by quality service from the young rake. He also made a good read to score the second try, identifying an out of position A defender to dive over from dummy half. It’s a pleasing sign, not just of Trevliyan’s performance and what it means for the Milk’s hooker depth, but also in how replicable that style of play is for Josh Hodgson and (to a lesser extent) Tom Starling.
Ryan Sutton and Corey Horsburgh were particularly important as ball playing forwards, and it was great to see Harry Rushton displaying his ballplaying ability as a middle forward too. Horsburgh threw an important pass to send the ball wide to ball-players on multiple tries, including Brad Schneider’s effort that started with Trevilyan, went through Horsbrugh, Schneider, Semi Valemei and James Schiller before the young half scored. Every pass was better than the last – Schiller’s was amazing, but Valemei’s and Schneider’s were also impeccable. It was the kind of electric play the Milk rarely mustered in 2021. Sutton played a critical role on tries too, and it was Rushton ball-playing at the line that allowed Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad the space to target the Rooster’s edge. He went through a gaping hole and Corey Harawira-Naera scored. It will be interesting to see how this plays out when the first-string return. The passing through the middle was so critical to opening up Canberra’s attack, but it’s not really the game of either Josh Papalii or Joe Tapine. Another watching brief for us to see how Sticky uses that 13 position, or what expansion on this style is brought by the Raiders’ stars.
The forwards weren’t just passing. Canberra outgained their opposition by near 500 metres. The width (and perhaps the threat of the pass) allowed them to get into more advantageous running positions, garnering space and quick rucks and reinforcing their advantage. The number of forwards used meant that only Emre Guler (15 for 101m) and Ryan Sutton (15 for 107m) cracked 100 but plenty of forwards had good carries. Adam Elliott looked like a calming influence on both sides of the ball, and was impressive despite having to spend the last 50 odd minutes of the match at hooker.
The dominant positions they got into meant that the halves, and Xavier Savage had plenty of space to work in. Each of them had their moments. Schneider looked commanding as the lead half. It was pleasing to see. He kicked well to corners, marshalled the attack and was unafraid to take on the line (punching out 108m on the ground). He threw some beautiful short balls to his edge backrowers that took perfect reads to stop, and an excellent long-ball that started the aforementioned try. He’ll be playing reserve grade for the most part this year, but if he keeps playing like this he might be threatening Sam Williams as first choice backup sooner than most think. Savage was also excellent, threatening the line anytime he was given an inch of space. He both the Roosters edge playing as prime creator on the right, and around the ruck on the back of second phase play. His agility and acceleration are a rare talent, and the kind of weapon the Raiders haven’t had in the longest time. Nicoll-Klokstad’s ride was bumpier, understandable given the role he was asked to play. But he had some nice moments (like the try he set up for Harawira-Naera).
Defensively it’s hard to work out how much to take from this game because of how little was thrown at the Milk. For the most part they held strong through the middle. They showed plenty of commitment (such as when Corey Horsburgh bounced off a made tackle to stop a ball carrier at the goal line after an offload, or Albert Hopoate’s effort to get under an attacker who seemed certain to score). They got plenty of power into their hits, forcing errors with good contact. And broadly the edges handled everything thrown their way – in particular, I thought Adam Elliott looked rock solid defending on the left. There were some poor moments, like when Naufahu Whyte got between Trey Mooney and Schneider to score, or when Clay Webb was cold beaten on the Joshua Wong try, but they were individual errors and didn’t seem to be borne from a structural weakness. Again, it remains to be seen what this looks like against a first grade side.
The story after this game will be about a burgeoning battle for the fullback spot but we didn’t actually learn anything new in this match. Savage was brilliant on the attack but the challenges he is going to face remain. He still got monstered in yardage. He still has work to do in defence (as evidenced in the Roosters first try when Whyte went right through him). Given time and game-planning teams will target him more in the A gap in goal line defence than he faced in this game. Finding the balance between backing yourself and repeatedly kicking for yourself on the third tackle of an attacking set still alludes him. For his part Nicoll-Klokstad was playing out of position and had some good moments, but even his weakness as a ball-player came out in typical fashion when he blew a break by holding the ball when unmarked men were waiting outside. I’m not sure this game did anything to make the decision for Coach Stuart any easier. If you put these two players together you’d have the perfect footballer. Alas, I’m not Doctor Frankenstein and neither are you.
Regardless, what it reveals is a good problem. The Raiders have established players that are pushing each other at the top. They have young talent like Savage, Schneider, Rushton and Trevilyan who (to varying degrees) seem closer to contributing at first grade than most of us realised. Their off-season adjustments, so far, have revealed a different mindset and style from 2021. Whether its enough to bridge the gap between them and the finals remains to be seen. Whether it carries on by the first string players, against better opposition is a whole other question. But it’s refreshing that they’ve acknowledged the faults and made the changes. It’s certainly better than watching history repeat.
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