Sound the foghorn. Canberra have cracked three in a row, and are getting their ‘star’ recruit back. All things are a good in the world right?
For now. The Parramatta Eels are coming to town, and they are a good footy team (most of the time). They’ve beaten Penrith and Melbourne and somehow struggled with lesser lights. I guess the Raiders fall into the latter category, but hope springs eternal that’s a temporary thing. This is a massive test to that hope.
It’s been hard not to get carried away recently. It’s not so much the winning, but the style of it. A bit of courage. A smidge of flair. It’s like the old days. The Raiders have played some excellent footy, and created tries like this that aren’t flukes – they’re just the manifestation of what Canberra have been pushing all year to create. It’s taken time to get the roster right, and the start to build the connections and cohesion that can facilitate this kind of footy. This makes the change to the squad this week exciting but also tinged with a degree of apprehension.
While the Milk have put three in a row together, their opposition has been good, not great, in that period. Souths are a talented team struggling missing some key personnel (some of those won’t come back ever). The Sharks were pummelled by the Raiders, and hardly impressive against the Titans a week later. The Eels (and then the Roosters and the Broncos) continue a five week examination of what the Milk can handle.
Are they ready? I guess we’ll find out.
Jamal Fogarty returns, which is exciting. After the promise that his organisational skills would provide direction for the Milk this year, his absence meant the side looked aimless for quite some time. It’s been better in recent weeks – Zac Woolford has been important in that – but there is hope that Fogarty can bring a bit of smarts to a side that hasn’t exactly been a MacArthur winner.
Jarrod Croker returns too (update and record scratch: goddamit), and I’m really curious how he, Hudson Young and Jack Wighton fit together in attack. As we’ve seen last weekend, Young has started to show glimpses of an ability as a secondary creator. Croker also provides that set of skills, and it will be interesting whether his presence as a potential ballplayer can take a bit of pressure off Young, or potentially crowd-out or duplicate a set of skills already present.
Ryan Sutton is back on the bench, which is good news to Canberra’s rotation. Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii got through a mountain of work on the weekend, and Sutton’s ability to play big minutes effectively might be enough to give them a longer spell through the middle of the game. Corey Horsbugh had some excellent runs on the weekend too, and with Seb Kris as a utility back that can actually cover some forward positions, the bench looks the most logical it’s looked in a few weeks.
The big challenge is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s absence (god-flipping-dammit). He’s been huge since returning to the top grade, and the Raiders will miss his yardage and his defence. Xavier Savage gets his first start at fullback in his stead. We wrote more about this opportunities and challenges here, but it’s always exciting to see him stretch his legs and develop more of the skills needed at a position he will presumably occupy permanently at some point in the future.
What we’ll be watching
Ryan Matterson, Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard have been as good as any middle this season. Paulo and RCG are the ballast, but behind them Matterson has been playing some dynamic and exciting football as a ball player and creator. His ability to find not just offloads, but effective ones, is something Canberra will have a close eye on. So much of the Milk’s recent success has come from winning the middle battle. This will be a substantial step up from the packs they’ve faced over the winning streak. Similarly, when the Eels are testing oppositions through the middle it makes their shifts so much more effective.
Just how the outside backs handle those shifts will be interesting.
Croker Kris and Timoko will have to be on their best because the Eels have plenty of talent ready to make life difficult on the edge. Dylan Brown has been incredible as a runner this year, but in addition, he’s also made some smart choices about when to pass and create. 7 try assists later and the Eels are no longer ruling by Moses’ boot or whatever Gutherson can do as the second-man on shift plays. With Mahoney, it brings a multifaceted-ness that will test any defence.
For Canberra it will be just how involved Jamal Fogarty gets and how he shares the ball with Jack Wighton. For much of the season the Raiders have trimmed down the role of the halfback to allow Brad Schneider to ease his way into the top grade. It’s an abrupt change to expect Fogarty, with little to no match fitness, to suddenly shift into a dominant role. Regardless, at the very least Canberra will have more to offer in kicks close to the line.
How Canberra can win
The key to beating Parramatta is making their middle ineffective. Sometimes they do this themselves because of their fascination with getting to the shift quickly. If Canberra can either render the middle ineffective, or if the Eels do it for them, they have the ability to hold their oppositions attack in check. With an offence that’s started to click over the last few weeks, that can be a pathway to victory.
Raiders by 2 after
Jarrod Croker Jamal Fogarty nails a penalty goal on fulltime.
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