Jordan Rapana has scored as many tries in international rugby league as he has in club footy this year.
This is not Jordan’s fault. While he hasn’t had his best season, and he’s managed to get himself idiotically suspended twice, he hasn’t been out of form. His running metres (123 per game) are broadly in line with the rest of his career (though down from the hyper-V’landysball 2021 numbers). His tackle breaks are over three a game, which again is pretty much where he’s always been. He’s even picked up three try assists and seven try involvements, which makes him equal third in creating points for the Milk in 2022. But when it comes to him being on the end of movements it’s as low as it’s ever been. One try, two line breaks. That puts him on pace for not a whole lot this season, below last year (12 tries 15 line breaks), his best year 2016 (23 and 26), and even his statistically least impressive season 2020 (2 and 5) when he played a good chunk of the season at right centre because far out man it was a time.
Now I don’t tell you this because I’m worried about Jordan. Given an opportunity, he’ll always overcome an obstacle. The man is basically Sisyphus if he managed to get the boulder to the top of the hill and then flipped Zeus the bird. The problem of this is that it reflects problems elsewhere.
Rapana’s lack of tries is a symptom, not a cause, of Canberra’s attacking malaise. For the winger to score, they need to get the ball, in space or close to the line, preferably both. But Jordy hasn’t had any opportunities. Rather, his touches have been almost exclusively limited to yardage carries – in which he’s been as effective as always. But in attack he’s been a misused muscle car. He’s more likely to be shuffling the kids too and from school than in a bit of space on the open road. This, of course, is driven by an inability by the Raiders to shift the ball through their right side. We saw this problem perfectly encapsulated in the victory over the Newcastle Knights recently. After Matt Timoko beat his man one-on-one early, it seems an advantageous match up that the Milk would take advantage of. The outside backs never got the ball in space again.
The unwillingness to move to the right isn’t driven by one person or one thing in particular. Partly it’s by design. Canberra scores the vast majority of their tries through the middle and to the left. Jack Wighton is usually out that way, and the addition of Zac Woolford has seen more points being created in the middle of the ground. The right is already the last thought in the Raiders attack. Moreso, Canberra have lacked the courage and innovation to shift the ball early, getting their outside men in positions to play in a bit of space. With Joe Tapine et al dominating, it’s not been the wrong decision to punch direct, but it has meant that other pathways to the same result have been ignored.
It’s also been driven by a lack of cohesion. At times this side has looked as fluid as a brick, and it’s coincidence it’s been the side with the most change throughout the season, and therefore the least chances to build connections. Brad Schneider, Matt Frawley and Jamal Fogarty have all played half out there. Elliott Whitehead started in the middle before shifting out right. Corey Harawira-Naera started there, and is now nowhere to be seen. Matt Timoko started on the left, then shifted to his rightful spot at right centre after Coach Stuart gave up Semi Valemei at right centre experiment. All the while Rapana has been watching the men inside him and wondering if anyone was going to pass him the ball.
The absence of a hooker that can with real width left to right has also hampered the attack. It means the half has to come narrower to get the ball, meaning he can be caught without time or options by jamming defence. We’ve seen this plenty have an impact on all the right side halves, who are often caught by jamming defence. Fogarty has been looking, but as he’s been getting up to match speed he’s often been caught by the pace of decision and action required. He’s felt a step behind the game, and this has been compounded by an inability to consistently find Xavier Savage on shifts on the right. Savage for his part is more comfortable in broken play. While he gets opportunities at first receiver on the blind, he’s capable of testing the line, or ball-playing, but yet to combine the two (chill winston, it’ll come). Matt Timoko has apparently passed 39 times this year, but I can’t remember the last time was in open field to put Rapa down a sideline.
The inability to connect with the centres and wings is evident on the other side of the field too, though to a lesser degree. Nic Cotric is this far into the season with four tries, which doesn’t scream dominant. It also has less impact because if they can’t connect to the centres and back, Wighton and Hudson Young are still able to put pressure on the defence. A random check of the wingers around the competition shows you just how unusual that is. For example, the last place Gold Coast Titans’ wingers Greg Marzhew and Jamayne Isaako have six and three tries respectively this season. The wingers for the basket case Wests Tigers, David Nofoaluma and Ken Maumalo have managed 16 tries between them (the Tigers have indeed scored more than 16 tries. Wild). The wingers for the Panthers have scored 19 times. It’s safe to say Canberra is an outlier.
So Jordan has watched, and tried to find other ways to get involved. You can often find him in places he theoretically shouldn’t be, but that’s what it takes for him to get the ball sometimes. Indeed, it’s what makes him great. Even in the test match he spent most of the game anywhere but his wing, and scored a try running a supporting line off the inside shoulder of the left-side half.
Good sides test defences across the park, and if Canberra have any plans on moving on up they’ll need to find a way to build their attack that allows attack at all points on the park. Only forcing teams to defend two-thirds of the ground won’t be sufficient. They need time and they don’t have heaps, but success could be the difference between them making the finals or not.
Oh, and it would be nice to see Rapana score a few more tries.