The 36-6 annihilation of the Canberra Raiders by the Penrith Panthers was thorough, frustrating and revealing. Beaten so completely at the point of contact, and in creativity, Canberra showed courage to stay in the fight for as long as they did. But the gap between the sides was so vast, the dominance of one over the other so complete, that resolve meant little. The Raiders proved that they are still willing to fight for their season, but also showed that the limitations currently plaguing their game persist.
If there was a Raiders’ fan that thought they would (or even could) win this game I hadn’t met them. Instead, everyone around the side, from the coach, to the (new) captain, and the fan base, was imploring an effort they could be proud of. A little bit of resolve. A touch of heart. A willingness to stick fast and prove that the confused, inept performances of recent weeks were obstacles that could be overcome, rather than proof this team had given up so early in the season. The Raiders showed that. It was nowhere near enough.
They faced an onslaught rarely seen in such a complete fashion in rugby league. The Panthers beat Canberra with patience and enthusiasm. Their remarkable line-speed and physicality smashed the Raiders soul, rendering them like children playing stuck in the mud. Ball-carriers were gang-tackled, and battled until they submitted. There was so many seemingly-dominant runs that turned into debacles by the effort and sheer numbers that the Penrith team was able to send into the tackle. No one caught the ball in space, no one ran through the line. It was rare to even see it bend. Every carry felt like running uphill in a rockslide. Credit must be given to Penrith. They are the best team in the league right now.
It felt hopeless. Canberra simply couldn’t win a ruck. Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine were the most effective but this is grading on a curve – they both were below 100m and averaged around 7 metres a run. The other middle forwards were spirited but couldn’t make a dent. It was rare that a forward hit their belly in attack. The back five were also ineffective. What used to be a weapon for the Raiders, a get-out-of-jail-free card, was rendered a weakness (and not for the first time this season). Jordan Rapana had 10 carries for 47 metres. Xavier Savage had 8 carries for 39 metres (and two errors in exit sets). Nic Cotric was probably the most effective back, which is faint praise, and he had 8 carries for 67 metres. No Raider player, middle or otherwise cracked a 100m on the ground. I can’t remember ever seeing that before.
To beat this the Raiders needed to move the defensive line. To test it at different points. Make them account for multiple options, unable to just hurtle towards the ball carrier like an unrepentant mob. But they couldn’t do this in any consistent way. Tom Starling waited for the Milk to win a ruck but was given so few options to do what he does best. He doesn’t have the ability to easily shift the defence with either deception at, or width from, the ruck. He needs forwards to clear him some space so he can run or ball play. There was no mistake his best moment – a beautiful pass to Joe Tapine running an even more studly line for their only points – came off the back of one of the few times the Panthers line was bent (on this occasion by Corey Harawira-Naera getting a good face ball from Brad Schneider that saw him get deep into the line).
Starling couldn’t shift the defence himself, and without Elliott Whitehead there wasn’t really anyone else to take the role. Adam Elliott had a few cracks, tipping the ball onto other forwards and linking to the halves, but his passing game is tighter than what the Raiders needed. Papalii and Horsburgh also played a role in this. But none of them looked comfortable, and everything was easily read by the defence. By the time Harry Rushton got on, they were in such a battle with the Panthers defence that the idea of shifting the ball seemed a luxury. They were simply trying to get through a tackle without being pushed back five metres. It’s hard not to think that perhaps greater involvement of the halves at first receiver is a simple change that could help. If only to allow Brad Schneider to touch the ball without an edge defender already tickling his toes.
The lack of space, and the fact that every effort to run the ball was as effective as throwing sand in the wind, meant that any idea of the backs getting involved through shifts was all but thrown out the window. If the ball got past Harawira-Naera on the right, or Hudson Young on the left, I don’t remember it. Partly this came from an attack that was too conservative and lacking creativity or willingness to try anything of surprise. But given the handling issues that have plagued the side in recent weeks, it was understandable. Canberra wanted to grind, and simply were beaten by a team better than them at it. This hole was dug before this week.
In all it meant they struggled to get out of their own half. You have probably seen the stats by now. Almost zero tackles in the Panthers half in the second stanza, and not many more in the first. Outgained by 1751 metres to 747. Canberra made 130 more tackles (which, by my count is effectively 21 more sets). It was compounded by the Panthers patient attack, willing to work over the Milk’s middle, patiently wearing them down over the game. It seemed every set of the second half started with the Panthers on their 40, whereas the Raiders were stuck on their own line.
It also meant that any error took on huge weight, and didn’t help their inability to get over halfway. Their first error in the second half – by Savage on a yardage carry – ended with a try to Stephen Crichton. Their second – being offside on the resulting kickoff – ended with a penalty try to Crichton. A third error followed on the post-try-set (Rapana unable to diffuse a bomb), and then another on the next set (Tapine’s pass to Brad Schndier) could have made matters worse. The Raiders gave away a blocking penalty on their next set, and didn’t see the ball again until the Panthers had scored. Three tries in 12 minutes between the 55th and 67th minutes. Courageous defence undone by three errors in a game where they made the same amount of mistakes as their opposition (8 each). Canberra also gave away too many penalties (14 infringements to 6). There were some fifty-fifty calls in there (such as Crichton’s second try and the penalty goal on the stroke of halftime) but there were more that were simply idiotic (the kick-off penalties, and Adam Elliott’s blocking play, and Harawira-Naera’s stripping penalty).
That they held on for so long was impressive. Throughout the first sixty minutes of the game the Green Machine routinely turned the Panthers away. For the most part it looked like they could handle the Panthers attack. Despite the position and possession disadvantages they showed a resilience and a capability to handle what was thrown at them. They were physical in defence and had decent line speed for much of the match, despite only having 40 per cent of the ball. In particular the left edge felt resolute in a way it hasn’t in recent weeks.
That’s not to say there wasn’t defensive weaknesses. Api Koroisau and Soni Luke tested the middle defenders consistently, and at times it looked ragged. This was critical in the first try of the game, when Koroisau held three defenders tight to the ruck, creating the overlap that resulted in Crichton’s first. Later a quick ruck saw Luke take off and put Isaah Yeo in between Harawira-Naera and Ryan Sutton, who both tackled air while he scored. The right edge held fast for a while, but at the end of the game it was where the Panthers went in search of points. Because the game was one side attacking the other, rather than a back-and-forth, the dam wall eventually broke because the ability shown in defence wasn’t replicated in attack.
These sorts of games against the best usually reveal these weaknesses, but I would be surprised if anyone watching this game was surprised by the faults that were found. These problems have been announced so proudly by the Raiders this year that it was more interesting to see them continue to fight despite them. They were thoroughly beaten but for once they didn’t capitulate. This is a good sign, if only in that it tells us that Canberra have the heart to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in.
Do they have the ability though? They still can’t win a ruck consistently, and can’t test defences, either because they’re too busy dropping the ball, or too busy trying to not drop the ball to build pressure or create anything threatening. The inability to play with any pace, creativity, or width makes them easy to corral. They don’t seem to play with a plan and they cannot get down the ground – they have the least metres gained in the competition. While they were better in this game, they still made critical errors, and gave away infuriating penalties. They still carry a pointless bench player each week. It’s a bad mix, and results in their defence, which is good but not elite, having to cover for a multitude of sins. Against the worst teams in the league that might work, but given they’ve only cracked 20 points twice this season, it’s not a high-base to work from.
Canberra got shown the bar in this game, and thirty points feels an accurate representation of how far off it they are. There’s a mountain of improvement needed to get out of this hole and they’ll need determination to get there. In this game they showed they had the heart for the fight, but that was meaningless when the opposition was of such quality. They’ll face more manageable opposition in the coming weeks and they desperately need wins. But they need more than just a good attitude. They need improvement, and fast.
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