The Canberra Raiders have a ball-handling problem (title of my…ok ok ok we’re adults here). Barely completing four sets in a half a week after only completing seven in a half. That came a week after 53% completion rate against the Cowboys. The fact that they’re still 2-2 despite this speaks to the potential of this group. Nevertheless, it’s been a bumpy start to the season.
These errors fall into three broad categories. Some are just straight up drops, moments of madness where the thing you’ve done a million times doesn’t get done right. Jack fumbling the ball at dummy-half. Papalii losing the ball getting up to play it. Some are the fault of still developing skills. Tommy Starling’s forward passes, and Charnze’s drops in the attacking line come from a set of capabilities that are (hopefully) still building. The final category are pushed passes, stemming in part from chasing an opportunity, but also a new playing style emphasising width, and second phase play that can result in risks being taken with connections that aren’t yet welded by the fires of repetition and experience.
The issue isn’t any one of these categories. As you can see from our list of errors in the second half against Manly, there’s a generous mix of all three.
This is each Canberra set in the second half. I may have missed a six again here or there but I can’t be bothered checking my work, so let’s call it indicative only. Five pushed passes (two of which are clear “chasing a deficit” mistakes), two developing skill limitations (Tommy and CNK), two straight up drops (Jack and Tapine) and two kick-catch errors. It’s a solid mix.
It would be worthy to eliminate the mistakes from any of these categories alone. But really, the issue isn’t any one category. Drops aren’t fine, but they will happen. The issue facing the Raiders is that they seem to be more contagious than coronavirus. One begets another, and another, and before you’re humble correspondent can mark down that a set ended with an error, another one already has. God knows the R-value on Canberra’s blunders right now but it’s high.
It’s here that it becomes noteworthy that the Green Machine are missing some old heads. These are the players you’d expect to be able to direct the team to a spot on the field, get an early kick away to a corner, and hopefully stem the tide to string a few completions together and settle the team down. Unfortunately Josh Hodgson and Jamal Fogarty are injured. Jarrod Croker is playing reggies. The relatively newly minted experienced leader of the side, Elliott Whitehead, has a new role which means different rotations. He spent most (all? It seems like all) of the horror second half watching from the bench. Unfortunately for the Milk, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Josh Hodgson is not walking through that door. Jamal Fogarty won’t be back for a while yet. Canberra have to work with what they’ve got.
You’ll note that the remaining experienced or otherwise nominally intelligent players made many of the above errors. In fact only the kick-catch attempts – which were Timoko competing for unclaimed balls (no don’t) – and the Horsburgh offload, came from players who have the excuse of (relative) inexperience. Jack Wighton, Jordan Rapana, Joe Tapine and their more experienced brethren have had the luxury of letting other take responsibility for the direction of the team, and the insurance that smart footy follows dumb (I mean preferably smart following smart but beggars can’t be choosers at this point). It’s time for them to take a bigger role in making sure that when things start going to the shit that someone grabs the game by the proverbial balls. Or maybe just holds the ball (ok guys seriously let’s be adults).
To be fair, there have been moments where Wighton and Rapana have tried to do exactly that. Jack, with Tom Starling’s help, managed exactly this at the start of the second half against the Titans. It was the foundation of a comeback. And when things start going south, Jordy will always be around the ball trying to take a hard carry and make sure something happens. Sometimes that something isn’t 100 per cent what you want, but you can’t fault the attitude. Regardless, the experienced players of this club have to play a bigger role as “all the time” leaders, not just filling in.
So call it a learning process. The old veteran leadership is gone, and new ones are emerging. It’s time for them to step and take the reigns before Canberra fumbles their season away.
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