The Canberra Raiders finally won, 14-4 over the Canterbury Bulldogs. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even good. There remains as many questions about their strategy and structures as there were before this game. But after this season, and these last few weeks, any victory is welcome. This took a bit of gumption, and a bit of courage; more than should be required against this opposition. But for once Canberra didn’t beat themselves.
Partly that’s because this was two sides playing not to lose. The ball was so centred through the middle third of the ground it could have been played by boats in canals. One team bashed at the other, the other took their turn. It was reflective of two sides in a terrible position for the season, and two coaches preferring to turn conservative in the hope that victory would be gained through longer effort than the other. It wasn’t exciting and it had a weird lack of intensity, as thought the hot blood and courage of both sides was frozen by the absolutely perfect Canberra footy weather.
The battle in the middle suited Canberra. They outgained their opposition by near enough to 500 metres. Even in the second half, when the possession all but evened up, the Raiders still found near 100 more metres than their opposition. By the 66th minute they had been tackled 74 times in attacking territory, the Dogs just 24 times. It was a thorough bludgeoning.
Josh Papalii (14 hit ups for 184 metres and 75 post contact metres) and Joe Tapine (15 for 193m with ninety-fucking-two post contact) were exemplary again. In particularly, Tapine’s willingness to make the defence hesitate by moving with pace and good footwork in the line put the Milk in so many advantageous positions. He didn’t pass as much as last week, instead finding himself on the end of Papalii linking in the middle. Corey Horsburgh (11 for 145 and 60 post contact) also had another good outing in a season that is picking up.
But the big three (so to speak) were much better supported this week. Adam Elliott followed his best game of the season with an even better one. He tore in well as a middle forward after another solid stint at hooker. He had 154m on the ground, but more than the metres, his energy turned many a set and was critical in the second half when you could feel heads wanting to wander. It was important and understated leadership. In addition, Hudson Young (10 for 175m) had some very strong carries and was unlucky to not score a try. Ryan Sutton had over a 100 metres (129 to be precise) for what I’m about 60 per cent sure was the first time this season. That’s five members of the pack cracking 100 metres. For a side that’s gained the least metres in the competition it was a manna from heaven. Add to this that four of the back five cracked 100 metres with some critical yardage work (and 14 tackle busts as a group), and Canberra had found itself building the foundation of a winning footy game.
With the Dogs giving them the weight of possession, and the middle giving them so much position, it was incumbent on Canberra to take advantage. They did nothing of the sort. Most attacking sets were primarily hit ups, either by forwards or by putting backs in one-out situations against multiple defenders (as opposed to one-on-one). Good teams offer a hit up to get a quick ruck and some space, and then shift off that. Better sides can manage it without the settler. The Green Machine took settlers after settlers. It felt like baby steps. The shifts themselves were tentative, reflective of a side that still hasn’t worked out how it plans to attack. Halves played face-balls to edge backrowers with burdensome regularity.
Some of this was strategic – keeping the edge defence honest to create space outside – and some was taking what was offered by the opposition. Too often thought it felt monotonous and predictable. Young ran some good lines (such as his in-out line on his overruled try) but Whitehead felt more connector than running threat. Timoko and Croker were the first centres to get the ball in an attacking movement in months, but when on the occasions the ball got wide the defence was practically waiting for them to arrive. There’s a pace issue here, not of the players themselves but of the movement as a whole, reflective of timidity and a lack of confidence, compounded by zero variation in attack. When Young and Jarrod Croker cut against the grain it was effective, but also stood out as such a dramatic change of angle.
The attack was missing it’s key drivers, but Wighton himself wouldn’t have fixed it wholly. It needed more creativity around the ruck; something to hold the defenders close and free up space. It needed more of the shift that resulted in Canberra’s first try, where the ball got through the entire spine rapidly before Nicoll-Klokstad put Whitehead in space and with a head of steam. It needed more of the smart kicking from Frawley that should have resulted in a try for Jarrod Croker.
The things is, Frawley had a fine game. He was one of Canberra’s best. The only other try came from him tearing through the middle much to everyone’s surprise (and then Matt Dufty’s soon to be super league defence falling for a dummy to no-one because frankly he prefers to not tackle someone if it can be avoided. He may be my spirit animal). He took on the line to keep them honest. He kicked well, and earned Canberra multiple repeat sets. He is who he is, and there’s no point hoping he, and another rookie half, can engender forty points. But with the position and possession Canberra had they should have done more.
Plenty of that is to do with personnel and imperfect cohesion, but it’s hard not to think that as much was about strategy. Coach Stuart at half time reportedly told the team more of the same, and to grind out victory. They did that, but it meant that the full 80 minutes they felt like they couldn’t play with any freedom, ingenuity or creativity. Their attack continues to look like a budget version of every other attack in the competition. The same, just slower. Against better sides this approach won’t result in points, and their opposition will hardly be as insipid.
Lucky for the Green Machine, the Bulldogs attack was as adventurous as missionary position. They played an equally conservative game, rarely moving outside the middle third. The Raiders owned them there, so this seemed a self-defeating plan, and probably pat of the reason Trent Barrett won’t be around next year. One-out running was met with enthusiastic middle defence for eighty minutes.
What was more confusing was that on the occasions that they did shift, Matt Burton created havoc on Canberra’s right edge. He sent runners at Brad Schneider and Matt Timoko for metres, and tormented them with his powerful frame and agile feet. He created the Dogs only points getting outside Schneider after Timoko had already turned out before the ball was past him Burton could have created more given more opportunity but the Dogs either put the ball in the hands of his less impressive halfback or back through the middle. He was creative in his kicking, more than once putting Canberra’s defensive line in chaos with a well placed, and surprise kick. One put the Dogs in the field position for their try, and the others had the ball loose in the in-goal with Dogs getting a touch first twice. It could have been worse for Canberra, but for once the ‘nearly’ plays didn’t go against them.
The limitations of the Milk were present each of the previous five weeks, but in this game the result was different. That feels so much better than otherwise, but I doubt Coach Stuart thinks his problems are solved. The effort cannot be faulted, and it was pleasing they showed an unending foundation of resolve. There’s still adjustments needed, both in execution and strategy, otherwise Canberra won’t be digging themselves out of their current malaise and anywhere approaching the eight.
Despite this, this victory was desperately important. It was needed because Canberra couldn’t give away another double digit lead. Not to this Canterbury side, playing with all the originality and creativity of a Chuck Lorre show. The Raiders simply had to hold on. Any other outcome would have been catastrophic, not just for whatever ambitions they may have for later in the season, and not just for their chances of winning the wooden-spoon. Losing this game would have been confirmation that the mental problems that plague them are borderline unsolvable and endemic. Winning it won’t solve those issues, but to quote Herm Edwards, we can build on this. For the first time in weeks the arrow almost points up.
Except of course, for the injury to Jarrod Croker. While it wasn’t entirely pyrrhic, losing Croker to an injury in his first game back in the top grade seemed like the cruelest interjection from the football gods. He was every bit the first grader in his return, and brought much needed creativity on the left edge when he got a chance with the ball. The fact he was hurt chasing back on a kick he shouldn’t have had to cover speaks so highlight of the captain. Sometimes footy can just get fucked. And when Josh Papalii twisted his knee, just moments after Croker’s departure, any fan of the Milk was ready to hulk out. Fortunately Papalii’s injury seems minor, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s cork is just that. Unfortunately Croker suffered great pain, and many hearts broke for him.
And so even in victory Canberra still lose. But for a week they have sweet relief. There will be no stories of hot seats or chaos. No need for distraction or old boys or something else to talk about. They can simply get to work on finding a way to repeat what feels like a first round miracle now. They can look to a victory earned rather than squandered. They can look around and realise that instead of 17 boys hurting, they have 17 men capable of committing to each other and their task. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
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