Welcome to Spoon Bowl 1.
Things are desperate in Canberra. After last week’s debacle, the CEO had to issue an edict that it was everyone’s fault but his and Sticky’s. The noise about the Raiders being in contention for the first wooden spoon since 1982 got so loud that the Milk have done the only thing they could do.
Break the Jarrod Croker emergency glass.
The sirens have sounded. The water is pouring down onto our faces from the sprinklers, but it’s just hiding the tears of joy. The media (and us) will spend the next few days finding every angle on a puff piece about Jarrod. It’s a distraction reminiscent of Brad Schneider’s debut last year, but I don’t care. I don’t know if Jarrod can cut it at first grade level. There’s been not much cutting it at first grade level the last few weeks, so I’m happy to take the punt. After all, the worst that can happen is that Croker gets to go out knowing he was done, rather than this purgatory he’s been in recently. At best, we get to see a legend fly one more time. And maybe, just maybe, he makes 300.
Can the Raiders win? That seems silly to ask right now. No one will believe they’re going to win a game until they’re up by more tries than there are minutes left. But they have to. You can call it a test of character. Canberra have failed their share recently. This is last chance saloon stuff, for their season as well as several players if Donnie boy is to be believed. I don’t doubt they’re desperate. It just depends whether that will turn into the sport equivalent of charging over the trenches, or if they’ll be huddled in the mud awaiting their fate.
Apart from Jarrod, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is back. His production was very impressive in NSW Cup last week, but I didn’t watch, so it’s hard to know if the tentativeness that entered his game in recent weeks evaporated with a week of clear air. He’s joined by Timoko back to his natural right side, and Rapana and Cotric on the wings. To be honest, it’s how I thought the 2022 team would line up (post Harley Smith-Shields injury). Missing out is Semi Valemei (minor knee injury) and Xavier Savage (COVID symptoms).
Seb Kris is in 16, which is probably cover for Croker (or CNK) thing doesn’t go well, or an opportunity for him to play some rotation minutes as a forward. I like him as a 13, but we’ll see whether he gets time there. He’s joined on the bench by Corey Harawira-Naera, who, underutilised or no, has had an less than stellar 2022. Co-captain Whitehead is back at 12, adding attacking support to Brad Schneider and someone that will hopefully get Matt Timoko some ball in good positions. Harry Rushton misses out, which is upsetting for those of us with prime acreage on Harry Rushton island, and also for those who are wondering how the Raiders will inject width into their attack.
Adam Elliott is starting again at 9, reflecting the fact he did a pretty good job in the opening stages last week, and was still effective shifting to the 13 late. He’s joined in the spine by Matt Frawley, which, as we noted earlier in the week, was to be expected given Jack Wighton’s absence. .
What we’ll be watching
With Croker it will be how he holds up in defence, and with his pace. He’ll have Matt Frawley on one side of him and Cotric on the other, and a Croker/Frawley duo feels like a place the Dogs will seek to feast. Kyle Flanagan and Jake Averillo are manageable, but Tevita Pangai Jr can, occasionally, when he decides he really wants to, be a weapon. In attack we’ll be asking similar questions. With neither Frawley or Croker likely to beat the line with pace or power, they’ll need to be crafty. Croker is a handy creator, which he’ll need to be because the defence is going to slide so fast to whatever weapons are outside him.
Canberra currently are 16th in the competition in metres. Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine (and less consistently Corey Horsburgh) have been making metres, but the rest of the rotation forwards, and the back three, need to pick up their yardage work. Some of that comes down to their own skills, a bit of spark, and a bit of Tommy Starling’s passing. You can’t win games if you’re not getting down the field – Jason Oliver over at Rugby League Writers has often noted it’s one of the biggest corelating factors with victory.
Joe Tapine was great running the ball last week, but it was really interesting to see how much he passed. It hadn’t really been a feature of his game before then, but he looked comfortable doing it. I suspect he, along with Ryan Sutton and Corey Horsburgh, will be asked to play a big role in providing width to Canberra’s attack that otherwise would have been the responsibility of Whitehead at 13, or Rushton.
I’ve had a range of theories to explain Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s underwhelming performance this season, but back to his best he’s critical to Canberra’s success. That first bomb that goes up will be watched closely by us, and anyone else who’s ever owned a green jersey.
How the Raiders can win
At this stage this feels like one of those maths problems that I did in year 12 that usually ended with me writing a two-page answer that proved nothing. The limit does not exist.
A guess without showing my working. Win the middle. Get yardage out of the back three. Find points wherever you can. Ride the wave of emotion and nerves to the ugliest 16-12 victory you might ever see.
Nostalgia wins by 4
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Mind boggling selections. This is quite possibly the worst team we have fielded all year and definitely the slowest backline. The only way I see the Raiders winning this is if the Bulldogs beat themselves.