The Canberra Raiders lost to the North Queensland Cowboys 18-12. They again proved their own worst enemies, turning an understated first half lead into a frustrating collapse that we’ve seen so many times already. Errors, penalties, a tentative and unthreatening attack. It was like a greatest hits of Canberra collapses. They can no longer pretend a better team is lurking. Right now this team’s ineptness lies naked in the cold Canberra breeze for all to see.
For too long this season we’ve been hoping that the Raiders could find some of their best football on a more consistent basis. There have been glimpses. And after last week we had hoped that the nearness of competence wasn’t a tease. A home game against an unimpressive Cowboys team should have been enough for things to finally click. We should stop kidding ourselves.
Canberra did manage to dominate for a period even if they weren’t necessarily playing good footy. It was all based off some strong running from Josh Papalii (16 runs for 159m and 77 post contact), Joe Tapine (15 for 153m, 74 post contact) and Ryan Sutton. Papa had promised a better performance this week, and in the first half he gave it, making the vast majority of his metres in that period, creating second phase play with good offloads. Tapine joined him. And when they were playing tight around the ruck they were wreaking havoc. This resulted in two tries, one where Tom Starling took advantage of some of the most comedic ruck defence you will see, and another when Corey Harawira-Naera’s touch pass on a tight sweeping movement to the right was picked up brilliantly by Jordan Rapana. He caught the difficult pass in one hand, turned in one motion and beat the cover defence easily.
It was 12-0 but it was a shame that it wasn’t more (and it obviously proved costly). Even with the dominance around the ruck Canberra’s attacking movements felt stilted and slow. Often it took one or two passes before anyone was moving at the line at pace. Good teams pour onto the ball and move as one. The Raiders resemble junior footy more, one person handing the ball to the person standing still next to them. It meant that the edge players were never operating in space, and the backs never testing defenders one-on-one.
Part of that was to do with Tom Starling’s service. If it wasn’t a designated hit-up, first receivers often caught the ball at a standstill. When he was ball-playing standing off the ruck, he nearly got men outside him killed with passes they caught in contact. His best work was running on the back of the good work of the middles. He did that brilliantly through the early periods. But as the possession dried up, and the Cowboys tightened their ruck defence, he had less opportunities to run.
Starling wasn’t alone to blame in the lack of points from this dominance. Each key decision maker in the spine had poor moments. Brad Schneider was caught with the ball a lot. He held the ball when he should have played short, played long when he had a runner closer to him, and threw a short ball to Semi Valemei that was both forward and near impossible to catch. He generally spent most of his time unable to decipher the jamming defence North Queensland employed. It’s a learning process and these are the bumps. If only the veterans around him didn’t make such elementary errors that require the young man to show more poise than his experienced counterparts.
Jack Wighton was better, and threatened the line continuously, but he too remains unable to work a way through or around outside pressure. He and Schneider both tried to throw harbor bridge passes to no effect (both probably should have played short). He was smarter than most; staying disciplined with the ball until it was pointless. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had some good involvements on sweeps, but threw an intercept because he’d decided to pass well before the actual play occurred, and as the second-man rarely threatened the line.
Canberra looked less threatening the longer the game wore on, looking more hesitant, and less powerful or cohesive. Indeed the only points they threatened to score after the first few moments was when Tapine put Schneider through on a crash ball. He was held up and the Milk frankly never looked like scoring again.
Not capitalising on their early field position and middle dominance came back to bite the Raiders when things started falling apart in the second half. It was a familiar tale. They started the half lacking the assertiveness and enthusiasm they’d shown in the first stanza. Then errors and ill-discipline reared their ugly heads again. On the first tackle of the second set of the half they gave away a penalty, then another, then Luki charged over Emre Guler’s flailing goal-line attempt. The second try came after Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad dropped the ball cold in contact on a kick return. A change of direction skittled Canberra’s overcommitted middles and the game was tied. Then Xavier Savage, who came on for Nicoll-Klokstad,
flew to close to the sun ran too close to the sideline on a kick return. No one was to blame for Scott Drinkwater’s inch perfect kick that followed, but the Cows wouldn’t have been in position to score if the Milk hadn’t helped them.
These obviously weren’t the only errors. Pick a player and they made a confounding mistake. We’ve mentioned Nicoll-Klokstad’s, but Rapana too dropped the ball right after the Raiders had just won the ball with good defence. Whitehead dropped the ball cold in good position. Timoko fumbled on a nothing dummy-half run. 72 per cent completion rate for the game seems almost OK, but given Canberra completed 12 of 19 sets in the second half (63 per cent) and one of those was a six-again call early in a set, and you get an idea of what happened when it all fell apart.
It was frustrating because the Cowboys did not look like scoring without the Green Machine’s help. The defence again looked more cohesive than the offence. All game they’d been turned away, and without Canberra’s help they rarely approached the attacking zone. Their similarly anodyne shifts were handled with relative ease. When they weren’t, key tackles had been made. Nicoll-Klokstad made a try saver on Val Holmes after an (un)lucky bounce nearly resulted in four points. Schneider made a good hit to bring down Luki and force an error. Nicoll-Klokstad and Harawira-Naera both had key strips that for any other side would have been massive moments of momentum change. In between the Milk had used their defence as a weapon, re-enforcing dominance over the middle, and despite him taking 235m on the ground, broadly limiting the impact of Jason Taumalolo.
But they couldn’t overcome their errors, ill-discipline and the trepidation everyone not named Papalii, Tapine and Adam Elliott (for some reason) seemed to feel running into the line. There’s a switch for this side. They’ve been broken too many times, it’s almost like they expect it. Once the balls start dropping so do the heads, and no matter how many times Jack Wighton kicks early to the corner, it’s only a matter of time before someone else finds an error. It feels helpless to watch. You watch it start to collapse. Then it collapses. And the whole time we sit there and wish it could be different. It never is.
To consider this is the context of the season feels laughable. Canberra had a double-digit lead in a home game against a similarly mediocre team travelling half way across the hemisphere to play. They still coughed it up. The idea of the Milk winning games feels more out of touch than your least favourite politician right now. It almost feels confusing that they’ve won two. Did that happen? Was it all a dream? Talking about finals feels futile. Let’s find two more points first.
Turning this around requires a mental adjustment that is more than just a week to week change. As much as the players’ social media harped on ‘minor adjustments’ recently, it’s not the case for this team. Minor adjustments might get a few more fluid attacking movements. But it won’t build you a heart, nor will it give you courage, intelligence and whatever else you can find down the yellow brick road. The Milk need to alter their mindset. What happens if they get up 12-0 against the (checks next game) *gulp* the Panthers? At what point does losing cease to be the easiest option?
Canberra have a longish break before their next outing. There will be calls for personnel change, and maybe they’ll be made. We’ll consider them in time. But there’s a fundamental issue facing this team and it’s not the individual on the pitch, but rather the collective hive mind of the side. Errors, ill-discipline and a lack of cohesion. Mental fragility. They’ll plague the Milk until they don’t. One can only hope they work it out before it’s too late.
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