Chaos thy name is the Canberra Raiders.
After the disorder of 2021, we were hoping things would be a bit quieter to start 2021. Then Harley Smith-Shields got injured and we grimaced. Jamal Fogarty got hurt and we poured a sadness whisky and hoped we’d muddle through until he got healthy. We took the Schneiderpill and hoped for the best. Nice things came, but of course this is the Raiders, and we can’t have nice things. So now Brad Schneider has ‘rona, Josh Hodgson has knee troubles, and I’m listening to Angie McMahon at 9am on a Tuesday and wondering if it’s too early to start drinking. If there’s a blessing in this mess, it’s that it’s (hopefully) just a one-week break for Schneider and perhaps as little as two-weeks for Hodgson.
In the meantime they have an eminently winnable game against the Cowboys this week. Despite the Cows hardly being the force they once were, the Raiders have never found an easy victory there. Last year was the pain of being run down (26-24). 2020 was a hard-fought two-point victory. 2019’s 30-12 victory was a one-score game until the 72nd minute, the same pattern followed in 2018’s 18-8 victory. In fact you’d have to go all the way back to round one of 2003 to find a Canberra victory in Townsville that could be characterised as anything other than tight. In between is a bunch of Cowboy victories, some one-point triumphs (including Todd Carney’s sublime 45 metre field goal to win a game in extra time in 2006) and nothing but blood, sweat and tears. Mostly tears. So you know this is going to be a battle, even before we take into the account the absence of Harley, Jamal, Schneider and Hodgson.
Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii, surprisingly. Word emerged that Joey Taps might not make the trip because of his reluctance to get vaccinated. Confusion around reports of Josh Papalii getting vaccinated earlier in the year proved inconclusive. And Corey Harawira-Naera and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, often identified as other potential hold outs have also been named. Frankly, I have no clue what’s going on here but they’re playing. At this point I’m just grateful for that.
Matt Frawley comes in to play halfback, which, as we forecast seemed likely when he was the 19th man last round. He’ll bring a solid boot and resolute front-on defence but he won’t be winning any footraces soon. Jack Wighton, fresh off a belter of a game will have more defence focused in his direction, but if he plays like he did last week it won’t matter.
More exciting than that is the debut of Adrian Treviylan. If you’ve read these pages you know we think he’s a very good player, as do people much smarter than us. In the trial he impressed with his service, and ability to identify weaknesses in the defence. I suspect he’ll spell Starling so he doesn’t tire like he did last round. And while luminaries such as Josh Hodgson himself have have suggested it’s a possibility in his future, he won’t play any minutes at 13 just yet. His selection, like James Schiller’s and Schneider’s, is just further evidence of Coach Stuart’s trust in the next generation, and a change of heart that’s seen him look beyond grizzled veterans for critical minutes.
Schiller gets another run and it turns out all the good things you heard were right. He looked comfortable in defence. In addition to his game saving tackle with Brad Schneider, he never seemed troubled by the high kicks from Cronulla (though, they notably didn’t target him. I’m sure North Queensland will). His yardage work was good, and he had some critical carries getting Canberra out of trouble. He didn’t get much of a chance to show his attacking wares, but we’re excited to see what he has to offer.
Semi remains at centre, despite the classic Sticky smokescreen before the game. Given he played most of the minutes there in the trials we probably should have seen that coming. He had a defensive error on a try, and could have scored a double if not for a good defensive play by Ronaldo Mulitalo that jolted the ball free on the goal line early in the game. This week he’ll have Val coming at him instead. Between the errors he continues to show an aggressiveness and ability in both defence and attack. As we’ve said before, Valemei is developing in plain sight. There’s going to be moments we all remember. For better and worse.
What we’ll be watching
The Cows are a big side, and will want to thump the Milk through the middle and let Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow use his electric footwork to tear apart any advantage in the ruck. The Raiders have always struggled with Jason Taomalolo (as has everyone). Bringing him down, and the rest of the pack, is going to be a physical test for Elliott Whitehead (among others), and will sap his ability to play the important ball-playing forward role (along with the heat, or the humidity, or both). So I’ll be curious to see who fills in at 13 when Smelly takes a break. The options appear to be Adam Elliott or Trevilyan to me. The Cows don’t have a huge amount of pace or creativity on the edges (though give Val Holmes or Murray Tualagi any space and they’ll make you pay) so the main game is going to be right in the middle of the park.
The thing about big packs is that if you can handle them in defence (a sizeable if as noted) then you can really make hay. Make them make multiple efforts in defence through shifts and offloads. Kick early to the corners. Use your possession wisely. Using their new structure and width to move the North Queensland pack around should open up some opportunities for Canberra – or at least more than the Dogs did last week. Tom Starling’s first half last week saw him put the best of his skills forward against a tiring pack and some good ball. He should get opportunities to do so again. Jack Wighton’s willingness to really push at immobile edge defenders last week was profitable. That will work again this week. Indeed much of their approach from last week will be relevant. It’s a nice bit of continuity given the unending change.
My hope is that the Raiders can implement something approximating last week’s game plan again, only without the interruption of Hodgson’s injury or Whitehead’s exhaustion. Even without their star players they showed enough last week to suggest they can take the two points in this game. But it won’t be easy.
Canberra by 4
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