In beating the New Zealand Warriors 26-16, the Canberra Raiders took the long way around. For a period they were awful, as poor as they’ve been all season. They mixed errors, panic and apathy, before deciding to simply not do that. It was pure, distilled 2022 Raiders. They mixed ineptitude and panic with intelligent and well-executed play. You could have fit the whole season into this eighty minutes. Nothing is ever easy with this team.
Of course it’s nice they won because they needed to. Forget anything about the season, the Raiders needed to prove to themselves last week was more than just a one-off. That they play a bigger role than the upstart with noting to lose. Taking on an inferior team and winning requires a certain mindset, one born from a confidence in your process, talent and cohesion. This wasn’t entirely that, but it was a damn sight better than the alternative.
It should have been easier because the Raiders were dominant through the middle in this game. As the good people over at Rugby League Writers have been pointing out lately, the Warriors are dead last in metres this season, and the only way they get into games is when teams invite them. And boy did the Milk do that, and mostly through sheer incompetence. Nic Cotric got taken back into the in-goal on the first set of the game because he didn’t get his feet in the right spot catching a bomb. The Warriors scored almost immediately. Then Xavier Savage was flummoxed by a tougher kick, another try followed. By that stage nearly ten minutes had gone and Canberra hadn’t had the ball outside of the maybe two seconds Cotric held the ball while he was being barrelled back into his own in-goal. You would have been forgiven for getting that ‘it’s happening again’ feeling. Luckily there was still 70 minutes to go.
After last week it was disappointing to see the Raiders fail almost immediately when their line was put under defensive stress. The middle weren’t enthusiastic getting off the line, and the extra space the Warriors were playing with gave them one-on-one opportunities that the Milk didn’t handle. Jack Wighton got beaten by Jack Murchie, then Elliott Whitehead got beaten by Daejarn Asi. Neither move was complicated, both required single individuals make a play, but neither could. Jack was a victim of being trusted too much by his colleagues (it’s a rare half that will be expected to bring down a backrower by himself on the goal line). But Whitehead’s was worrying. It continued a trend of him being made to look silly by any half with half a step on them. Asi did as Ezra Mam and Moses Suli had done before.
Then when the Milk got the ball they had all the composure of a person waking up realising they’d slept through their alarm to get to an early morning flight. There was Vegemite on the toothbrush and toothpaste on the toast. Jack and Joe Tapine made errors in good ball tying to make something happen. Xavier Savage dropped the ball in contact on a kick return. The attack was frantic, and they couldn’t muster a point let alone a threat outside of Jamal Fogarty taking on the right edge defence. They’d had enough position to put some points together – they had 13 red zone tackles to the Warriors 10, but they came away with nothing.
But so is the story of the Green Machine, as soon as they stopped beating themselves up, they discovered that Tyler Durden wasn’t real. Canberra had matched the opposition for metres in the first half, which given they completed at 62 per cent and basically gifted their opposition possession at will, spoke to a dominance they had yet to take advantage of. So in the second half when they put together 23 complete sets in a row, replete with adventurous and advantageous play, the opposition couldn’t handle it. They outgained their opposition by 1000 metres to 400.
It was an utterly dominant display from the pack. Joe Tapine (18 for 189, 77 post contact metres, 6 tackle breaks and a line break) held it together when the Milk were doing tough, and pushed the advantage when they got some momentum. He’s taken over the Josh Papalii memorial “I’ll take the carry when the set is dead and bring it to life” role. For his part Papalii (15 for 118m, 45 post contact and a couple of very useful offloads) continued a little upswing in form. But was was pleasing was the role of the bench forwards like Emre Guler (11 for 113m) played through the middle thirty of the game as the Raiders clawed their way back into the game.
In addition, Tom Starling had his best game in ages. He ran a lot, 9 times for 89 metres. It’s what he does best, so he shouldn’t apologise for that – the Warriors were being beaten through the middle relatively easily and there were opportunities for runs from dummy half. Shit, Zac Woolford had a full 25 per cent of his season runs in this game (his two took his season tally to eight). Starling ate up metres at key points, building on the back of good runs by the forwards. His service wasn’t perfect, but he played to his strengths.
This middle dominance combined with the best kicking game the Raiders have put together in ages meant the game was played up the right end for the entire second half. Wighton in particular was brilliant in this regard. He had two forty-twenties, one right out of the gate in the second half that changed the entire feel of the game. The Milk scored off each of these long-distance repeat sets. He deserved a third, but got an unfriendly bounce. This combined with Fogarty’s excellent short-kicking game was a huge part of the Raiders victory. Fogarty set up one try, and with the game on the line in the last ten minutes and a lead to protect, he and Jack (and Corey Harawira-Naera!) found repeat sets with well weighted grubbers (and nearly another try when Harawira-Naera couldn’t grasp a loose ball). It was composed kicking. It was intelligent play, and New Zealand barely touched the ball when they were trying to chase the game. Since when does Canberra play like that? Since halftime, apparently.
And for the second time in a row the Milk seemed capable of working tries at the edges of the attack, rather than just relying on the middles to do all the work. Jack Wighton and the left, the area Canberra had scored near 50 per cent of their tries in before last week, was only relied on for one, and that simply came from a set up of hit ups that kept dragging the opposition defence tighter and tighter. Suddenly Xavier Savage was catching the ball at first receiver with a three-on-one and Seb Kris was falling over the line. It was a good ball by Savage, but the space had come from the pressure that Wighton, and others, had put on the line.
But really, the bulk of the attack came from the team shifting to the right around Jamal Fogarty. What a couple of weeks he’s having. Two weeks ago we wondered if the Milk could fashion a rightward movement. Now for two weeks it’s been a strength of the side. He was creating shifts in structured attack, as well as keeping the defence honest by taking on the line, cracking 100m on the ground and nearly scoring twice himself when the game was going against the Raiders. Then in the second half three tries were scored, and they all started with Jamal.
The first was simple – an easy shift and early ball to Matt Timoko, who beat his man one-on-one (as he so often does, given the chance), held up three defenders and found an impressive offload to Albert Hopoate to jump over in the corner for his first try in the NRL. Then Fogarty found Harawira-Naera on a gorgeous face ball to put Canberra in the lead, before sealing the game by stepping around a shooting defender off slow ruck service, putting a beautiful grubber in that Harawira-Naera got to just before it went dead. It was an impervious performance, and it felt like given more time in that mood, and with that personnel, more points could have come.
It’s hard not to note that the right edge attack really hit overdrive when Elliott Whitehead left the ground. The threat of Harawira-Naera as an elite edge line-runner opened up space for Fogarty by forcing outside defenders to make difficult decisions about helping in or jumping into the face of outside defenders. This simple action creates space and opportunities for Fogarty. Before he would get the ball bereft of choices, with defences not threatened by a Whitehead carry. With defenders having to keep their eyes on the face ball, he now has choices between Harawira-Naera, or Timoko out wide, or Savage out the back. Timoko has made more attacking passes in the last fortnight that in his career, and that’s because of the fact he’s getting the ball without the defence already in his pockets. Xavier Savage’s passing improves every week, and when his positional play catches up he’s going to find a lot of opportunities as a second-man on those shifts too. And Fogarty is enjoying using the big man working off his shoulder.
It does bring the question as to what to do with Smelly. It’s clear at the moment that the attack is thriving with Harawira-Naera on the edge. In the past we’ve been team Smelly on the right edge because of his defensive abilities (as well as Corey’s tendency to make mind-bending blunders that side of the ball). But right now Whitehead is not at his best, and he’s not defending well enough (such as with Asi’s try) to justify the spot full-time. Now’s not the time to cast him asunder, but the Milk will need to think long and hard about how they use both the captain and Kiwi.
A final word for the young backs that are continuing to prove their worth. Matt Timoko impresses with every opportunity he gets to make things happen. Savage had some ‘taketh’ moments – including some critical errors and bungling a kick return in contact – but his passing improves every week, and his rocks and diamonds approach leans more towards the squished carbon version each week. He was carrying an injury at the back end of the game, and if you saw Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad go Richie Tenenbaum in the NSW Cup game you’re probably hoping he is ready for next week. Albert Hopoate also got through critical yardage work (19 carries for 144m) and generally looked comfortable. He was also the Raiders’ safest player under short kick-offs and drop-offs maybe…ever? It’s a good sign for the future.
This victory wasn’t courageous and glorious like last week. It wasn’t even the eighty minute performance that has remained so illusive. But for once, it was enough. Canberra faced a game that had to win. That they were favoured to win. And they won, almost comfortably. When the game surprisingly slipped out of hand they lost composure for a second, righted the ship and then punished a less favoured opposition. When the game was on the line they made smart plays. When they took the lead and needed to ice the game they didn’t fuck around. Maybe it was glorious, but in a smaller, more attainable way. They did what they were supposed to, even if they took the long way to get there. Breathe it in. You and I both know it doesn’t always go like this.
In the end all it guarantees is that they live to die another day. They still sit outside the eight, but with a host of winnable games, two of which are against competition for the final finals spot, this isn’t the end, or the beginning, but rather just another foot in front of the other on the journey. Next week another version of this game awaits. Strap in, there’s a long way to go. This is never easy.
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