The Canberra Raiders 12-10 loss to the St George – Illawarra Dragons was less a catastrophe and more akin to an idiot swindled out of their hard-earned by a street hustler. The Raiders were, for the most part, demonstrably better than their opposition. And yet through a familiar combination of errors, confusing strategy, and the sheer limitations of their connectedness, Canberra ended up standing there adamant the ball was under the middle cup. It was not.
This loss will sting. This was meant to set up the end season run. An opportunity to turn two points into four, keep in touch with the others knocking on the door of the 8. They had plenty of rest, and plenty of warning as to the windy and saturated environment they were walking into. They even got a lesson last year in how to manage these very conditions. And instead of proving themselves capable of any form of collective thought, they raged in a self-defeating cycle like an animal caught in a trap. In the end it was the referee (or, really Peter V’landys) that stood over them with the shotgun and put them out of their misery, but by that stage they’d struggled against their own interest for so long it almost felt inevitable.
The shame of it all is that, just like so many games this year, the middle laid a platform that really should have been enough to win them the game. They outgained their opposition, had more post-contact metres, more line-breaks, and more tackle breaks, all despite having less ball and making four more sets worth of tackles. They were strong in carries through the middle, and brutal and enthusiastic in defence. It meant that despite the wind, the first half was played as much in the Dragons half as the Milk’s. At one point late in that stanza St George had 16 tackles in the opposition 20 to Canberra’s 12. The Dragons were always going to kick early because of the wind, but the Raiders defence was so effective in the tackle, and enthusiastic getting off their line, that kicking early was often a necessity rather than a virtue.
Yet again Joe Tapine was a stand-out. On a day where metres per carry went out the window as the game narrowed, he still cracked near 160 metres with 71 post contact and six tackle breaks. There are many reasons to love him, but the way he mixes up his runs, using footwork on some to attack between defenders, using power on others to set up a potential offload, is a pleasure to witness. This is a man at the top of his game. It’s a shame the Milk are too often wasting what he provides.
He did receive good support through the middle. Corey Horsburgh didn’t have big numbers (98m, 41 post contact) but it’s so great to see him touching the edges of his potential. Adam Elliott (14 for 131m and seven tackle breaks) always runs hard. That the Raiders second try, a well-worked crash ball between Tom Starling and Hudson Young, came after yet another run by his that bent the line, should not go unnoticed. It’s a shame we’re losing him. For his part Young was again impressive. He didn’t have big metres in this game, but he’s become such a critical part of the side, not just in taking tough carries and using a brutal fend to win quick rucks, but also in his indefatigable defence.
There were some quiet performances (Josh Papalii looks tired to me, like he’s overcoming influenza, and Ryan Sutton somehow only had six carries in 40 minutes) but the pack as a whole provided Canberra with the kind of foundation that should have seen more success. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. The brazen inefficiency of their attack this year is holding this side back, and there’s little time to fix it. Each week they mix a drink called folly. All that changes are the quantity of each kind of mistake.
In this game so much of it was just errors. On a wet and windy day there’s a bit of latitude here. Balls will get dropped that normally wouldn’t. But Canberra’s mistakes were so brazen in either creating points for the opposition, or wasting opportunities for themselves. Jack Wighton had six errors, which included gifting the opposition a try, handing over the second-half kick-off, and wasting a desperately needed red-zone possession. Nic Cotric dropped a difficult bomb that became points moments later. Ryan Sutton dropped the ball on a rare red-zone foray. Matt Timoko, Jordan Rapana, and Hudson Young all dropped the ball on exit sets. Between the 57th and 67th minute the Raiders completed one set. It would have cost them more if the Dragons hadn’t kept giving the ball back too. It’s an apt representation of how they wasted the gift of the wind at their back. While they’d been relatively conservative and disciplined through the first 40, this fell apart right when the Milk needed it not to.
This was compounded by confusing strategy. Matt Russell told the Fox broadcast at halftime that Ricky Stuart told his halves to kick early to use the breeze. They almost never did that, outside of one time where Wighton used a well-weighted chip kick on the 4th to earn a repeat set. But when stuck in their own half late in the game, they never even glanced at a forty-twenty, or an early long kick to grass to get down the other end. The defence may have set up deep early in sets (it’s impossible to tell on TV), but that meant there was 10 defenders for Canberra to get around, something that they only occasionally took advantage of. Other notable strategic decisions that seemed odd included the back three out-and-out refusing to catch any kicks, the too-smart-by-half short drop-outs, and Stuart’s continued odd use of the utility back on the bench (particularly in this weather)
If the errors and dubious strategy weren’t familiarly frustrating enough, Canberra also added in the ongoing inability to connect their middle dominance to edge prominence. Their shifts were slow, and so obviously without any of the pace borne from cohesion and familiarity. 11 different spine combinations is definitely part of the story. But they are also myopically focused on shifting left. Wighton gets the ball first and second, and even when the Raiders settle in the middle, or on the left edge, they almost never take advantage of the acres of space to their right, instead continuously heading back to the left, no matter how little space remains. There was one set in the second half where they let Timoko and Rapana have the ball outside of yardage. Otherwise they were just handsome battering rams. Notably Xavier Savage did score a well-worked try when every defender bit in on Hudson Young, giving him a 3-on-1 and a clear path to the line. But this movement stood out like a monkey on a motorcycle.
Add to that the now normal right-side defensive error and it could have been any game recently. It created the Dragons second and apparently a game-deciding try. For the record that was everyone’s fault. Smelly got stepped, but Fogarty’s help from marker was non-existent. The halfback was excellent on every defensive play in this game except that one. Xavier Savage was steamrolled by Moses Suli, which of course he was, but i’m not sure anyone else could have stopped him. Three bodies should have been there. One was.
And finally there was the crucial refereeing decision to give Canberra a six-again, rather than a penalty at the end. We normally don’t do referee discussions in these pages. We’re biased, and it just seems more likely that we’ll end up down a rabbit-warren of green-eyed misunderstanding. However, this isn’t so much the referee’s fault as the rule-books (he said, Phil Gouldingly). From my understanding he gave set restarts because the type of infraction requires that. The real issue is that set restarts exist, and are able to be cynically exploited in the way the were in the last 20 seconds of this game. Yet again Peter V’Landys has failed this game. Sometimes his incompetence has cost the game respect. Sometimes it’s cost it money. This time it cost it creditability.
Everything but the referee was what we’ve seen at other points this season and wondered if they would ever get fixed. The same issues and limitations exist every week. Can they be fixed? Not by this organisation it seems. There’s a bye week now, and it’s the last point Canberra has to get its act together. It’s now or never stuff, and this loss is just proof that they aren’t learning lessons. They’re trying hard – the effort is unquestionable. The middles are working hard and playing smart. But they are let down by errors, strategy, and flaws that hold the Milk back like they’re trying to generate their own light through frustration. Someone call Chris Bowen, I’ve got a new renewable energy source.
It’s another familiar Raiders loss, this time even with a refereeing controversy to spice things up. It’s not so much a classic of the genre but rather your favourite band still trying to recreate that good record they made twenty years ago. At some point you wish they’d either stop or do something different. But here we are, plugging in every week and rocking out to the pain. At some point it gets sad. That point was probably a while ago.
The thing is is they’re not out of it. It’s a bye week coming and Jack and Jamal will get their most dedicated period of training together since the pre-season. Big Papa will get his break. Pretty much everyone is healthy, and they have a relatively favourable draw coming. There should be a way to the eight. But when they play like they did in this game, it’s hard to see that happening.
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