Raiders Review: Chaos

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders are insane. They had no right to comeback from 22-0 down against the Gold Coast Titans. They’d put themselves in a hole of their own making. But as everyone knows, the only way out of a hole is to dig up (stupid). The Raiders did that, and while the glaring weaknesses of their makeup are still plain for all to see, they have another week to work them out, and another week to get the right pieces into place.

We all thought the Raiders couldn’t be worse that last week, but in the first half of this game they pushed that take to the limit. It was a familiar tale in a sense. They dropped an unfathomable amount of ball – they only completed 7 sets the entire first half. They completed as many through the first 15 minutes of the second half. They dropped the footy in good ball and in bad. They had forwards throw interceptions because why the fuck not. More than once they gave a way penalties late in sets. On at least two of those occasions it came after a very good defensive set which had followed a rare complete set. It was maddening.

The upshot of all this was the Titans had a mountain of possession. Near the end of the first half they’d had 74 per cent of the ball. For an entire half. Not a ten minutes period. No team can survive that. But Canberra made it even worse, gifting five penalties through the first half to ensure they nearly always started over halfway.

The middle, as a general rule, held fast in all this mess. The Raiders were only outgained by about 150 metres in the first half, which is a heap, but when you have so little ball it was fewer than I would have thought (for comparison they outgained the Titans by around more than 400 in the second half). They did score a try late int the half on a crash ball, but it felt more sheer weight of possession than any structural issue. In the meantime, Josh Papalii (11 for 120m), Joe Tapine (14 for 148) and Corey Horsburgh (11 for 127m) all punched into the line through the game and it felt like Canberra weren’t losing the middle battle in the same way that they were against the Cowboys. But because of all the errors and penalties the Titans simply didn’t have to travel too much up the field (which may also account for some of the metre discrepancy but lets not dwell). They simply started at the forty, hit the middle, hit the Milk’s right edge, hit the middle again and then found happiness back on that same edge.

It exposed a clear weakness on that edge. The left side wasn’t perfect but the right edge felt outright fragile. The first try was a perfectly worked move by the Titans that there was little the Raiders could about, but it felt like Semi Valemei held out when he needed to come in on the ball. The second try Corey Harawira-Naera came in and Brad Schneider didn’t, and suddenly the outside three defenders were facing four Titans attackers. A kick and tap-on later the Titans scored a try much harder than it needed to be. Finally, the third try came when Harawira-Naera was caught in a ruck, Brad Schneider got caught between taking AJ Brimson and Beau Fermor, Valemei had overrun the play so couldn’t help, and Fermor went through barely touched. The edge held fast in the second half – and even won some battles when the Titans tried to go back there for metres or on shifts – but it’s hard to know how much the shift in weight of possession had to do with that.

There’s a need to fix this. Most will call for Semi Valemei to be dropped, but it’s unfair to put it all on him. This is a situation where multiple inexperienced players are defending alongside each other. More relevant, Ricky Stuart seems wedded to Semi as a centre, and after he hit AJ Brimson like truck (pun noted, and left out) to seal the game (and scored a handy and crucial try), it feels unlikely that’s going to change in the short term. The comeback gives this combination another week of life, but Stuart surely is watching closely.

The first half wounds were so simple that the fix was easy. The Raiders began completing sets. They began getting to their kicks. They stopped giving the opposition a helping hand out of their own half. Their line-speed increased notably (probably because they weren’t so gassed from not having the ball). They were brutally aggressive in defence. Jack Wighton was noteworthy for this. Corey Horsburgh nearly killed a man. Corey Harawira-Naera kept shooting out on ball carriers. They began to make pure hustle plays, like Tom Starling’s excellent chase of Jack Wighton’s equally brilliant kick that forced a drop out that became Canberra’s first try of the second half. Or Tommy getting back for a grubber on a Titans’ attacking play and somehow getting back into the field of play. It all felt different. They didn’t feel maddening. They didn’t feel confused. They fought. Where this was in the first half is beyond me.

A noteworthy change happened in the attack that may have helped. Perhaps in order to simplify the game and complete some sets, in the second half they stopped shifting off Elliott Whitehead as a key ball player at first receiver. Instead they often punched three hit ups – Horsburgh, Guler, Whitehead – to start sets, seeking to establish dominance in the middle and shift off the back of that. It was more focused around the ruck than I suspect the new structure is meant to be, but given the size of the pack opposite, it was a wise adjustment. I don’t often give Coach Stuart kudos in these pages but that was important.

It allowed Tom Starling to play a more natural game. With a tighter attack he hit big men short, and tore the ruck apart as soon as the Milk had a quick ruck. Starling may have limitations to his game (he floated the one long pass he tried to throw, and occasionally got caught dancing behind the play the ball) but this skill he is unquestionably elite at. He had near 90 running metres for the game, and I’d be surprised if they all didn’t come in the second half. His run right up the guts that led to Canberra’s third try (and Matt Timoko’s second) was scintillating. What Jordan Rapana was doing hovering around the ruck for that offload is beyond me, but is part of what makes him amazing.

With more ball, and plenty of punch in the middle, it gave so much more room for the Raiders’ halves to play ball. Jack Wighton was electric. He said after the game that Schneider is playing the role of the half and he’s just out there playing footy but that understates his importance. He did everything. 110 metres on the ground was part of the story. He punched and probed on either side of the ruck, consistently poking through the line. His kicking game was stunning, creating tries (such as for Matt Timoko), repeat sets when attacking sets hadn’t been perfect, and getting big metres when Canberra needed them. His defence was impressive.

But more than this he terrified the Titans defence every time he had the ball. The defence shaded to him no matter where he was. And this terror created havoc in the Titans’ defensive line, and was important in creating the last two tries. On Canberra’s fourth try a shifting movement went left and Jack caught it at first receiver. All the defenders took a step towards him (including the winger), and it meant that when he sent the ball to Brad Schneider, Seb Kris had enough space outside his opposite to receive the excellent cut out pass and score. The space for Schneider’s kick for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s game winning try came because the middle defence collapsed to stop Jack on a hit-up off Starling’s shoulder. Much like the game-winning try against the Sharks, it’s amazing how important his presence is.

For his part Schneider was impressive too. Like Wighton he pressed the Titans with his run (also eclipsing 100 metres), and clocked two try assists for his gorgeous pass to Seb Kris, and his kick for Charnze. He swung to both sides of the ruck, playing first and second receiver on both sides of Wighton. He kicked well, and showed a cool head on a few occasions when Wighton was caught on the 4th in a tackle. It was so pleasing to see him play a key role in attack, including without Wighton’s involvement (such as the Charnze try). He continues to show he can make smart decisions left to his own devices. His goal kicking wasn’t perfect, but he handled the pressure of the moment well. He struggled sometimes in defence as noted above, but that work in progress can be fixed.

Critical too was the performance of the backs. Matt Timoko is already an indispensable part of the back line and we’re 13 games in. He runs like Josh Hodgson runs through doors – unafraid of the contact, and revelling in the destruction he leaves. 2 tries, 7 tackle breaks and 130 plus metres is a handy night. When he caught the ball off Rapana’s pass there were still three defenders around him and I had nothing but surety that he’d score. His pick up of Jack’s grubber was impressive too. Rapana and Charnze both stood up when Canberra needed, even after both of them spent plenty of time with the trainers. Both are unrelenting. Both kept taking dirty carry after dirty carry. Both were around the ball when it was desperately needed, either in defence (such as Charnze’s try saver on Sexton) or attack.

Games like this are easy to get carried away with. It’s important to not forget Canberra were as awful in the first half as they were dynamic in the second. The fixes for the main problem – holding the ball – seems straightforward but is a bit more complicated. Part of the challenge is understanding when to shift and when to battle more, and without experienced players around the ruck, it may take time to get that radar pointed north at the right times. How Whitehead, and to a lesser extent, Corey Horsburgh, continue to play that role as point forwards, and the decisions they make, will take time to perfect. Similarly, that right edge will remain a work in progress while Semi, Schneider and Harawira-Naera share it. A little bit of resolve is what they need now (shouts to Taylor Hawkins, taken too soon) because every team will be aiming at them until they prove they can handle it.

The Green Machine also have a question to solve about their hooking rotation. Starling was clearly more comfortable coming on when the game was a bit looser, but Matt Frawley was not the answer through the first half hour. He was a target in defence, and as a hooker he passed like a halfback (Aidan Sezer will never forgive you Sticky). He didn’t really offer anything off the boot either, which was the main case for him (I assumed). Adrian Trevilyan is apparently not ready (I’m not sure I agree with Sticky on that), so I presume the Raiders will be patient with Frawley. But I think he was what we thought he was.

Regardless, it was so pleasing to see the Raiders fight. That gave me the most heart about this game. They could have given up at any point. Pointed to Hodgson, to Fogarty, to Smith-Shields and a host of other things and said “ah well not our year”. But they raged, and this time the light didn’t die. This time the flame flickered, and caught again, and suddenly I’m as proud about the second half as I am furious about the first. It’s a confusing place to be. Record comebacks require the yin and the yang to take place I guess.

Canberra is now three games into 2022 and has looked like a world beater for three-ish halves and like the spoon contender for the other three. The switch between the two is so chaotic it feels like my toddler is flicking it. The pretence that a bridge has been crossed, or a change has come, is too far for me to go. There is so much work to do, and only a week to fix so many glaring issues. But far out if it isn’t better to be fixing them with a bit of sunshine on their face rather than storm clouds in their minds.

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3 comments

  1. Great write up. Diplomatic re Frawley. I felt bad for him being so out of his depth. Sticky cutting off the journo and insisting “it worked” when asked about Frawley starting felt like a desperate attempt to convince himself! And Hudson Young intercept pass contending with that captain’s challenge for dumbest thing I’ve seen.

    But yeah a lot to like about that comeback. I thought Horse was a catalyst. He and Guler being a strength not a weakness this week was huge. Felt so good to see the Milk dominate with Papa and Tapine off.

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  2. It showed the raiders had heart with passion, they how to play with a team that is not always having there first picks available, they adapt and overcome seen this before from them. With a little more luck, and some regular faces back I.e Jarrod could come in but little more complex now with Timoko playing so well, Nick cortic, gives stability, the later has a good goal kicking, and experience head. Not sticky has him ready yet but like to a see a good rotation. Starling’s 2nd half
    was electric, while frawley was a little slow and steady wins the race. The red horse, and Emre Guler, pick-up there game between when Josh and Taps came off, more like that every game boys. Up the mighty raiders.

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