The Canberra Raiders 24-18 loss to the Brisbane Broncos was further evidence the Milk are closer to heaven than hell. They do, however, continue to have flaws that are putting a ceiling on their further ascension. Until they perfect a red-zone attack, and adjust improve some defensive combinations, they will continue to have to battle both their opposition, and themselves.
The battle of Brisbane is always a tough road trip. Canberra’s non-magic round record at Lang Park is atrocious, and that’s been the case even when the Broncos have been trash. Now they’re competent again (what a two years that was) it’s back to being a trip from hell for the Green Machine. Even with the opposition missing players like Selwyn Cobbo and Kotoni Staggs, and others backing up from Origin, it was going to be tough for the Milk. The Raiders had key outs too – Jordan Rapana’s absence meant they had a 3000th back three combination in 14 games – and Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton both looked surprisingly fatigued from their origin output. Perhaps they’re both made of actual human after all.
That existing exhaustion wasn’t helped by a lightening quick game. The pace and intensity of the game felt more akin to a finals game, and if Canberra was intending to snag an old school “we didn’t take you seriously” victory, it was not going to be an option. Instead what emerged was a fascinating and revealing battle between two sides with contrasting styles.
No more was this obvious than between the approach through the middle. The Raiders did their best work here by playing direct and honestly, and used interplay between the forwards to shift the point of attack, primarily within the confines of the middle third. Joe Tapine (18 hit ups for 240m) was again immense – it’s worth noting he *only* had 64 post contact metres in this game, reflecting the quickness of the game and the amount of space that out between the two sides.
Corey Horsburgh (17 for 176m) was near perfect until he dropped a ball late. Adam Elliott (16 for 148m) and Hudson Young (14 for 125m) were both again excellent. The Milk may have lucked out in losing the chase for Jack Hetherington, but it will be a shame to see Elliott in a non-Raiders outfit next season. For his part Young continued his improved play. He’s really starting to touch the footy we thought him capable of when we predicted he’d become a full-blown hard-running, ball-playing menace. He’s such a useful player, able to chime in with the hard runs of a middle forward, some increasingly important lines as an edge forward, and improve ball play. You should be excited. I know I am (*winks creepily*).
These work between these forwards was Canberra’s best attack. It’s been intriguing to see Tapine and Papalii improve their passing over the year, and the expansion of that alongside Horsburgh and Elliott’s existing skill, has gone from an an add-on to a standard feature of the attack. Combined with effective offloads it allows the Milk to shift the point of attack, engaging multiple groups of defenders, breaking up the defensive line’s cohesion. That *should* provide many targets in attack for the halves and backline. More on that later.
In this game instead it created plenty of easy metre opportunities and a try for Elliott when Hudson Young offloaded twice in a tackle. This was followed a good pass from Zac Woolford and gorgeously weighted ball from Papalii to put Elliott into a gap close to the line. Woolford had already created points with a well targeted crash ball for Horsburgh.
That the pack added 12 of Canberra’s 18 point was impressive, but also a problem for the rest of the side. The middles put the Raiders in a position to succeed, but the only points the Milk could create was from a well-placed kick from Jamal Fogarty for Nic Cotric. There was plenty of opportunities, but they were crueller by a lack of cohesion, direction, and some poor red-zone decision making. In the second half in particular they found themselves with an exhausted opportunity they simply couldn’t test consistently enough. They required set up plays for every shift, but also failed to target defenders close to the ruck with any ruck deception. What resulted was a frustrating and harried attack.
This wasn’t helped, perhaps even contributed to, glaring errors in attacking positions. Matt Timoko, Elliott Whitehead, Corey Harawira-Naera all dropped the ball in good position. Other errors – like Jack deciding to kick rather than take on the line – didn’t result in a change in position but reflected an inability to find the right decisions at the right times. Fogarty’s kicking game continues to be inconsistent (though improving). For every perfect bomb (like the one for Cotric) and chip there was the stubbed-toe effort that turned a promising raid into a another fruitless foray. T
That’s not to say there wasn’t green shoots. Fogarty and Wighton have barely had a moment to learn together, and the halfback’s running game is still coming back to him. He looked threatening taking on the line and working with short passing to his edge forwards. Both halves were both shifting to play either side of the ruck with comfort. They connected smoothly several times in shift movements. And they showed they had plans to play inside, or around, jamming defence from the outside. That’s something the Raiders have rarely solved, even at their best, so it’s pleasing to see improvement. Against less organised defences they’ll have more success. This is one of the limitations on Canberra. Until this offence can consistently find points they’ll always have a tough time against the best sides.
Before we move on a quick note about Xavier Savage’s day. He had 200 plus metres (mostly from two breaks and kick returns), blew a try, made three errors in his own 20 (one dropping a swirling bomb, one in a carry and another on what seemed to me a difficult pass from dummy-half. It was a mixed night, and one reflective of a still developing player. His errors, particularly in yardage, must end. But with time and hard work they will end, and his decision making – such as failing to pass early to Jamal Fogarty – will allow him to fully take advantage of his talents.
The attacking challenges faced by the Milk were combined with continued need to improve key parts of their defence. The contrasting styles we spoke of earlier was obvious to see in the Broncos desire to attack Canberra’s edges rather than the big men. They wanted to move the big guys around for sure, but also they identified key weaknesses, particularly in the right edge to target for metres and points. They did this both by running their middles wider to attack these edges, and through backline shifts. This made it hard for the Raiders middle to assert itself physically in defence, and also tired them out for all the chasing, a vicious cycle that was influenced by the pace of the game.
This pace and space really tested the right edge combination of Whitehead, Fogarty and Timoko and it wasn’t pretty. At different points in this game each one of these players found themselves on an island, disconnected from their inside defenders trying to stop multiple defenders. Partly this was to do with tired inside defenders unable to push up and out because of fatigue, but it was also a pure lack of cohesion from the edge. Ezra Mam scored when he got Smelly one-on-one close to the line. Herbie Farnworth scored on either side of half time with movements that saw Timoko, and then Schiller, stuck standing in no-man’s land after their inside defenders had pushed inside. This group has effectively only just met, but they’ll need to get familiar quickly because even a cursory glance at the highlights will tip off oppositions for weeks to come.
Glaring weaknesses aside the defence remains impressively stout (outside of BRENKO sonning Seb Kris. Oooft I hope the sea-bass likes his new dad). The left edge snuffed out a heap of movements, and Wighton and Young are building a great rapport with Kris that is keeping most attacks under control. Similarly too in the middle. This is a good basis to build from if they can work on the right edge.
There will be a bit of noise of second halves this week but this was a different beast to what has come before this season. Previously the Raiders have capitulated. This was not that. Yes it was frustrating and inefficient, and Canberra wasn’t smart enough against a side that had an empty bench by the end of the game. But it felt like this was two good footy teams going toe-to-toe, not one flailing in the dark while the other confusedly watches on (title of your sex tape).
Instead this game showed Canberra for all its faults, are a good footy side. The last six weeks is not a mirage. They remain limited by the cohesion and direction of their goal-line attack. The connection between the forward and halves, and the halves and backs, remains a work in process hampered by injury and origin. It’s a similar story in defence, where Fogarty’s re-introduction may take some time to adjust to.
This highlights the folly of their five game holiday earlier in the season. They no longer have the time to waste or the points to sacrifice at the alter of combination development. If they want to make the finals they need every win they can get. There’s no margin or buffer to wither. This a good footy team. If they can find a way to find their combinations on the run, they can still be great.
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