The Canberra Raiders’ collective fist ran into its own face in its 25-6 loss to the Manly Sea Eagles. Daly Cherry-Evans’ boot helped, but the ongoing project of 2022 continues to be limited by the inconsistent and imprecise execution of the Milk.
The unique challenge of this game was finding a way to not be Manly’s 2022 launching pad. The Sea-Eagles had turned around an historically poor start to 2021 similarly in Mudgee last year, so no one was fooled by their meek start to this year. Canberra needed to do what other teams had done; muscle up and dominate the Manly middle, keep Tommy Trbojevic in check, and not allow Manly good position without earning it. It seemed so easy. Alas.
Canberra’s middles did their part to an extent. Through the first forty minutes they arguably looked the better of the packs (and outgained their opposition), driving through the middle in an old fashioned arm-wrestle. Joe Tapine was a standout (again) and the only member of the Green Machine’s engine room that cracked a 100 metres. It wasn’t dominance, but it meant the Milk weren’t being edged out of the game. It was matched with a smart plan to bomb at Trbojevic and not let him kick return the Sea-Eagles into a position of dominance. It was a smart scheme only temporarily implemented.
For their part Manly weren’t really interested in fighting the middle of the Raiders’ defence. Instead they took every opportunity they could to run at Canberra’s right edge. Not only for scoring opportunities (though they did find two), but primarily as a way to start brush fires in the Raiders defensive line. Shift the ball to the frailest spot in the defence, make Corey Harawira-Naera, Semi Valemei or Brad Schneider make a desperately difficult effort, and make hay from the momentum and space it caused. I lost count of the number of half breaks, quick rucks and general mayhem that resulted. It wasn’t a new strategy; teams used it to great effect against the Milk in 2021. There was different personnel but the same result here. Trbojevic was a key battering ram. He cracked near 300m for the game (and 84 post contact) consistently hitting that right edge to get sets going.
They also scored twice here, the two moments bookending the game with heartbreak. The first try of the game came when Valemei and Harawira-Naera both turned the bodies to the sideline when the ball was shifted that way. Manly turned the ball inside and Harawira-Naera and Valemei were escorting air. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad tried to save the day, but when he only got mostly there, there was no CNK to save CNK. The second ended the game for all intents and purposes when the Milk’s inside defenders allowed Keiran Foran a free run to the line. This enabled him to drag Brad Schneider in, forcing Semi Valemei into an impossible choice. He got it wrong.
It was a stark reminder of the key issues in the Milk defence. Most other attacking movements were easily handled by the Raiders. When the right appropriately handled a shift – which they did, just not enough – Canberra were able to win rucks and field position. But its tendency to bend, and break, was a pebble in the shoe all game, as it has been all season.
For a period the result was a impasse. Despite this relentless attack on Canberra’s right, they were only down four. Their middle jabbed, Manly stepped to the side and tried to hook. It got the Raiders in some good field position, but they didn’t make as much of that as they could. Their red zone attack hasn’t been stellar this year (or, like, ever), but this felt even more troubled. It seemed like Matt Timoko and Semi Valemei barely touched the ball in good position. Instead the halves would often catch the ball with a wall of defenders already waiting on their outside. It was no surprise that the only try (and one of the only movements that looked like scoring) was Jack Wighton stepping inside defenders off first receiver.
Jamming defence is a problem that the Raiders are yet to solve. The in-game choices are kicking early, taking on the line, or turning it inside. The Milk used each of these to limited benefit. The short kicking game was nearly ok. Nearly there. Nearly in right area. Nearly long enough. But not quite. Taking on the line was the most productive option, but one that wasn’t particularly impactful (Wighton had 8 carries for 49 metres, Schneider 7 for 33). Wighton turned a shift left inside to Tapine up the guts to keep the defence honest. It didn’t work, but it was solitary attempt.
Of course, space could have been opened with backlines set deeper, or middles won more thoroughly. But these needed to be accounted for elsewhere (such as before the game in the case of line depth). The result was that the Raiders could rarely shift with space or fluidity. When they hit their favoured left side attack the ball got stuck with Hudson Young more than once. A developing ball-player, he had no time or space to make decisions. On the other edge that pressure was generally on Schneider, and on occasion Nicoll-Klokstad, and likewise neither thrived.
The impasse, such as it was, was ended through Canberra’s profligacy with the ball and the excellent kicking game of Daly Cherry-Evans. For the third week in a row the ball became caked in soap for an elongated period – this time the entire second half. Through thirty minutes of play in that period the Milk had completed just four sets. Again there was no rhyme or reason to the errors. Some were simple errors; such as Jack Wighton knocking on at acting dummy-half, or Tom Starling’s seemingly ritual forward pass. Others were cases of pushing passes and trying too much (Rapana and Wighton made such errors). Some further were ‘nearly’ moments (like Timoko being unable to pick up a grubber that could have been a try). Too many were experienced players who should have done better, especially after the previous few games.
In the past I’ve said this is, in part, a function of a new style of footy and new faces taking time to evolve and develop. But only some of those errors can be laid at the feet of those gods. Winding the game back won’t stop Starling throwing a forward pass on a simple hit up. It won’t stop Jack dropping the ball at 9. And it won’t help Nicoll-Klokstad catch a bomb. That is simple ill-discipline (as were some poorly timed penalties).
The implication of this was good ball for Manly, more defence and tired legs for Canberra. While they had outgained the Silvertails through the middle in the first half, the Milk could no longer dominate in the way they previously had. Josh Aloiai and Marty Taupau both had 100m on the ground in the second half alone. Jake Trbojevic, hardly a metre-eater picked up 50 easy metres. By comparison, Canberra’s best prop (Tapine) had 14 metres in the second half. No ball and all tackling make Homer go something something (Rob: don’t mind if I do !).
This was only reinforced by brilliant kicking from Daly Cherry-Evans, who in addition to creating two of Manly’s four tries with well placed kicks (i.e the points not scored at Canberra’s right), turned any difficult Sea-Eagle set into a boon with a 40/20, a 20/40, and everything in between. It took an issue the Milk were trying to solve with defence and made it impossible to fix.
And so the Raiders flailed and wailed to a loss. One built as much in their house as Manly’s. Yes Cherry-Evans kicked well. Yes Tommy Trbojevic had his best game of 2022. Yes their right side defence looks like if Achilles was dumped horizontally rather than vertically. But Canberra were in this game up to their eye balls until the ball became lava. It’s the third week in a row this has happened, and without a brilliant comeback last week things would look pretty bleak. The admittedly developing new structure and rebuild is hamstrung right now by an inability to hold the ball.
This is a limitation yes, but also a potentially temporary one. The Raiders 2022 project is a departure in style and membership, relying not only on new thinking but also new players and combinations that are still finding their feet. Difficult nights like this are to be expected while this is all still being put together. That doesn’t make these games any less frustrating. But it does implore us to not give up on this outfit just yet. This problem is easy to fix, and we’ll get a much better idea of what the potential of this side is when they do.
For now though Canberra are in developmental stasis. They can’t find a way forward if they can’t get out of their own way. It appears time will be the solution to this problem, and even with the challenging draw on the horizon, time is something the Raiders have. Those last gasp wins against the Sharks and Titans may be all that stands between the Milk and a horrendous start. However they are facts, and remain a buffer that the Milk need to get the balance right.
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