The Canberra Raiders are officially on a winning streak. Their 32-12 victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs was perhaps the most impressive of the lot. The Raiders were just better than their opposition; a superiority built inside out. After a period in which they looked anything but a finals footy team, have they righted the ship? This game gives us hope.
It had all the hallmarks of a ‘let-down’ loss. The Raiders had exerted so much physical and emotional energy to triumph over adversity, referees and the Cronulla Sharks that the risk of not turning up this week felt substantial. When eight players got some version of the ‘flu worse than any that had befallen a Queensland origin camp, it was a bit worrying. Add in the fact that the Bunnies had been electric against the Warrior (and then not) and it was hard to get a read of what might happen this game.
We shouldn’t have been so worried. Like they did to both the Dogs and the Sharks, the Raiders beat the proverbial out of their opposition middle. They outgained the Bunnies by 200 plus metres while building a 20 point lead over the first half, and averaged a full seven metres more per set (42-35) across the game. Despite a a more even (and scrappy) contest towards the end of the game, the middle continued the hold or defeat the Bunnies’ pack. It was a beatdown, and Canberra thrived because of it.
This dominance was built on both sides of the ball. The forwards were brutal in defence, consistently winning contact and rucks against the Bunnies’ middle (it probably helped Souths’ best forward, Tavita Tatola, left the game for good after a first tackle HIA). The edge forwards were also impressive; both Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead made a multitude of tackles, noteworthy because no only were they often important in the scheme of a shift, but also because they quite often were such good contact that they rendered any momentum gained by a movement moot.
As a consequence the edges had a leg up against what can be a thoroughly terrifying attacking unit. The young right edge of Timoko and Schneider were tested all game, but with Smelly’s support, more often than not they made critical tackles to shut down movements. Souths still got around them a few times in open field, and pushed close to the line in the red zone, but it always felt like the defence would hold, at least long enough for help to come. On the other edge, the dominance of Young and Wighton was so thorough that Seb Kris and Nic Cotric were rarely put in difficult situations (and on the one time they were, Cotric made a tremendous effort to help in on the centre, and push out to take the winger out of play). The result was the defence felt unnavigable. When the Rabbitohs camped on the Canberra line for a few sets around the twenty minute mark, it felt so ineffective it was like they were dancing in front of a brick wall. The Milk repelled so many forays, and so many set plays over the first fifty minutes of the game that when Damian Cook strafed through tired defenders, and when Xavier Savage’s followed up his brilliant try with a substandard effort on an Alex Johnston’s try, it felt like it was from a completely different game.
This superiority in the middle third extended into attack through the reliable brilliance of Joe Tapine (19 for 189m, 94 post contact and 4 tackle busts) and Josh Papalii (12 for 116m 53 post contact and 8 tackle busts). Again they were dominant (I’d hazard a guess that most of Canberra’s 200m first-half acreage advantage came under their watch). Tapine seemingly required 4 defenders to stop every run, and it felt like he won every ruck. Papalii was solid at first, and brutal when needed. When the game got messy in the second half he was still finding ways to turn tough sets around by bending the line. 250 games with him is such a gift. They both routinely took multiple hit-ups in sets, and Tapine played 53 minutes straight at one point. After Ryan Sutton was ruled out earlier in the weekend more was needed from them, and they both delivered.
Again the support staff in the middle of the park built on their foundation. Harry Rushton and Corey Horsbrugh had some good moments and importantly did not let the Bunnies forwards off the mat. The Red Horse had a couple of important carry, and it was his offload that started the champagne footy of Seb Kris’ try. The back three again did their work in yardage. Cotric and Rapana had 12 tackle busts between them (8 for Cotric) and Nicoll-Klokstad was again hard-working and effective taking carries before he left the field. Zac Woolford was less spectacular in this game but no less important. He tallied another try assist, finding Papalii on a crash ball, and provided solid service and defence. Tom Starling had his best game in a while, putting Hudson Young in with a well identified and gusty crash ball on the last. His service was improved and he chimed in as part of some excellent footy (no better than on Kris’s try). His interplay with Young was such a weapon in these movements.
The success of the pack was reinforced by a brilliant (but mostly unmentioned) kicking game from Jack Wighton. He routinely put Souths on their own line, forcing their back three to try and drag them from places they weren’t strong or skilled enough to do. The defence was able to keep them there. It was such an effective basis for a game plan. Win the middle, throttle your opposition, and dominate position. We’d seen it before in the good times.
It wasn’t just a grind though, as the success in the middle opened up space that Canberra was able to take advantage of. In particular, the left side attack looked consistently threatening and surprisingly cohesive. Wighton was important in that, providing a threat that kept the defence focused inside. His ball to Cotric to open the scoring was more effective than beautiful – a Steve Waugh cover drive rather than a Damian Martyn back foot push. The important thing was it landed in Nic’s breadbasket with defenders nowhere to be seen – they’d all bit in on the Papalii and Young decoys.
But in addition to Wighton’s return was the continued impressive efforts of Hudson Young. In recent weeks it’s been all hard running and courageous defence. Today he showed another facet of his game, with some frankly surprising ball play. His quick hands on the edge helped create space for Cotric on multiple occasions, and culminated in a no-look pass for Starling as a key part of the Kris try. It was brilliant. It was conceited. It was something we hadn’t seen in a while and Young was at the centre of it. Ball-playing outside the halves has always been a bonus for most sides and a characteristic of Canberra’s success. Wighton has missed an extra creator outside him without Croker and Whitehead. It’s starting to look like this is building in Young’s game. The other edge was less effective, but still chipped in with a try after Whitehead’s loose pass led to chaos, Rapana and Timoko remaining untackle-able on first contact.
For the best part of sixty minutes it was basically perfect footy. After that things got a bit ratty. Errors increased on both sides and Canberra out themselves in some poor positions. On another day it would have been cause for alarm. But the brilliance of the first half was mirrored by calmness in the second. Even when the Milk weren’t executing perfectly, they seemed the more composed of the two sides. That shouldn’t be that noteworthy when you’re up by twenty points, but it is for this side. Even though they had moments of ill-discipline (such as incessantly helping the Rabbitohs up the field with penalties, or the eight second half errors) the Raiders stuck to their plan. They worked through the middle, tested the edges, and kicked well to the corners. And in between they chucked in some brilliant moments, like Xavier Savage turning a hit up into a highway to the try-line. I will always cherish watching Matt Timoko raise his arms in triumph when Savage was still more than twenty metres from the line. Now that’s pace.
It’s the third game in a row where they’be been focused and calm in the second half, and the second game in a row where they’ve scored multiple tries after half time. They seem to have a game plan that can work, and, in this game at least, it seemed like it could succeed with skill at the base, rather than the chaotic and emotional toil of the Dogs and Sharks wins. This was a game that wasn’t’ about working harder – though the Raiders did. This was a win about playing with more skill, better execution, and even a clear and implementable game plan. What a world.
Is this here to stay? Well, it still feels premature to suggest that. If we take the first half against the Sharks, Canberra have now put together two excellent wins after the ‘learning-to-walk-again’ victory over the Dogs. It’s a good start but barely a sample size. The defensive performance since the Warriors loss have been much improved, and the club has now conceded the 7th least points the competition after at one point being among the worst. After two 30 point outings in a row maybe there’s a chance the Milk’s attack is righting itself after some muddled weeks, and watching the side play actual footy these past two weeks has been exhilarating. The quality of opposition defeated is noteworthy too. Two likely finals teams in a row have been handled with ease. So maybe some guarded optimism is due (is there any other kind for Raiders’ fans?).
There are immediate tests for the Milk that will give us a good idea of where things are. Parramatta next week, and the Roosters the week after will be a guide to the extent this revival is greater than just re-establishing the Green Machine in the middle of the table after flirting with the spoon. They are both steps up from this last two weeks, but the performances we’ve seen are evidence that perhaps they are not outside of Canberra’s ability. A few weeks ago we were hoping Canberra could find two wins out of the six games before the bye. They’ve already done that and I hope they want more.
Last week we were focused on the moment, wanting to breathe in what could be just a moment of fresh air and sunshine. Now we’re greedy for more. It’s a strange place to be. After the nadir in April we’re now riding high with hope and optimism about a future that could be anything. There’s so much of it in the air at the moment.
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