Raiders Rumble! Raiders v Panthers Round 7 Preview

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders have two wins in 2022 and are staring down the barrel of a sixth loss. They’re coming off the coach looking down the camera (metaphorically) and telling them they haven’t been good enough. They face the defending champions, who are in scintillating form. Things are so bad for the Raiders that they couldn’t even get a helping hand from the NRL’s judicial system, who decided Nathan Cleary’s alleged hip drop was only fine worthy. And then the Tigers went and upset the Eels to put the Milk one win from the spoon (although, they’re also one win from the 8 but that just makes the pain of losing twice to the Cowboys worse).

So things are pretty rosy then.

It’s hard to plan for a victory in these circumstances. Beating the Panthers requires not just discipline and resilience, but excellence for 80 minutes. Canberra have had moments so far this season, but no game has seen that extend beyond sixty minutes. Something has happened to the Raiders over the last few weeks that is not quite unexplainable, but definitely hard to nail down perfectly. They’ve dropped ball, they’ll looked bereft of ideas. It feels so far from the optimism I felt post round one. They’ve seemed like they don’t know what style of footy they’re playing – drifting between bash-and-barge to shift-and-drop with whatever the opposite of flair is (abject confusion?). I can’t tell if the style of footy played in the pre-season and round one has been completely abandoned, or if the game has been simplified to help them gel quicker.

They need to work out which soon. The defensive structures have have actually looked relatively robust. For the most part teams are scoring when they’re invited to camp on the Green Machine’s line. The defence could be improved, but right now it’s streets ahead of the offence, and only really stressed when the attack collapses. Here’s the only stat that matters so far – Canberra has made the least metres in the competition.

It’s not for lack of trying. They also are right up the top in offloads. So that’s on handling. It’s on style. It’s on the yardage work of the back three, and because of the ineffective work of the second rotation. It’s reflective of a general malaise. So while they keep stumbling and fumbling with the ball, it won’t matter how together their defence is.

Who is playing

Well how about that. Xavier Savage is apparently ready for top line footy now, so he’s on at the wing. I’m confused as to what has changed this week to make him ready, but Sticky would know I guess. I assume he’ll swap around with Rapana a fair bit in attack. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s poor form has seen him sent to the bench, which is weird. There’s speculation about his health, and I would have given him a week or so to properly rest, either physically or mentally, rather than this halfway house. Maybe he switches into the starting line-up on game day, but then you’d just be shifting X back to 14, which seemed such a silly way to use him. I am confused by Nicoll-Klokstad at 14 as I was about Savage. Under what circumstances is he used? Only time will tell.

Everything else is as it was last week except for the insertion of Harry Rushton instead of Emre Guler. I had called for his introduction last week, so I’m glad to see him playing and pumped for his Canberra debut. It’s been a long trip so congratulations to the young man. He’ll bring a bit of mobility and ball play to the middle that the Milk have been lacking since Elliott Whitehead went back to the edge.

What we’re watching

Can the Raiders find a way to test the Panthers defence? They need to hold the ball, but they also need more from their back three, and their middle forwards to get them the in-set-momentum to shift the ball effectively. At the front Papalii and Tapine have actually been useful this year, but it’s not been the same from the bench.

Similarly, a strength of Canberra’s has always been the yardage work of the back three. But teams with good kicking games are bombing at Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Nic Cotric to a) test them on the catch and b) get them in a corner and make sure they have numbers on the return. None are breaking tackles, with all three well below their tackle-break averages from previous years (Cotric and Rapana are at 2.5ish a game, Nicoll-Klokstad well below that. They’re all averaging less tackle-breaks than young gun Matt Timoko and he played last week in discomfort. Xavier Savage will get his shot this week, and my bet is he’s the player catching most of the kicks as a horde of Panthers zero in on him. Nathan Clearly can make a bomb float, swing, and sing in the air, so X, Rapa and Cotric (and I guess Charnze if he comes on?) will be under pressure. I pray the boys’ ribs hold up.

To borrow from Raiders Review with Blake and the Pork the rotation forwards, and the back three must find a way to improve on what Canberra have offered so far. If the Raiders can get more penetration through the middle then it opens up so much of their game. Tom Starling looks brilliant in a bit of space, and Buttriss without it. Jack Wighton is playing good footy at the moment but he looks dynamic running at the line with options around him. Brad Schneider would love to be able to breath without opposition edge defenders being able to tell what he had for breakfast. He’s done amazingly to keep his composure with no space, but what if we got him some space to work in anyway?

How Canberra wins

You’re not going to beat the Panthers by playing it safe. There’s no one spot they need to attack but Canberra can’t hope for Penrith to let them win. They need to prove they can compete in the middle and then play a bit of footy off the back of it. They’ve done that intermittently this season. God knows when they’ll do it for a whole game, but now would be a good time to start.

The outcome

Raiders by minus 20.

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