Raiders Rumble! Raiders v Melbourne

BY DAN

Repent! Repent! For the time of judgement is at hand.

If ever there was a “this might get worse before it gets” better, it’s playing like *that*, then looking up for redemption in the draw and seeing the Melbourne freaking Storm waiting for you. The Melbourne Storm who just put 40 on the Dogs without breaking a sweat. The Melbourne Storm who now have *both* of their elite hookers back healthy. The team who, on occasion, have Cameron Munster swanning about as a fourth (fifth?) option in attack.

Oh boy.

An optimist will tell you Canberra can win this game, and they’re not wrong. The Milk have made a habit over the years of winning absolutely random games, sandwiched by losing games they should win. But this feels different. Even the wins this year have been a manic struggle, relying on periods of dominance to make up for the as long (or longer) intervals of pain. It’s hard to mess around and catch-up against Melbourne. If you clock off for the briefest moment then the Storm will be have way to banking those competition points.

We have taken this game to the good people of Wagga Wagga, a town close to my heart. It kills me I can’t be there. McDonalds Park is a gorgeous little ground and while it should be a heavy Raiders crowd, it’s within driving distance of Melbourne. Have a beer, settle in and hope good things happen. How nice is Saturday arvo footy. I hope the sun shines on the Canberra Raiders, literally and metaphorically.

Who’s playing

Canberra have put forth the same 17 as last week, meaning the only thing the Raiders didn’t drop this week was players. It’s not entirely surprising. If you followed any of the players’ social media you’d see they were all talking “minor tinkering” and that sort of vibe. It suggests a mindset that there not as far away as their performances suggest. I hope they’re right.

As we said at the top the Storm look pretty close to full strength. There’s not really weaknesses. You could say the pack was old. It’s pretty good for an old pack. The bench rotations aren’t excellent, until Bellamy makes them so. We can’t be far off that.

What we’ll be watching

The first rule of fight club rugby league is hold the ball. As we’ve written ad nauseum the Raiders have ignored that rule plenty this season. It’s part building new connections in a more expansive style of footy. We’re crossing fingers, but at some point the passes hopefully start to stick. In the meantime better decisions about when to push the ball need to be made, taking into account game context as well as the immediate difficulty. This is brazenly obvious, and everyone, including the players would know it, but the fact we have to write it is kinda the problem.

Even if the passes are sticking it’s not clear if Canberra currently have the strategies and the talent to beat the Storm. I say not clear because we simply do not know. They’ve played about a full game’s worth of football in which they’ve managed to maintain a decent amount of possession. It’s hard to know if anything is working consistently because there’s been nothing consistent about the footy.

Instead of just continuing to drop the ball this week I’d love to see some common sense where a senior player steps up and starts getting the attack to smarter places in a less risky fashion, be it through a hard carry, an early kick, or some hustle plays. Jack and Tom Starling did it against the Titans. Maybe they’re who we should be looking to.

It was interesting to see Adam Elliott play the Elliott Whitehead role as a key linking forward. Smelly only played 30 odd minutes against Manly. It was hard to tell how well Adam went because of the dropping thing. Hopefully we get another look at that this week.

We’ll also be watching (through our fingers splayed like we’re watching a horror film) what Cam Munster, Kenny Bromwich and Justin Olam do to our right side defence. A much lesser side gave it real trouble last week. This is a set of players who’ve torn much better defences to shreds. Corey Harawira-Naera in particular has to put pressure on Munster so Semi and Brad aren’t dealing with a cavalcade of line runners with space (not to mention Papenhuyzen out the back. Good god).

How Canberra can win

Canberra can’t win if the Storm get to shift the ball to their edges in space. So they need to make sure their defensive line-speed is at a place it hasn’t been this year. To do this they need fresh middles, which means not dropping so much ball, but also making sure the back five do more than their share of work in yardage. Helping the defence through better attack isn’t rocket science but it’s honest work.

It feel silly to say “with the ball”, but the key with the Storm is to stay patient. They’ll make you look insipid at times, but as the Bunnies showed in round 2, and the Eels showed in round 3, you can score points against them if you can shift the point of attack in space. You gotta win the middle to do that. You have to hold the ball to do that. I guess you gotta start somewhere.

The outcome

Raiders by a Brad Schneider field goal.

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