The Canberra Raiders won their trial match against the Manly Sea-Eagles 18-16 but the result doesn’t matter. Both sides were below their best – it’s a trial after all – and there are plenty of things for the Raiders to fix and to finesse. But behind all that were the green shoots of possibility. Possibility that there’s a team that has adjusted to last year’s lessons, and maybe more.
The previous trial revealed that changes had been made to team structures at Raiders HQ, but this game was about seeing how these translated to the top squad (sans Jordan Rapana and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad). Because Sticky is a stone-cold genius, he kept everyone waiting all week for a trial teamlist, then switched it up multiple times in the lead up to the game (Corey Harawira-Naera was picked at lock, then the Canberra Times revealed he would start at right edge, then he was shifted to the bench. He was apparently sick? Wild times).
Almost immediately it was clear that the width adopted in the previous trial wasn’t a one off. I think it’s safe to say this is a definite change in how Canberra will play in 2022. A long pass from the ruck, and a forward on the edge as a fulcrum of the attack, acting as a key ball-player, shifting the point of attack and presenting multiple threats. It a style similar to that adopted by Penrith last year, with key forwards playing a big hand in the Milk’s attacking decisions. In particular, Elliott Whitehead seems a critical part of this attack, operating as a decision-maker at first receiver on a consistent basis. It’s still a work in progress, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Josh Hodgson and Tom Starling both looked comfortable playing with width to the forward acting as a fulcrum on the edge (though Starling’s service was less consistent). Smelly looked more and more comfortable in the role as the game wore on, making more reads based on what the defence was offering rather than more rote approaches.
Whitehead wasn’t the only forward playing that role. Corey Horsburgh was comfortable shifting in limited space (such as his good hands at the line to link with Jack Wighton on the Milk’s first try). Harry Rushton and Ryan Sutton were both great at making smart decisions about when to shift, and when to punch a hole in the line. It’s exciting to see the young(er) Englishmen start to touch the edges of his potential. There’s a real weapon there. Joe Tapine too was happy in that role, looking as comfortable as anyone else shifting the ball. Off the back of this Jack Wighton and Jamal Fogarty had some options to create in space and taking on the line. As a structure and a plan it’s plausible it could work. It eventually picked apart Manly’s first string, and for the most part the Raiders looked comfortable running it.
There a plenty of places of places of development required though. A different shape didn’t mean that the result was smooth. There was plenty of clunkiness. The Green Machine played much of the first thirty minutes of the game getting the ball to those forwards on the edge, but they didn’t take advantage of the full range of options available to them. Instead, the ball-playing middle mostly operated as a link man as the Raiders pushed the ball side to side. It got them into space, but the Manly defence was happy to slide and cover as the ball shifted east-west. This wasn’t helped by some poor discipline in handling – through thirty minutes Canberra had completed seven sets (approximate number from memory) from about double the attempts. That they were still in the game after that amount of time was a testament to some rock solid defence.
As the game wore on Whitehead, Horsburgh et al warmed to the task, took the line on more and were more comfortable playing short and testing the defenders around the ruck. Whitehead nearly put Harawira-Naera through a gap playing short, and Joe Tapine scored a try when instead of shifting the ball on the last both he and Starling saw Dylan Walker expecting the pass, and Tapine galloped through the gap less touched than a dead marriage. It was a great read by Starling and good sign to see the Raiders adjust a bit and start to use a wider array of options. It was also an important reminder to not get carried away with their new toy and still work to win through the middle and use strong lines from the backrowers to punch on the edge rather than only shift.
Off the back of this Jamal Fogarty and Jack Wighton had a few options to play, and it’s probably fair to say it was a mixed bag. Jack set up Manly’s first two tries, throwing an interception to Jason Saab (of all people) who was just standing in the attacking line and then losing the ball to Walker who found Tolutalu “almost as fast as Saab” Koula. It was an inauspicious start. But then he scored the first try, stepping off his left through a defence that was buggered and probably playing (and praying) for the ball to go wider. He set up the second try with a perfect grubber for Nic Cotric – this was particularly pleasing because it suggested Jack had adapted from the Saab try in the first half. The Manly winger didn’t even try to get back, so out of position was he. He earned another repeat set with a well-weighted grubber. On some early shifts he got the ball to Matt Timoko, who looked excellent playing on the left (though I’m not sure why he’s shifted there). Timoko had been routinely left out of many experts’ “best 17” for Canberra, which mostly just shows most experts don’t watch the Raiders.
For his part Fogarty looked comfortable. As he told the Big Sports Breakfast he has built a good connection with Adam Elliott, and the best shifts to the right usually ended with the Venga Bus coming back under the play and testing the ruck. It was good to see him take on the line occasionally (six times) but he (and also Jack) got caught with the ball a few times late in the tackle count. It was a shame because his short kicking is his strength and we would have liked to see it more. The Raiders didn’t often find success once the ball got outside Elliott though. Semi Valemei had a bit of a “Favourites” night, in which there was some good, but also heaps of Cherry Ripes. He and Seb Kris (and then Xavier Savage) were comfortably handled by the Sea-Eagles despite some advantageous positions.
That right side was dicey in defence too in stark contrast to the rest of the side. The Milk were mostly robust in defence. The left edge looked solid, and the one time they found themselves in a bad position (after Tommy Trbojevic got outside Jack Wighton), Matt Timoko and Nic Cotric scrambled, tipping him out when he looked almost certain to score. Wighton was at his vicious best in defence, and Timoko did well to consistently keep his shoulders square to the opposition. The middle too was relatively strong, and it was pleasing to see it find a way to wrest back control of sets with good contact – it was rare to see in 2021.
But the right side was as inconsistent in defence as they were in attack. Manly scored their only non-intercept try on that side, taking advantage of a heinous read from Semi Valemei (despite Fogarty having done well to continue to shift out to the same player) which drew Savage in with him. Valemei is a very aggressive defender, and on several other occasions he picked out a ball carrier before they could get going. But on that occasion he created the overlap almost single-handedly.
Just what to do on the right is the main question facing Canberra before their opening round game against Cronulla. As we’re written before, Valemei has been a victim of a lack of development chances over the last two years (due to the shortened/non-existent NSW Cup competition). You can’t fault his running game, or his aggression in defence. But his decision making requires work. Seb Kris is not a winger (I mean, he’s probably a backrower). If the decision has been made to move Matt Timoko to the left, it may be Semi at right centre, and perhaps Savage outside him (as was hinted by his shift there after about 20 minutes). As we suggested last week, Savage struggled with more attention from the Manly defence, and another handling error in contact probably ended the fullback controversy for the short-term. He, like Semi, needs time to develop and craft his body and game. Unfortunately he may be pushed into a makeshift right centre-wing combination with Valemei.
It’s the only thing grating us after the pre-season. Before the trial games started we wanted to see a fitter side. In this game we saw that as Canberra clawed their way back in humid conditions over the exact period they routinely fell apart last year. We wanted to know they had a more varied attack than they offered last year. They showed that they’re willing to use a range of ballplayers that can test the defence in a myriad of ways. And we wanted to know how they would use their thirteen position in attack. Those are answered, but now the question of the right’s make-up (created by an injury on the left to Harley Smith-Shields) has emerged. Sticky has two weeks to find a workable solution.
This has been a heartwarming pre-season. These, and we need to all remind ourselves of this incessantly, were just trials, and so while the Raiders looked better, it doesn’t mean you should book your hotel in Sydney for that first weekend in October. In this game it was patchy enough to have been on the precipice of calamity before the Milk clawed it back. And last week they beat literal teenagers. A finals run has not been won. But there are suggestions that there are good foundations on which to build a more successful season. Time to see if those green shoots will grow.
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