The Canberra Raiders 22-16 victory of the Sydney Roosters was hard-earned and deserved. In victory they didn’t overcome their limitations but rather revelled in them. They worked harder. They scrambled. They found points where they could. It’s not the stuff that will make them a contender, but it does prove that there is something to build on here. This season is no longer a lost cause.
To say Canberra came into this game needing a positive result seems trite. When you’ve lost more than you’ve won nothing but wins will do. More than just keeping in touch with the finals bracket, this was about continuing to prove they can compete with top notch footy teams. One could rationalise the victories against the Sharks and Bunnies away, and the performance against the Eels was a moral victory, which of course is still a loss. They may try again after this game, but when you are continually beating top 8 sides, eventually you’re going to be one yourself.
This game was an odd match of styles. The Roosters, without their two best front-rowers in Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Lindsay Collins, and the indomitable James Tedesco, were forced to push at edges rather than win the middle. Even without Josh Papalii, it was clear the Raiders best chance of winning was to dominate the middle of the park and hope the skill players and the edges could find enough points to cover their opposition. It’s the plan they’re adopted over the last five weeks and it’s worked plenty.
The Raiders were outgained by some 400 metres in this game but that hides just how this game was played. Four middle forwards cracked 100 metres compared to two for the Roosters. The Bondi boys got more from their edges. Both halves, both backrowers, and practically both centres (Momorovski had 94m) garnered over a ton on the ground. The Milk looked dominant through the middle third on both sides of the ball, able to punch through the middle with great effect, while often looking dominant through the opening runs of sets. If the Roosters wanted metres it was only found pushing out at the Green Machine’s edges.
The plan worked for Canberra, because the effect of their dominance in the middle was greater than the Roosters on the edges. Of course it starts with Joe Tapine, who is playing some rare footy at the moment. 18 for 187m, 97 post contact is starting to feel like a normal stat line for the pack leader, but it mustn’t be taken for granted. Coach Stuart’s reticence to use his bench and Josh Papalii’s absence meant he shouldered an even bigger load than normal, and his delivery was beyond expectation. He routinely took multiple carries in a set, constantly tormented the defensive line with quick feet in the line, and was unable to be slowed in the ruck.
The Raiders are lucky to have Joey Taps, but they were also fortunate that other members of the pack stood up in Papalii’s absence. Corey Horsburgh, Adam Elliott and Ryan Sutton all cracked 100m, and each of them had critical runs. These three also played a crucial role in connecting the middle to the edges, passing 14 times between them, linking across the middle to create a try for Xavier Savage. This was important in forcing accountability on different parts of the Roosters defence. It’s a shame two of these three are leaving at the end of the season. They’re proving a formidable supporting cast. If there’s one consolation Trey Mooney showed some strong carries in this game, as Harry Rushton has previously.
And while they didn’t have big metres, the yardage work of the back three was exemplary. In particular it’s worth shouting out Xavier Savage’s improvement in this area. He found his belly in difficult situations, and didn’t let himself get dominated in the ruck often. More than once he took the smart option and eschewed risky carries. He’s still learning, had the ball taken from his hands, and his defence is still sub-par, but this is evidence that progress is being made.
With that foundation it was about the skill players finding a way to craft points. It was a veritable ‘best of’ of Canberra tries. None were smooth shifts were structures stripped the opposition for numbers. Instead they found the points they could. Zac Woolford found Adam Elliott for a crash ball try in a move that would have made Josh Hodgson proud. A good Joe Tapine hit up had collapsed the defence around the posts. Woolford spotted sparse defenders on the right, shaped left, and surprised the defence on an Adam Elliott crash ball. More points followed when Adam Elliott found Ryan Sutton, who dropped a ball to Savage. His pickup was as stunning as his swan dive to score. Then Corey Horsburgh turned a charge down into a Seb Kris try. The Raiders points ended when Matt Timoko just cooked Momorovski one-on-one.
None of these points involved creativity by the halves or well worked structured shifts. In a sense they were all opportunistic, or at most requiring only small parts of Canberra’s attack to work in unison. It’s a limitation the Raiders still face, and one that if they want to make, or go far, in the finals they’ll have to find a way to find more structured play. But for now it’s enough.
And this isn’t to suggest the Raiders’ spine had a poor night. It was mixed with a blend of upside. Woolford and Tom Starling both had great games. Woolford created that try, and while he whiffed on another crash ball play, again the Elliott, he’s looking for opportunities, and that will open up more space for Fogarty, and Wighton when he returns. Tom Starling had his best game in recent weeks, getting out of 9 behind a dominant pack, probing, and looking for opportunities. Fogarty too was much improved on last week, engaging the line much more and testing the edge defence with more regularity. He also looked to be building a bit more of a combination with Elliott Whitehead on the right.
But the lack of cohesion and structure across continues to mean advantage doesn’t turn to opportunity (or more) often enough. And so despite their dominance the Raiders had to rely on a staunch defence to win the game. Canberra’s middle defence was robust (save for one break up the guts from Connor Watson). Instead, as noted earlier, the Roosters sought points by pushing to the edges, aiming to get Joey Manu in a situation where he had space to create, or a one-on-one to take advantage of. He created one try, simply be being impossible to pull-down in red-zone attack, and generally wreaked havoc whenever he had the ball and a bit of space.
But they held fast. The edges remained aggressive, if not always effective. The engine room kept pushing up and out to reduce the space for Luke Keary and Sam Walker to create (Ryan Sutton picked up . On the left edge Hudson Young was energetic, matching his strong carries in attack (and a flick pass that hit Seb Kris’ hands and had him in space. He was castigated by the commentary for being too fancy but I reckon Kris should have taken it) with energetic and robust defence. He’s growing into that position, and is becoming the kind of multi-space defender Canberra needs to mask imperfections elsewhere. Elliott Whitehead made multiple try saving tackles in goal-line defence, once covering across to the other side of the field to keep Sitili Tupouniua from scoring.
This tenacity wasn’t isolated to Young and Whitehead. The whole side showed remarkable determination to make every effort to keep the Roosters out. This is not April’s Raiders. They turned so many Roosters’ opportunities into dust by making critical tackles, keeping their structures and working harder than their opposition. No better was this demonstrated than just before halftime where the Milk kept the best part of 15 tackles in a row out as the Roosters threw the kitchen sink at them.
It wasn’t perfect. Canberra got into positions where they had to scramble because the defence could not always keep the Roosters in place, and because they gave away too many penalties, and lost too much possession, particularly in the second half. The right edge missed 14 tackles, and leaked a try when Fogarty’s lack of agility was exposed because Sam Walker had a bit more space that the Raiders could handle. The left edge was targeted repeatedly by Manu, but generally held fast. Outside Joseph Suaalii jumping twelve feet in the air to secure a bomb, the Milk always had the answers in defence.
It’s such a vast change from mere weeks ago. That’s not to say Canberra are yet good. They’ve beaten some good teams, but they’ve done with a game plan that has a low ceiling of performance. They still rely on finding points through effort, opportunism and some good old fashioned smoke and mirrors. Their defence is improved, but it’s hardly perfect. They seem each week to halve to not overcome their opposition, but Coach Stuart’s perplexing bench rotations (only Ryan Sutton came off the bench in the first half, Trey Mooney only played 17 minutes, and James Schiller zero) exacerbate the fatigue created by the game. They need to build an attack that can beat top-line defences consistently. They need to find a way to not make simple errors at inopportune moments. They need to still get better than they are.
But it’s hard to argue that a change has occurred. A returned resilience and a focus driven by a relatively simple plan. There’s a confidence returned to this team, and it’s changed the entire feel about the side. Six weeks ago a moment like Suaalii soaring and scoring (shouts to Walt Frazier) would have led to chaos and calamity. Instead it felt like if Canberra kept their heads, the position and possession would change and the Green Machine would find a way. Minutes later Matt Timoko decided he would take Paul Momorovski’s soul and even a six point victory felt, dare I say, almost safe (as much as a Raiders’ lead can).
This last month of footy has been a critical time for the Milk. They’ve now beaten three top 8 footy teams, and pushed the other to the brink. It’s such a change in scenery, and my it’s nice here. There’s improvement still to make, but Canberra keep proving they’re worth more than an also-ran status. There’s life in this season yet.
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Dan, again a master piece of a master stroke by the Milk not that you’ve not given enough masterpieces before, for from its this one is just right out of my heart as it happened and the great win by the milk. Yes I do sometimes feel not excited when you use the brand Milk, but I guess the Green Machine is of another era. Like you I still have high hopes for my Mighty Raiders toward the final.