After days of rain, the sun shone on the Canberra Raiders.
They beat the Cronulla Sharks 30-10 in one of the most courageous defensive displays you will see. They overcame themselves, conquering their own frazzled second-half brains with sheer effort. They even triumphed over some questionable refereeing decisions, including three sin bins, two of which overlapped, and several other confusing decisions. It was a naked display of spirit. The kind where every single player was so cooked by the end of the game that they gained a delirious energy like an overtired toddler. It was gritty. It was stunning. It was as heartwarming as the sun that poured over Brisbane. It was the most wonderful game of Canberra Raiders rugby league in two years.
There was no change in strategy that brought this around. Some changes of personnel helped, but the foundation of this victory was effort. It’s fascinating given what has gone on this year. Canberra have had so many traumatic experiences with flat second halves that this game stands out like the Mona Lisa amongst your kid’s art on the fridge. If anything will make you believe miracles are possible and that 2022 can be righted, then today gave it to you. The Milk did what they do, just better, and without giving up, no matter the odds.
It was built in the middle. Canberra used its dominance in the middle third of the ground to get into position to manufacture points. You wouldn’t know it, such was the possession discrepancy in the second half (a 70-30 split for most of the half), but the Raiders middle thoroughly manhandled their opposition. They outgained them by 200 plus metres in the first stanza, then without the ball in the second their defence overwhelmed their opponents attack. Josh Papalii (10 hit ups for 102m), Joe Tapine (13 for 114m, 66 post contact) and Corey Harawira-Naera (10 for 113m) were excellent. Ryan Sutton “only” had 86 metres but each second-half carry he took was energetic and won rucks that an exhausted attack shouldn’t have been able to. Hudson Young had his second brilliant game in a row, with 174m on the ground, a try, and a heart in defence that saw him seemingly defending in the middle and on the edge at the same time.
They didn’t make huge metres, but for the second week in a row the back three looked energetic in yardage, all cracking 100 metres and breaking ten tackles as a group the week after accumulating nine breaks. Between them and the pack, they put the Milk into excellent field position through the first 30 minutes. Papalii and Tapine in particular pushed the Raiders up the middle of the park and into spaces they could take advantage of, but the yardage from the backs was crucial. Seb Kris’ first try, coming from a well-directed kick, started with a strong carry from Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, followed by big metres from Nic Cotric and Jordan Rapana. Brad Schneider’s game-sealer began with a barnstorming Cotric yardage run, followed by a dummy half dart. It was critical work and they did it well.
Another try came from a crash ball to Papalii. It’s worth noting how well debutant Zac Woolford played. His service was perfect through his first stint and the middles thrived. The willingness and ability to work over a middle is something the Raiders have often missed this year with Josh Hodgson’s absence. With the rule change and reduced use of the six-again, football has become more normal and deception and ruck intelligence is at a premium again. Woolford showed this, and the patience of a more established footballer to send Tapine, and then Papalii at the smaller opposition pack. He returned at the back end of the game to ice it with the aforementioned dummy half to put Schneider in. It was everything you need from a nine and it felt refreshing.
Canberra’s defence was massive. Despite the Sharks having so much more ball the the Milk were barely outgained. Their middles simply wouldn’t let the Sharks get momentum. When it came time for Cronulla to attack in the red zone they had almost zero effectiveness. The Raiders’ pack kept winning contact and rucks, meaning that Cronulla’s vaunted shifts had no momentum and no space. They were more easily corralled by an up-and-in outside defence. Hard work from the middle defenders pushing up-and-out on those same plays kept picking up under runs, and ball-players trying to step inside the jam. More than once Papalii cleaned up Nicho Hynes trying exactly that. Matt Moylan will have nightmares about Elliott Whithead and others repeatedly cleaning him up as he tried to step off his left back towards the posts.
The middles were brilliantly supported by the edge defence. Brad Schneider may as well have been wearing a red cape to Talakai’s bull, such was the ferocity and consistency the star Shark targeted him. But he made tackle after impossible tackle, more than once shifting off a ball-player back towards the edge runner to save the day. Matt Frawley also took down Briton Nikora when by all rights he should have been beaten. Seb Kris made a ton of good reads, and Rapana’s trust in Timoko was on bettered by his ability to clean up when things didn’t go quite right. And at the back, my boy, my heart, my wonder, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad twice shut down breaks, and made critical tackles on the line on so many occasions, either at A defender on the goal-line, or shifting across in cover. As a group they absorbed more than sixty tackles in their own twenty, with two less players for eight minutes of that. For all that they let in one try with a confusingly blatant obstruction and one from sheer exhaustion. They missed only 23 tackles for the game. The Sharks hitherto had been unstoppable, and while the decisions made by the coach before this week contributed, Canberra humbled them.
This was not the end of the effort. It showed up in so many areas. Hudson Young scored a late try because he chased some loose passing like a wolf chasing prey through a thick forest. The ball ended in his hands and he ran sixty metres to score. Joe Tapine dived on a loose offload to get the Raiders crucial possession late in the game. There was at least three Cronulla players closer. Corey Horsburgh defused a grubber because someone had to, and Charnze was in the bin. Even bad moments, like Horsburgh’s (correct) sin-bin, reflected the completeness of Canberra’s effort. Here was a prop forward chasing the play all the way to the sideline in order to help. He just went too far. And when the game was on its final tackle, there was four or five green defenders chasing the ball, yearning to be the one that ended the game.
It was impressive but it wasn’t perfect. So many of the problems that have plagued 2022 were still evident. In the attacking twenty Canberra couldn’t find anything approaching fluidity on shifts. Like the Sharks they got caught and confused. Wighton’s return might alter that, but I think Jamal Fogarty’s potential return, and Zac Woolford and Adrian Trevilyan’s use in the middle may play a role. And while Frawley created one try with his boot, and Schneider earned a repeat set, their attacking kicking still left a lot to be desired. There was multiple 7 tackle sets offered in the second half, when more tackling was the last thing needed. The Milk did find space attacking from mid-field but they need to find a way to consistently challenge the defence on the goal-line.
And of course, there was the chaos in the second half. When Canberra needed nothing but smart footy and simple plays Jordan Rapana managed to throw an unnecessary pass to an offside player. He turned a rare set in attack into a third tackle kick and seven tackles for the opposition. And he convinced stand-in captain Josh Papalii to challenge a decision after the referee basically told him he wouldn’t succeed. In true Green Machine fashion they needed it minutes later. It wasn’t just Jordy. Nic Cotric had a similar rush of blood to the head, kicking vaguely for Seb Kris when he didn’t need to. It wasn’t helped by the hole the Raiders found themselves in from refereeing decisions. It’s hard for me to assess them objectively (which is why I rarely talk about them in these pages) but it’s fair to say the Milk found themselves on the wrong side of some interesting calls.
But Canberra overcame all of it. The chaos. The mistakes. The referees. The position and possession. This is the kind of win that can be the foundation of a season. To do so they must still solve so, so many weaknesses in their game before people get too far down the ladder predictor. Indeed they can’t even look past next week. Cronulla proved in this game that energy-sapping emotionally charged victories take a toll, and the Milk must be ready to turn up similarly next week. The effort that manifests one week is not guaranteed the next.
On this day Canberra took all their flaws, their limitations, and all their problems and simply worked harder. For all of us who’ve ever tried to outrun their problems, the Green Machine proved it could be done. What is possible if they play with this physicality, this effort, this courage, on a week to week basis? That is what the Milk of recent vintages was built on. We won’t get our hopes up because we’ve been hurt before. But for one, sweet, magical afternoon, the Raiders stood in some sunshine and we all felt warm. It was beautiful.
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