The Canberra Raiders 28-20 loss to the Parramatta Eels was a reality check. A demonstration of their strengths that built recent success, and the limitations that will be a ceiling on this season without adjustment and time. The improvements of recent weeks are real, and maybe even permanent but if Canberra is to be anything other than a team that squeezes into the playoffs, this must be something they build on.
The Raiders had built their platform in recent weeks by winning the middle, and trying to create off the back of it. The success of that varied from adequate (v the Dogs), revitalising (v the Sharks) to impressive (v Souths). But this test would be another entirely. Instead of a smaller middle incapable of holding them, they were faced with one their equal in power and skill. At their best the Eels are a better side than any the Milk have beaten this year, and it’s primarily because they do the things Canberra does, only better. Was the central idea – win the middle first, and worry about the rest later – enough against them? Evidently not, but it’s where and why that’s important.
The good news was the middle battled fancied opposition and often won. They weren’t dominant in the sense that had been against previous oppositions in their winning streak, but against one of the biggest and best packs in the opposition they competed in the first half, and then dominated for much of the second. Metres were equal at halftime, and by fulltime Canberra had outgained their opposition by 150 odd metres. It’s not a perfect measure, but it reflected an even battle, and proved that the Green Machine can do this against elite competition.
Again Joe Tapine was immense. 20 carries, 234 metres, 106 post contact. He tested the line at every point, bending it, poking his head through. He seems only to go to ground if he thinks it will get him a quicker play the ball. It’s hard to argue there’s a more effective 1-2 punch that him and Josh Papalii (15 for 150, 61 post contact). Adam Elliott (12 for 130m) continues to have quite the contract season, and Ryan Sutton (11 for 121m), and Corey Horsburgh (15 for 146m) provided able support off the bench.
One of the impressive things about this unit’s success was how they did it. It wasn’t just hard running and quick feet in the line. They’re starting to add much of the variety to their work that was foreshadowed in the offseason. Papalii had five offloads, Tapine three, and Elliott and Horsburgh one each. This was critical in allowing them to withstand enthusiastic contact from the Eels through the first twenty and still find metres. They have also begun to look effective making some start decisions to link (or, importantly, not) together. Papalii put Sutton into space with a short ball at the line (and Sutton’s longer ball to find Fogarty was impressive too). The others followed suit on link plays (though with less dramatic impact). It was doubly impressive to see Elliott and Sutton in particular shape to pass, and recognise there was more utility in running.
The pack laid a platform that put the Milk in some very good positions that they simply could not take advantage of. They could only create points opportunistically. Two tries came from Eels errors on kicks, the other from a dummy half dive-over by Elliott Whitehead after Jordan Rapana proved stronger, and quicker to get up, than the three people that tackled him. But outside of that Canberra asked few questions. Some of that was to do with a more circumspect outing from the hookers. Zac Woolford played more minutes in this game but did less, choosing instead to focus on service rather than guile. He’s three games into a first grade career, so being merely adequate is hardly fair criticism. He’s job share buddy Tom Starling was similarly ineffective, mixing slightly more running threat with inconsistent service. It was surprising he could not find a gap given the job the forwards were doing.
When the halves took over there was rarely much more success. The Eels jammed hard on Wighton, doing everything they could to remove opportunities for him to run or create in space. More often than not shifts ended either in his hands or those of Xavier Savage. This lack of space was surprising given the performance of the middle would normally draw more defensive attention, but the combination of ineffective ruck play, and Jamal Fogarty’s unproductive outing meant the edges were constantly dancing in thickets. Hudson Young barely had an attacking carry. Matt Timoko got so bored waiting to see the ball on the right he came in to do yardage work so he could get his first touch in the twentieth minute. When Cotric or Rapana got the ball it was running out of space rather than into it.
Fogarty in particular had a game that looked every bit like it was his first with those around him. He had almost no connection with Whitehead on the right (though did occasionally look threatening playing north-south on short sides with runners outside him). When he chipped in on the left, his unwillingness to engage the line played a huge role in the pressure on Wighton and Savage. He rarely took on the line, and when the outside was jamming so hard, it became glaring. There’s work to be done and combinations to be built there. Given Whitehead trained so much in the middle in the pre-season, this combination will take the longest to develop. His ball-running will come with match fitness and confidence in his knee. It won’t be an issue against some sides, but against top four teams like the Eels, this sort of play will be noticed.
All of this lead to an inefficiency in attack. Canberra had plenty of position and possession, particularly in the second half but they rarely looked like cracking the Eels line. Obviously Parramatta’s defensive effort played a big part of that, but if the Milk are thinking of greater things than being an also ran, they need to find a way to score against good defences. They are not there yet. Knowing that possibly drove the otherwise inexplicable decision to take two points on offer early in the second half that pushed the lead from two to four points.
This situation was mirrored in defence. The middle was in the battle. In the opening stanza they resisted a willing and aggressive opponent to a draw. In the second they were physically dominant. Canberra routinely bashed the Eels into short-yardage sets, and while Mitchell Moses’ kicking game was exemplary, it wasn’t good enough to undo the defensive work of the pack. To their credit, the Parramatta were frustratingly patient, willing to hit the middle and search for advantage there before shifting. In the past the criticism of them has been a tendency to get trigger-happy passing across the field. In this game they kept working in the middle until an opportunity presented itself on the edges.
Whereas the middle had been resolute for the most part, the Green Machine’s edges were less impressive. The Eels had their own opportunistic try for their opening points, but after that there built tries from patience and precision. Whereas Canberra’s fumbled about in attack like me with a metaphor, the Eels took opportunities. At one point in the second half they’d scored two tries to the Raiders zero despite having had a solitary red zone tackle (compared to at least two full sets on the line for the Milk).
Dylan Brown tore the right edge apart, beating Papalii one-on-one to score. He beat Rapana in contact too in the second half, and after some enterprising offloads, the defence was stripped of numbers. And then later he exposed the lack of cohesion between Whitehead and Fogarty, putting Shaun Lane through a massive hole when Whitehead turned in and Fogarty turned out. That break ended with Brown scoring and icing the game. In between all that the Eels scored another try when they showed Canberra the cohesion and execution (and line depth) needed in red-zone shifts for Simonsson’s first try. It’s rare a try exposes your offence, but somehow that one did.
Thus Canberra lost a game they at time were dominant in. The middle did their job, but the edges were unable to take advantage. Some of this was through structure and strategy, some through cohesion and connections yet to be built. The side was disciplined, but something more than that will be needed against elite footy teams.
Combinations take time to build, and unfortunately this season (and the coach, to an extent) has forced plenty of new ones of those on them. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for them to develop. They need to keep winning, including finding success in tough games in the coming weeks against the Roosters and Brisbane, probably without Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii in at least one of those games.
Luckily, the platform that Canberra have developed as the basis of their game-plan will be enough most weeks. The middle third’s offensive output, and defensive dominance displayed in recent weeks, and in this game at times, is enough to put them in position that opportunism and rival’s errors will win them games. They’ve proven it in recent weeks, and in this game it was nearly enough to better a top four team in both quality and ladder position. That’s a long way from a mere month ago, but there’s plenty more improvement still needed.
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