The Canberra Raiders 24-19 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was proof of progress. The Raiders showed that the changes made over the off-season can work. They also showed that they have not entirely shed their old skin, and that their rebuild into a proper footy team remained a work in progress. But when the devils in the dark corners of their minds came to chat, they didn’t listen. They persevered. This is not last year’s Canberra Raiders. They are building something better.
The first game of the season tends to be a referendum on the promises of the off-season. Would Canberra be quicker, more dynamic through the middle? Could they recapture the resilience of the good times, rather than the collapses of 2021. The Sharks too were promising more – an emerging star in Nicho Hynes. Craig Fitzgibbon building his own empire. Most have them pushing into the the top 8 this year. It was going to be a test for both sides. With things so tense, we shouldn’t have been shocked to see the standard Sticky smokescreen, swapping rookie James Schiller out to the wing and moving Semi Valemei to right centre.
The Raiders showed their new game plan can work. When things were working they punched through the middle, then hit edges through Elliott Whitehead’s exemplary ball play. They shifted through the middle forwards, and then punched hard at both edges, consistently making defenders make multiple efforts through broken tackles and offloads. Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii made this work in the middle. It’s all well and good to want to play with more width, but that needs to be earned, and through the middle these two were brilliant. Tapine was at his best in the first half, nearly cracking 100m (he had 97) in the first stanza. Papalii was great all game, but when the game got tough in the second half it was he who Canberra consistently turned to.
Off the back of their brilliant work, Elliott Whitehead looked comfortable playing a role as a key decision-maker at first receiver. Canberra’s second try came when he caught the ball at first receiver, took the ball to the line beautiful before sending a perfect ball to Corey Harawira-Naera. The line from the Kiwi international was faultless, as was his offload to Semi Valemei for the try. This was tangible proof that Smelly has what it takes to play this ball-playing lock role, making key decisions in attack and allowing the Milk to play with a width that had eluded them previously.
Off the back of this so many good things could happen. Jack Wighton and Brad Schneider had the freedom to take on the line, re-orienting an attack that occasionally got too enamoured with their newfound freedom to shift east-west. Jack had 142m on the ground, and so much came from catching the ball on shifts, stepping off his left and forcing defenders to make an extra effort. He created one try off this – when he broke the line, put Cotric down the edge and caught the inside pass – and if not for some desperate efforts could have created more. It’s hard to overstate how exciting it was to see him play with such freedom. For his part Schneider wasn’t perfect in his execution, but he was a cool head and played intelligent football. He never got frustrated by the Sharks aggressive outside defence removing his passing options on shifts; he simply straightened the attack and took what was available. His kicking was brilliant, as was Wighton’s for the large part.
The Raiders also got creativity from secondary players. In the first half in particular their dominance of the ruck meant that Tom Starling could get out and test defenders agility with his feet. He routinely threated the line, and his kick for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was only outdone by the brilliance of the fullback’s pick-up and grounding. When he had space he looked every bit the star Canberra hope he can be, and allayed concerns they had about Josh Hodgson spending a lot of time injured. But that was not the case all game (more on that later). It was good to see Charnze more involved in creating, especially on the right, and he should have had a try assist to his name when he isolated Semi Valemei on Ronaldo Mulitalo close to the line. Alas Semi dropped the ball (as he’s wont to do), and the play will be forgotten. But Nicoll-Klokstad repeatedly created for Semi and James Schiller. Perhaps the pressure from Xavier Savage is reaping rewards.
Most pleasing would have been the barnstorming running on the left edge of Hudson Young and Matt Timoko. In addition to Jack and the Schneid, these two seemed to take pleasure in running more directly. Timoko had eight tackle-breaks and consistently put pressure on the Sharks defence. Young “only” had four, but he added to that 124m on the ground, 40 plus post-contact, and an unending ability to end each tackle pushing between two defenders. Then with the game on the line these two combined with such beauty it could have been Josh Safdie’s muse on uncut gems. It was so pleasing to see both of these players dominate. People have a tendency to want to shift them all around the ground. That is our left edge for the foreseeable future, and it’s brutal.
But for all this differing style and new brilliance, this game also proved just how precarious the reconstruction of the Raiders is. The willingness to shift often descended into shifting side-to-side for the sake of it. When they had all the ball (near 70 percent in the first half) this was ok because more opportunities to play came, but in the second half it became less enterprising and more harried. They made too many errors. Tom Starling was as bad in the second half as he was good in the first. He threw one forward pass, one pass behind Whitehead, and generally his service was slow (he can not or will not pass off the ground). When there was no space to run he struggled, and became uni-directional, and the attack became myopically focused on the left. He wasn’t alone in making errors. Papalii, Horsburgh, Wighton and Whitehead all gave away the ball or penalties at moments when Canberra desperately needed position or possession.
A more familiar theme re-emerged. The Milk made a heap of errors, and exhausted themselves defending their line for the first 20 minutes of the second half. The middles got tired. No middle other than Papalii or Tapine cracked 100 metres (the nearest was Corey Horsburgh with 13 carries for 80-odd metres). For his part Tapine barely made a dent in the defence after halftime. They looked gassed in defence, and the line speed disappeared. All of a sudden the Sharks were punching through the middle and getting ball-players like Nicho Hynes and Will Kennedy in space. It forced the Raiders’ neophyte centres to solve problems that more experienced players would struggle with. Timoko read in on the lead runner when Will Kennedy swept around the back, and Valemei pushed out to Kennedy when he needed to take the lead runner. They need to do better, but they also need to be better. It’s a shame because both had been defensively adept at times. Timoko in particular is so patient, and keeps mutiple defenders in front of him, removing the options for the attack.
This had a cumulative effect. As the middles got tired, they couldn’t ball play as easily (and thus implement the new style with effect). Whitehead wore down as the game wore on and seemed less involved, and the new structure fell apart to a degree. Horsburgh proved he’s a good passer, but he can’t fill that gap. Adam Elliott (strangely IMO) played on the right edge in the second half, replacing Harawira-Naera there. The Raiders could have used his ball playing ability in the middle in the 26 minutes that Whitehead was off the field. Ryan Sutton, left out because *screams internally*, could have also been useful. This is also where Josh Hodgson was missed; and probably the role he was going to play when Starling came on. My guess is that Whitehead would have played substantially less minutes had he someone to share the ‘middle-creator’ minutes with. At the time of writing I’d not seen predictions how long Hodgson would be out (Foxsports mentioned 4-6 weeks for a MCL – Rob). We’ll see how Sticky lightens Smelly’s load (phrasing).
But despite the cracks emerging when things got tough, the Raiders proved resilient in a way they rarely showed last season, and routinely showed in the seasons before. They did not give up. When they went down 19-18 last year’s team would have fallen apart. They were tired, but they fought back. Their defence remained physical, with a host of players laying out big hits that turned the tide of sets through the back twenty minutes of the game. Jack Wighton simply refused to let Canberra lose, whether it was through grabbing the ball and earning metres when the Milk couldn’t get over the advantage, or chasing down his own kick. Papalii simply refused to be tackled. Charnze kept careening into the defence. Hudson Young kept taking tough carries. James Schiller, on debut, looked absolutely at home, made several important efforts, none moreso than his desperate tackle on the Sharks last bite to save the game.
It was fitting that Schiller, with the desperate help of Brad Schneider made that tackle. It exemplified a secretly great thing about this game – it revealed that the next generation of Raiders is ready to contribute. Schiller had some strong carries and looked calm in this game. Schneider too looked unfazed by the challenge. Hudson Young and Matt Timoko created the winning try running a set play with Jack Wighton. That exact movement was a pet-play Wighton, Whitehead and Jarrod Croker used to run. Young made the perfect read, Timoko the perfect return pass back to the rampaging second rower. That Jack hovered over the play as the decoy sweeping around the back while the young guys won the game should please everyone.
It was not perfect, and no one should print the t-shirts just yet. Too many ghosts of Christmas past came out to play in this game to pretend that Canberra’s blueprint has been perfected. There’s plenty more to build upon, and the foundations aren’t yet set. But they have started the process, and while they work it out, they’ve shown they’ve got the capability and fortitude to fight their way to victory. Reconstruction begins.
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