The Canberra Raiders are in a battle with themselves, and they are losing.
Their 21-20 loss to the New Zealand Warriors was one born in the bowels of their character. Forged by the cowardice and confusion that seems to permeate every pore of their collective body. They are inept. They are scared. They are playing in hope they won’t make an error, rather than with any determination to win. If it feels hopeless, it’s because it is.
This game should have been the start of something for the Milk. They’ve been beaten by good teams and the Cowboys this season (who might be good? I don’t know). This was a chance to right the ship; to prove they were better than the sum of the last month or so. Instead they did little but prove the horrible truth; if they avoid the spoon this season it will be a minor miracle.
Instead they practically gave victory to a team that was even worse than them. Every single point the Warriors scored came off the back of Canberra errors. They had to be scored like that because New Zealand were dropping the ball even more than the Green Machine (their 59% completion rate for the game was less than the Milk’s 70%). Combine that with getting handily beaten by the Raiders’ pack and they wouldn’t have had scoring opportunities if they weren’t served them on a platter. Jordan Rapana donated them their first two tries. One came through a unnecessary and poorly executed pass to Nic Cotric on a kick return (who played his part in the disaster by going full “does not compute” when the ball bounced in front of him). A tackle later and the still recovering defensive line was not numerous enough to keep the opposition out The other came when Rapana slipped after a horrible bounce chasing a kick. That wasn’t his fault, but it was still his error.
The Warriors second half points similarly came after Canberra errors. Euan Aitken ran past a statuesque Brad Schneider. He was frozen by indecision and it meant no one took the lead runner, but the fact New Zealand was down there came from an earlier error by the otherwise impressive Joe Tapine (such is the Raiders’ malaise that even their good performers make critical, game-changing errors). A (questionable) Corey Horsburgh penalty tied the game up, but the Warriors were only in range because Schneider couldn’t handle an easy catch that he only dropped because he so clearly second-guessed himself. Then Tom Starling committed that heinous error on the first set of golden point; a forward pass so perfectly situated for New Zealand they’d won the game within thirty seconds.
Five scoring opportunities. All built by Canberra, as if they laid the road to salvation for the tortured Warriors franchise themselves. And these weren’t the only errors. A second half completion rate in the 50s actually hides just how clumsy it was. Even the sets they held the ball ended with the ball dribbling over the goal line or in an unfired shot, all bluster and no delivery.
It’s a shame because it wasted a handy performance by the middle. They outgained their opposition by near 300 metres, and doubled their output from last week. Josh Papalii (11 for 113m) was back to his role as a battering ram. The Warriors were so intent on stopping him from offloading that he usually had three or four defenders crawling over him every carry. He did well regardless. Joe Tapine was also excellent. He was often first receiver, tasked with making those pass-run decisions that the Raiders’ middle have got wrong on so many occasions this season. For the most part he got them right, and it brought some ball-play to the middle that has been desperately lacking this season. When he carried (164 for 138m), he was the Milk’s best, and his 57 post contact metres showed how difficult it was to get him down. Corey Horsburgh (13 for 143m), and Ryan Sutton (13 for 113m) also cracked 100m on the ground, and big Red in particular had his best performance of the season (even though he added a second-half handling error, an infuriating offside on the kick penalty, and that late-game penalty to make sure no one gets too carried away).
That they did so well is a minor miracle given the service they got. Tom Starling had his worst game of the season. His service was slow and sloppy. He looked tentative and out-of-sync with those around him. He got caught dancing in place, so often in the red zone. His five runs for 25 metres is hardly the output on the ground you’d want from a player whose strength is running the ball. I kept waiting for him to take off after a good Tapine or Papalii carry, but he just didn’t. It was a surprise, because the games where the forwards are opening holes are when one would expect him to thrive. Instead he was outshone by Adam Elliott at hooker, who had his best game for the Milk, adding some handy runs to mediocre service (which, you know, is a relative win considering).
The service issue stung the Milk the most in the red zone. On every attacking set after Starling came on to the field the Raiders struggled to get outside first receiver. Attacking sets would end up never actually shooting a shot. Because Starling is not really a creator, there was nothing close to the ruck (when in reality there was nothing but unsteady defence and opportunities there). But his inability to play with width also kept them stuck fishing one off the ruck where the defence was plentiful. Their second try only got wide to Jack in space because Adam Elliott threw a brilliant offload that allowed Brad Schneider and Wighton some space to play a bit of footy. The third try, a well worked attacking piece in which Harry Rushton brought the width the move needed (a perfectly placed pass), ended with Jack Wighton beating some ineffective defence, and was the last moment Canberra’s attack got wider than one pass wide of the ruck for some time. After scoring three tries attacking the Warriors right edge they never made it back.
This has been an issue with the Raiders attack for some time, but it’s rarely felt so hopeless. Last season when this happened many pinned it at Josh Hodgson’s feet, and likewise it can’t be put on a single person right now. Starling is playing a role. But so is a lack of direction, cohesion and inventiveness. Inconsistent passing by the middle forwards didn’t help. The reliance of Jack on Schneider shifting to the left side as first receiver to allow Wighton to attack opposition edges tips off oppositions to where Canberra is heading, allowing edges to jam hard on them. As does the minimal creative role the fullback plays in the attack. The result is that the longer the game goes, the harder it is to get wide, as teams key onto where the attack is headed.
This mess was compounded by an ineffective kicking game, particularly in attack. Neither Jack nor Schneider put any pressure on a team that had capitulated to kicking not seven days ago. The young halfback twice kicked it dead, once kicked it out, and never put a ball in a place where the catcher would be in a position to score. Wighton’s kicks went sideways. Rapana also grubbered dead. If it wasn’t for Hudson Young’s beautiful grubber early in the second half there would have been almost no short kick that put any pressure on the opposition. Even that good kick ended poorly for the Milk, through a mixture of Savage’s tentativeness in not diving on the ball, and Hudson Young’s ill-advised swinging arm.
There are fixes. Brad Schneider looked so comfortable playing in a bit of space, so the earlier he can touch the ball on a shift the better. Utilising edge runners more can only help. Both backrowers and Matt Timoko had good runs when they got the ball before the line, and Xavier Savage made everyone’s heart flutter when he finally got the ball with a bit of grass in front of him. Add in continued punch through the middle, and a kicking game and maybe you have something. Canberra have shown this at times. The first half could have been twenty-zip if not for, well, you know. There is an ability there, and possibility that all this can be something functional.
But all that is theoretical because Canberra have proven they can’t do these things. At least not for any period of time. Handling errors and other mistakes engulf the Raiders, an insidious spirit devouring them from the inside. They build on each other as the doubt, the hesitation, the fear, takes over. The longer the game goes the worse they play. And like in this game, the opposition is just a bystander in this self-defeating dance. To paraphrase my dude Tim Freedman, they’ll need some time to get over this, but a moment is all they can spare.
I feel for Coach Stuart. His tried and true “we’ve got 17 boys back there hurting” is no longer true. They’re shaking, scared of failure, so petrified of the outcome their ineptitude may lead to that they manifest it through tentative action. This team cannot be fixed by trying harder. That’s not the problem. The will is there, but the sickening cocktail of skill deficit, poor strategy and structure, and saturating doubt is drowning this team. What have they become, my sweetest friends?
I don’t know how this team addresses this. As they’ve all admitted, it’s mental. They’re just a lion in search of the nerve to face their flaws. Overcoming that which is built more perfectly into them than any structure or set play will take more than just courage. It will take a resolve that this side hasn’t shown in a few years. Like Jake Taylor said, they’re looking for something they’ve lost, and they better find it again. Without it there’s nothing but pain ahead.
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