The Canberra Raiders 26-6 loss to the North Queensland Cowboys was an abomination. Short-staffed and in a tough climate they turned in an inept performance that undermined any belief that they’d solved their problems from last year. Instead like castles made of sand, the Raiders were absorbed by the waves of humidity in Townsville. Canberra can still be good in 2022, but this game must be an anomaly not an indicator.
The Raiders came in to this game short staffed. Josh Hodgson was injured last week. Jamal Fogarty before him. Jordan Rapana was already suspended. Brad Schneider caught Covid, and Nic Cotric somehow hurt his quadricep in the lead up to the game. It meant the team-list looked so makeshift it may as well have been a branch being used by bush mechanics in lieu of a gear stick (yeah look not my best, but I’m working on a deadline). By the time we got to kick off most Canberra fans were wondering some version of “I hope this is as bad as it gets”. Perhaps it’s our fault we hold on to that hope. We should know better by now.
It did get worse. The game exposed the fatal flaw of Canberra’s new plan, saw several senior players submit their worst performances in green, and was the most disheartening performance put forward by a Raiders side since…well the Titans game last year, but the fact we’re here again is galling. A loss is one thing. To look as confused and disjointed as they did in this game was terrifying.
The Raiders got mauled in the middle. A team this big was always going to be a challenge, but the Raiders pack was out of this game from the get go. They were outgained by some 500 metres across the game. While Josh Papalii (11 for 112m), Joe Tapine (11 for 130m) and Corey Horsburgh (10 for 99) had useful carries, it always felt that their carry was the only strong one in a set, and soon the Milk would be muddling through the park unable to take advantage of their good work. The back three were similarly ineffective in exit sets, meaning there was no respite. If there was a hope they were going to move the big men opposite around, tire them out and take advantage (which I assume was the plan), it fell apart when the Raiders couldn’t get any dominance in a set. This was exacerbated, and perhaps contributed to, Tom Starling’s poor game. In the face of the barrage of defenders, and without the space he needs to test markers and A defenders, he had no other gear. His service put key ballplayers in difficult positions, and even contributed to errors and by extension, tries.
This meant the promised width of 2022 disappeared, and the Raiders attack crumbled around the ruck, becoming a narrow mixture of one-pass dives and little else that looked fluid. Elliott Whitehead’s ‘point-forward’ role was non-existent. He took hit ups and rarely had the space for anything else. Papalii and Emre Guler had a few cracks at working as a link men through the middle, but executed poorly. Only Corey Horsburgh looked comfortable in that role and it emphasises the need for Ryan Sutton and Adam Elliott to play bigger roles as ball-playing forwards, particularly in the absence of Josh Hodgson. Adam Trevilyan, in limited minutes, brought back Hodgson’s 25m lasers from dummy half and goddamn every time I watch him play I fall a little bit more in love. If only the circumstances could have been better. It was too little too late though – the game, Canberra’s composure, and any semblance of structure had long passed them by.
When the ball did get wide the problems of the middle’s lack of dominance were exacerbated by poor decision-making and a lack of pace on the edge. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad threw multiple hospital passes leading directly to errors. He needed to take on the line more. Matt Frawley threw an intercept, pushing a pass into a space where there were more defenders than attackers. He couldn’t beat anyone with his run, and it meant that the Cows defence could jam in with an aggression that he couldn’t take advantage of. Every time he caught the ball at first receiver there was a host of defenders outside him. It meant the edges barely touched the ball (Hudson Young and Matt Timoko both had 7 carries, Semi and Harawira-Naera had 8 and 5 respectively, and I only remember one or two from that group that wasn’t a hit-up) His vaunted kicking game never materialised. The lack of wins in the middle also meant it became a “Jack better do it” game, and Jack couldn’t do it by his literal self. As the game wore on he tried to do more and more with less success. On the odd occasion Canberra got into some space they just didn’t have the cattle to make much of it. Seb Kris is a lot of things, but he’s not a winger, and couldn’t make enough of space offered to him on multiple occasions (although I was happy with how he handled a near try in the second half).
And this formed a self-perpetuating cycle of suck with a host of errors made by the Milk. 18 compete sets from 31 is not how you win football games (says me, a brilliant tactician). They spent the entirety of the second half trapped in their own end, unable to complete a set, capitulating at any physicality in contact. Some of these errors came in tight quarters (e.g. Adam Elliott, Matt Frawley were both tee’d up by Nicoll-Klokstad) but some of these were just busted-ass errors. Nicoll-Klokstad had as much trouble with the high ball as he’s ever had, dropping a bomb and never getting back into the game. Two other tries came from his inability to win high ball contests against less likely opposition. Seb Kris too contributed to this mess (he is a poor judge of a high kick you will see). The fact that the Cowboys were kicking to the Raiders more experienced backs and letting James Schiller off scot free was telling. This cycle of imbecility crested with the idiotic sin-binning of Hudson Young. I love that kid and he’ll play rep footy. But that was as unnecessary as it was stupid, and ended a comeback that if we’re honest was never coming.
All this meant that Canberra was constantly working off their line, holding on in defence and waiting for the game to turn into something else. It put so much pressure on their defence, which didn’t crack as much as occasionally bend. Yes they got bashed in the middle, and they had the line-speed of a deli at Christmas, but they mostly held on the edges. Most will point to James Schiller getting beaten once, and nearly twice, on the outside by Murray Tualagi, but he actually did well to show in on the threat of Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, and then get back to his wing, nearly saving the day on both occasions. The rest of the tries came from the sheer incompetence of the Raiders under the high ball (or luck, in the case of the Feldt try).
So throw it in and start again right? We were told this year would be different, and it still made be, but no one walked away from this game thinking that the Raiders were close to working it all out. This Cowboys team will finish last or second last this year. They are not a good football team, and the Milk made them look better than they deserve; too good for their squalid efforts and milquetoast attack. A good team might write-off this game as an aberration, something that will be atoned for the following weeks and looked back on as an amusing oddity come finals. But the Canberra Raiders simply do not have the luxury of such profligacy. They squandered a unique opportunity for a powerful start to the season through sheer ineptitude. They’ll be better next week but only because it’s not possible to be worse (hopefully – Rob).
As bad as the Milk were in this game they should not panic. Canberra is just a little airborne, (it’s still good, it’s still good). Jordan Rapana hopefully returns next week, as does Brad Schneider. Rapa is never afraid, not of a high ball and not of an opposition. Schneider won’t be taken advantage of like Frawley was in this game. Ryan Sutton is available. Maybe Cotric will be too. Barring mass injury, it’s unlikely they’ll have such a misfit side again, and unlikely they’ll be missing so many of the things that make them competent. The things they need to do to avoid catastrophe like this again are things they routinely do. These include catching kicks and holding the ball. Line-speed, and some football intelligence matched with athleticism will help. A middle that’s more consistent than a few good carries, and a hooker that can play with width. A back three that can handle a bomb and get through useful yardage.
Canberra has these things. We’ve even seen it at points in this young season. They just didn’t do most of them in this game. They can be better without sacrificing their style of football. There are reasons to hold on to hope.
But then again, look where that gets us.
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