The Canberra Raiders beat the Melbourne Storm 20-16 in a brutal battle. The Raiders took every opposition strength and dulled it. They fought in the middle. They scrambled on the edge. And when give a chance to push their advantage, they took it. It took a little bit of magic, but Canberra’s victory was no fluke. This was the best of them. Let’s hope we see it again.
Canberra needed this win. A loss may not have been the death knell of the season but it certainly would have relegated them into the cursed ‘mathematical possibility’ space. They were desperate and it showed. But their opposition were eager too, coming off two losses, finally ‘whole’ after Origin and a series of misfortunate events had robbed them off their best playing staff. On another day they would have put fifty on the saps opposite. This was not that day.
The thing about beating the Storm is that you have to compete in the middle. So much of their recent dominance has come from winning the middle on both sides of the ball. Instead of supremacy, they instead got an opposition pack that played with a physicality that showed they weren’t going to back down against their favoured opposition. Most of the time the bully wins. Sometimes someone stares back. In this game, Melbourne blinked.
With the ball Joe Tapine was again massive (17 for 171m, 77 post-contact). He found metres for himself, but also for others with his ability to always win the ruck. His average play the ball speed was 2.25 seconds, a full-second faster than any forward in the game other than Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Josh Papalii played big minutes, and while he didn’t pile up the metres (13 for 109m, 39 post contact) it felt like he was quicker and more aggressive than he’s been recently. Adam Elliott was again stellar (13 for 113m) and provided important energy through the middle. Young (14 for 121m) fended everyone on the field at least once, and took 10 hit ups in support of the middles. Even Emre Guler, unseen since round 6, came on and had some critical carries.
This platform was one half of the battle, but the Raiders foundation was also built on the middle’s physicality in defence. The Storm forwards are used to winning contact and getting quick play-the-balls. And while they got their opportunities in this game, more often Canberra put them on their backs. In particular Hudson Young was massive. At the ground it became so obvious just how many roles he fills for the team. In defence he seemed to be like an old-school linebacker, covering half the field to make sure a running back couldn’t find a hole. He came inwards to help against the big men. He moved out to help out in scramble defence close to the goal-line. He even chipped in with a critical strip at the end of the game that had 2019 vibes written all over it.
This relatively even contest in the middle meant that the game was going to be won on the edges, and after the first ten or so minutes you’d be forgiven if you didn’t think Canberra had a hope. The Storm scored one try against the right edge early, and could have had another if Ryan Papenhuyzen had passed inside to Justin Olam instead of a solid six metres forward to Nick Meaney. It was pure Storm, taking advantage of an opposition’s known weakness and stabbing it repeatedly until they are either dead or running away.
The Raiders didn’t so much fix the problem, but it did come up with a handy workaround. They simply got better everywhere else, reducing and removing the space and momentum that the Storm spine players could shift from. This took increased effort, but Canberra supplied that in spades, particularly after Seb Kris caught a wild pass and took it to the house (it’s worth noting that pass was wild because Papenhuyzen was not expecting Hudson Young to be in his pocket so soon). The increased energy and effort elsewhere reduced the pressure on that edge. The Storm began heading their early and often. Instead of doing so to take advantage of numbers, they began going there out of desperation. Suddenly the questions being asked of Harawira-Naera and Fogarty were less complex, and they kept getting the answer right. Fogarty made an astronomical 38 tackles. It was the equal most the side with Corey.
In and around this the Raiders made so many important defensive efforts. By the second half the Storm’s attack seemed perfectly manageable, and their points had to come from opportunism (such as when Hughes scoring as the Milk retreated with their backs turned on a goal-line penalty) or out-and-out error on the Milk’s behalf (such as Harawira-Naera standing way too wide at A defender when Harry Grant dived over from 9). Canberra turned an attack that usually scores points for fun, that looked damaging and fluid through the first half hour, into the stilted incohesive mess. The only time they felt consistently vulnerable was when short a player after Rapana was curiously sin-binned. But the efforts kept coming, and while the Storm scored once, that was it.
Then when they had the ball the Milk attacked with a balance and cohesion that’s felt a long time coming. It was the first time recently they’ve played with a precision and execution, and an ability to shift beyond the halfback/backrower nexus. Jamal Fogarty was a stand out, finding the ability to hit his edges for the first time this season. He caught the ball on both sides of the ruck, at first and second receiver. He was everywhere and in everything, and threw some frankly perfect rugby league passes. He had more space sure, but he also seemed more sure of where the people around him would be. It’s the kind of cohesion that takes time to build. Maybe progress is being made.
All of a sudden Canberra were attacking both sides of the field. They came up with a try for James Schiller in the first half, when Harawira-Naera did what he does best, hitting a hole and finding an offload. Savage’s hands were quick, and Schiller scored a well worked try. Then later, with the game on the line, the ball got wide again to Schiller, who put in a a perfect grubber that he somehow turned into a try. It’s hard to know what to love more. Was it that he perfectly weighted the kick on the run? Was it that he tap-danced down the sideline around his defender, got his feet back in the field of play before finding the smallest amount of space available and still getting the ball into it? Or was it the fact that for the first time in perhaps years, a Canberra winger got the ball in a bit of space with some time to take on the line? Either way, it was gorgeous; a testament to the possibility of rugby league.
Of course I’m being hyperbolic. But for the first time in ages players like Matt Timoko, Seb Kris and Jordan Rapana were getting the ball well before the line, perhaps in space. Crazy I know. Rapana would have scored in the second half if he’d turned his shoulders inside instead of outside. Seb Kris got the ball in space and if he had a bit more pace he might have made something of it. Young’s perfectly weighted pass put Wighton down the sideline, and he found himself heading into space on the edge looking for someone fast outside him. Xavier Savage nearly sealed the game when he got to a perfect grubber before anyone else. In between Canberra were getting wider, with more space and cohesion than they have this season. They looked fast. They looked purposeful. Against another side they might have put a bunch on the saps opposite.
There’s something to build on but there’s the rub. We’ve seen moments like this before. It would be quintessentially Raiders to win at Melbourne and then lose next week to the Warriors (indeed we flagged as much in the Rumble for this week). Whatever they found in this game – be it the goal-line scramble, the defensive physicality, or the cohesion and willingness to test the edges of the field, needs to be part of their every day, not their sometimes. If they can make this kind of performance normal, well, so much more is possible. But for now though I want to bask in this game. Covid and fortune have stopped me being at the footy for so long. I was glad to witness the Milk play the kind of football we know they are capable of.
Canberra won because they found something in this game that can be permanent. It wasn’t perfect but it didn’t have to be. This was a football team giving it’s all, playing with heart but also intelligence and unity, finding a way to win, and even finding a bit of an identity going forward. Sometimes winning a football game is just that. Sometimes it’s a turning point. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was the latter?
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