The Canberra Raiders 20-18 victory over the Newcastle Knights was one they had to win, somehow managed to win, and yet looked inept in doing so. This was two teams doing their best to lose the game, and Canberra were the least good at it. It’s a blessing, and the two points will prove critical in the future.
Canberra came into this game needing a win to keep themselves in touch with the cool kids on the edge of the finals. Coming off five games in a row against top footy sides, there was a need to not take this as a breather, something even acknowledged by the team during the week. We wanted to continue to see the good Raiders. Instead we got April’s Milk, and boy it was lumpy.
The best thing was Joe Tapine. Another week, another 200 plus metres (90 post contact and 3 tackle breaks, his fourth week in a row). If 2020 was a breakout season this is his confirmation as one of the most damaging middle forwards in the game. His combination of footwork and power makes him near impossible to bring down. He’s increasingly important as a passer through the middle, connecting middles as well as to the edge. He even added an excellent cut-out pass try-assist to Nic Cotric who put Dom Young in a spin cycle for the first try. And his defensive effort was noteworthy. He pretty much did everything the Raiders needed, and more.
There were other good performances in the middle. Josh Papalii (17 for 164, 67 post contact, 3 tackle breaks) looked tired to me, yet he was still effective. Corey Horsburgh (12 hit ups for 122m) had some important runs. He continues to be a critical link pass across the middle (surprisingly more often than Ryan Sutton). Adam Elliott (11 hit ups for 112m) is a energetic runner who routinely pushes inside out from the middle to the edge. His ball-play with other forwards nearly created tries, and his connection with Young on the left edge was arguably the Milk’s most reliably threatening attack.
As a unit the pack were dominant through the first 30 odd minutes of the game. After twenty minutes the Raiders had gained near 500 metres to 275 for Newcastle. They’d had 37 tackles in the opposition half to the Knights 11 by the 31st minute. It was a one sided game helped by the Knights unwillingness to complete sets, but built (again) by the dominance of the pack.
But alas, the Green Machine couldn’t make enough of it. They did score three tries, but given the position and possession disparity, it felt like they’d missed an opportunity. There were two main causes, both familiar. Firstly, the Raiders again showed little cohesion or penetration from their structured attack in good field position, and it had causes and effects across the line. Across the 13 they looked confused, tip-toeing through movements like a vaudevillian thief trying to sneak through the line with a bag of cash.
We’ve harped on this before but if they don’t fix this, proper good teams are going to make it hard for them to score. Newcastle’s defence, the third worst in the competition, shut Canberra’s attack down any time they could jam on the halves. That meant that anytime the Milk were slow through the middle, they were screwed on the shift. When they did manage to get the ball wider than the edge, Cotric, and later Matt Timoko, were able to beat their opposition with ease. That’s why the Knights are where they are, and Canberra’s inability to find a way through the middle, or around them, after the 23rd minute, is a problem they’ll need to address.
The timidity has causes across the park. Tom Starling seems unsure of his role in the side (and at specific moments of the game). Service that is but a moment slower, driven by a imperfect pass or a lack of surety about where the ball should be heading, puts pressure on first receivers to either move the ball laterally quickly, allowing the defence to shuffle easily, or take the line on. Jamal Fogarty and Matt Frawley tried to run inside the jam on several occasions but neither were capable of making much of it. It’s fine to ask your six to take on the line to keep them honest, or when it’s Jack Wighton. But in this game neither half was much of a worry for the Knights.
When they did shift, they had a tendency to play to the second-rower, shifting the creative responsibility further and further out. Ball-play for your edge forwards is a “nice to have”, and it can’t be the foundation of your structured play, particular when as for Young, it’s still a developing skill. If the halves didn’t have enough time to muster much, asking Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead to do better felt silly. It meant that Young often had to turn in (because any pass further was asking someone to catch the ball with his defender already standing in his lap). Even then Young did manage to throw a well-weighted ball that got Savage in a bit of space on one shift, and create the goddamn game winning try.
So it’s not without merit, but there’s other options they need to pursue. The use of the edge-runners on hard lines is a great option, but there’s no doubt those lines were more certain when running outside Adam Elliott than they were off the shoulder of a half. Better cohesion and more confident lines could open up options to get Savage or Timoko more opportunities in space. Again, outside of yardage (which given everyone outside of Cotric cracked 100m they did very well) there were few opportunities for involvement for the back five, despite their success.
Ultimately the problem with the attack wasn’t so much that it was directionless but rather predictable and slow. It was like watching a dog trying to sneak a too-big stick through a door way. The first efforts were strong, but when they didn’t immediately work, confusion set it. With Starling on it felt unlikely the Raiders would find the necessary deception or space for a forward to crash over. And if Joey Taps and his party boys didn’t break a hole in the middle, outside of those two-scoring shifts early, it certainly didn’t feel like there were the connections out wide to crack the defence.
That left Canberra kicking and hoping. Fogarty’s short game was on-point and earned the Milk four restarts, a try on a beautiful catch by Xavier Savage, and another on a kick neither Savage nor Timoko could ground. He seems to be building a rapport with Savage. If useful attacking kicks is all Fogarty adds to the Milk it’s probably a win overall. But if it’s all the Milk can muster, well, we’re going to be relying on Hudson Young miracles more often.
The other familiar cause of Canberra’s attacking malaise was
darkness my old friend errors. It was a return to a time that we’d hoped they’d put behind them. But after holding their game in their hands like they were Lenny holding a mouse, they fumbled the kill. 7 errors in 15 minutes followed. Instead of starting the second half with fire, Young and Frawley had tone-setting errors. Horsburgh compounded a dropped ball by burning a review Whitehead would wish he had later. Savage and Cotric dropped bombs, and Savage flubbed a forty-twenty attempt that nearly iced the game for the opposition. They completed four sets in twelve across the middle 25 minutes of the game, culminating in captain Whitehead’s moronic double of giving up a penalty when the Raiders should have caught Milford on the last in his own 30, and then getting sin-binned for an obviously late hit on Kayln Ponga on the next set.
Each Knights try was aided by the Raiders. They had field position to score just before halftime because Xavier Savage still loses the ball in contact too much. Their second try came from the aforementioned Whitehead double-blunders, compounded by Savage possibly (it’s hard to tell from the TV) being out of position. Then a third try followed, a perfect encapsulation of every issue facing Canberra’s defence at the moment. Fogarty, wary of being isolated, shot out of the line past a short ball on Mitch Barnett, forcing Whitehead to help across. The captain got legs, but Barnett got a ball away. Joe Tapine’s chase was admirable given he’d done literally everything else for the team at that point. He forced Adam Clune into a pass that meant Savage had a clear shot on Edrick Lee 10 metres out from the line. He could not stop him.
It all felt way too much like we’d seen in the bad old days of two months ago. The only positive commonality between this game and losses earlier in the season was evident too in the fact that the side never gave up, despite it feeling hopeless. The number of hustle plays made by players clearly exhausted at the end of the game would have been inspiring if there was anything to hang them on. Joe Tapine made two critical ones, including somehow chasing down a David Klemmer(!) kick and dragging his weary body back into the field. James Schiller toughed out the last few minutes of the game with what appeared to be a severely injured shoulder (luckily the Knights didn’t target him, either because they didn’t know or were too nice to). Hudson Young looked as cooked as a steak on your dad’s bbq, and still managed to find the energy (and cajones big enough for the Benjamin Way Penis Owl) to kick and chase for himself. Magnificent.
What’s the opposite of a moral victory? An immoral victory? A coward’s loss? However you land this wasn’t a good day for the Milk. But it was a good outcome, and if it’s just a bump on an otherwise smooth pathway to the finals, we’ll remember it more for the miracle of the Hudson (see what I did there?) than the game (much like this moment). On it’s own it doesn’t negate the improvements of the last six weeks. They were still evident in the play of the middle, of the broad defensive structures, and the efforts of the back five. It does, also , helpfully provide a warning of improvement needed without missing out on the points.
This victory also gives the glory of time. Jack Wighton will be back for the Dragons clash, and it’s the only game Canberra plays between now and literally a month away. There’s two origin games in that time so unfortunately Josh Papalii can’t rest, but everyone else can. More importantly, a bit of time can be spent on the training park getting better acquainted and fixing the attack. Joe Tapine cannot do this alone.