The Canberra Raiders 30-16 loss to the Melbourne Storm (and themselves) was a familiar tale. Canberra are a team unable to find a way to compete and complete on a consistent basis. They spent as much time beating themselves as the other side. While they may wish to remain patient in their build into the 2022 season, the pressure is growing on them to find their best football.
The loss was familiar in a sense. The inability of the Raiders to hold the ball has been the story of recent weeks, and a 64 percent completion rate won’t win you many games, let alone against a side like the Storm. In other weeks the the Milk had vacillated between competency and abject ineptness. They’d dropped the ball without looking like threatening, a conga-line of capitulation as they played the role of Tyler Durden beating himself up in the car-park.
But this loss had a different tinge. Runs, metres, line breaks tackle busts, penalties and even errors were all pretty much the same. In any other week you would assume a closer game. This week was a tale of being nearly competent. Threatening to finally click, and never being able to find the right bits of cohesion to do so. They were dominated, then regrouped, then tested the Storm. At every point they nearly competed, nearly held the line, nearly cut them the Storm to shreds, nearly succeeded. But against a side as brutally efficient as the Storm, nearly doesn’t cut it.
Take for example the performance of the middles. In the macro sense it was, in the most part, a fine performance. Josh Papalii (9 for 106m and 51 post contact) and Joe Tapine (13 for 116m, 52 post contact) had perfectly adequate performances against the excellent Melbourne pack. Corey Horsburgh (11 for 89), Emre Guler (7 for 69) and Ryan Sutton (7 for 67) all had their moments in support. When the middle could win a ruck then Tom Starling was able to make some incisive runs through the middle. For the vast majority of the last sixty or so minutes of the game they held their own with the Storm pack.
But they were owned in the first twenty minutes of the game. The Storm ate Canberra’s middle alive, making metres directly punching up the guts. Quick rucks followed, and Melbourne were able to do what they wanted. The defensive line became chaotic, as everyone scrambled to keep a lid on what was bubbling over. On two of the three early tries, the Storm were camped on the Raiders’ line, and ended scoring within a pass on either side of the ruck after tiring the defence with patient attack. On one the normally stout ‘A’ defender Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was bowled over by a dummy-half run that would normally attract multiple defenders. On another help defence was late on one side, and lazy on the other when Jerome Hughes took an offload and careened back to the posts where there should have been help. This was repeated on this second try at the end of the game.
Another try came when Cameron Munster found the small guy in the line and punched right through the heart of the defence. Later Munster was able to coast across the ground with no inside pressure to put Brad Schneider and Semi Valemei in an impossible position on the Olam try. Some of these tries were directly the errors of middle defenders. Others were mistakes made by outside backs. But they all began with a middle that was open like a bore creating a tunnel for the first portion of the game, and then later taken advantage of in the Storm’s limited opportunities.
The middles also played their role in the sputters of the offence. With Elliott Whitehead on the left edge, the bigs played a bigger role as links through the middle third. This worked well for a good majority of the game, and many good movements started with interplay between two props. It is an important part of a functioning Canberra offence. But it was limited by putting props in positions they aren’t necessarily suited to. More than once opportunities were missed when a key forward got caught with the ball a pass or two wide of the ruck. I couldn’t help but think of the excellent ball-play of Harry Rushton in the reggies game and wonder if he might be useful to this side, particularly with Whitehead playing on an edge.
This reads like a castigation of the performance of the middles but they weren’t that bad. As mentioned earlier they were dominated earlier, but they re-grouped and had control of much of the rest of the match. But after 22 minutes Canberra were in an 18-2 hole they never got out of. Then moments of weakness later in the game were all the Storm needed to take advantage of. The Milk may get away with such down periods in future games. Melbourne don’t allow such latitude.
The middle weren’t alone in such lumpy play. Canberra’s backline looked practically thrilling at points, shifting with ease around the Melbourne defence through the back half of the game. They played with a pace to the line, focused on getting the ball to Jack Wighton or Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in space and allowing them to use the talent around them to create. Wighton, primarily operating on the left, created real problems for the opposition, taking 150 metres from his 15 runs. He was always a threat, and with the help of Matt Timoko in the first half, was often able to get through and around the Storm defence. But in red zone attack he managed to drop a ball cold, throw a pass into Whitehead’s feet, and another above Ryan Sutton’s head for set-ending errors. He kicked at least two grubbers dead when the Green Machine desperately needed to build pressure.
In fact the only try that came on the left was from a well-worked movement that ended with a near perfect catch-pass from Nicoll-Klokstad. It’s something we’ve been waiting to see him develop over the years, and it was exciting to see him such a difficult pass under so much pressure. But Charnze also put a ball into the ground when he, and Corey Harawira-Naera outside him, were in acres of space. It was simultaneously a terrible pass from Charnze, and evidence of the difficulties of cohesion Canberra are facing now, with Harawira-Naera inexplicably veering towards the sideline when a straighter line was warranted. It was another mixed outing for the custodian, with a defensive try-saver, another near try-saver, a try assist outweighed by that passing error and a dropped bomb that led to Olam’s try. He wasn’t alone in kick diffusal errors, with another try being set up by Nic Cotric’s error on a kick return.
For his part Brad Schneider saw another game with little to no space. He was terrorised by Munster teeming out of the line. While it made his day difficult, and he was less effective than he would have liked, he still managed to play an important role in Canberra’s first try – where he, Jordan Rapana and Harawira-Naera all showed good hands to get the ball to Semi Valemei in space (and didn’t he take advantage). He was often the Raiders main kicker in attack, and only had one grubber that was poor. By then the game was gone anyway.
Many but not all of Canberra’s errors were in attack and at the end of nearly putting together a worthwhile movement. Handling errors. Kicking errors. Passes thrown into the ground in space. It’s a sign that perhaps there structures are right, but their cohesion and execution remains lacking. It was better than previous weeks in which it was impossible to tell if they had either, such was their ineptness. They’re still feeling out this game-plan. I’d have hoped they would have worked this out before round five, but perhaps an epiphany is coming. Some glorious moment where all the sputtering becomes a fountain. One can only hope,and that’s part of the problem. They’ll likely be doing it without one of their lone bright lights so far after Matt Timoko injured his ankle at the end of the first half. It’s another injury they can ill afford, particular if they’re intent on building anything approaching fluidity.
There are moments but they are too few. It’s the gap between the Raiders and being a good footy team right now. It’s hardly rocket surgery to suggest, but they can’t expect to compete if they can’t find a route to cohesion and execution on a consistent basis. This game showed them what good teams with good ball should be able to do. Canberra weren’t able to do that, and they weren’t able to stop it. The longer it takes them to find cohesion, discipline and efficiency, the greater the pressure will grow to do so. With a short turn-around for the Cowboys on Thursday, and the Panthers in their near future, time is running out.
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