A few weeks ago it had felt like a problem that might never be solved.
Of the sixteen tries between scored by the Milk between round 12 (when Jamal Fogarty returned) and round 16, only four times had Canberra scored on the right. One came from a kick, and one came from Elliott Whitehead diving over from dummy half. Just two came from what one might call a a traditional shift to the right.
It was a problem. The attack felt one dimensional, punching into the middle, hitting the left edge, and offering little else. Canberra felt contained by a lack of cohesion on the right, and an inability to find any space for their talented young backs to play in. At the time we pointed out that right winger Jordan Rapana had scored as many tries in international football as he had in first grade this season (a solitary try in both). We argued:
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 seemed an advantageous match up that the Milk would take advantage of. The outside backs never got the ball in space again.Quoting yourself is what
lazyfancy people do.
There was a wide range of potential causes. Strategy, cohesion, and the inability of the rake to play with width were possibilities we identified. Others asked questions about Jamal Fogarty’s impact on the side, and whether or not there needed to be a return of understudy Brad Schneider. The ramifications of this were obvious. Good sides don’t limit their attack. They test the opposition everywhere. If the Raiders were serious about a finals run (a very sizeable “if” to this day) they had to find a way to a more balanced attack.
Well, a lot has happened in the last two weeks. The Raiders have scored seven total tries in their past two games. Of those four or five (depending on how you feel about Corey Harawira-Naera’s second try against the Warriors) have been on the right, and four have been out-and-out old fashioned shifts in that direction. Matt Timoko has thrown the final pass on two tries, compiling two try assists, taking his season total to three. They were his first try assists since round one (you may remember his try assist in that game – it was on the left). Jamal Fogarty now has five try assists (equal most in the team) and eight total try involvements (the only player in the club to average more than one try involvement per game).
Suddenly Canberra are looking comfortable shifting right. Here’s the first evidence that we saw in the Storm game, just after Corey Harawira-Naera had joined the game.
Fogarty uses the Kiwi international on a face ball, and he drags the defence in, creating the overlap outside. Watch how the defence hangs back to watch Harawira-Naera. So often this season Fogarty and Timoko have both had defenders in their respective laps the minute the ball has shifted right, removing options for the playmaker, who’s often had to just tuck the ball in and take the line. Instead a single threat to the line (albeit a very good line-running one) creates some hesitancy in the defence, and the space to make something happen.
We again can see it on again in the Warriors game.
This time the defence does push up on Timoko – having already been smoked by him a few minutes earlier. But a single defender is now match for Harawira-Naera, Fogarty makes a good read, and the Raiders are in the lead. Again the space exists because of the threat around having multiple edge runners, forcing the defence to play each attacker one-on-one.
My inclination has been to suggest that Harawira-Naera’s elite line-running, and ball playing skill, is creating doubt in the defensive line, allowing more space for those around him to operate. This is supported by those instances, and circumstantial evidence of most of those of Canberra’s rightward swings occurring while he’s been in that position. However, it’s not just him alone that causing this. Here we see them do it with Whitehead running the face line.
This time there’s slightly less space – potentially because the threat of Smelly running that line is different to Corey. Dejarn Asi stays in for a second but quickly abandons Smelly to push out to no avail. But it’s still enough to get Timoko ball with a few steps to get to work. It’s also worth noting James Schiller’s mini-miracle also came when Adam Elliott was filling in at right edge.
So it’s hard to say it’s only Harawira-Naera, but his impact seems substantial. Certainly there are other factors, but as usual with these things it’s hard to separate them out easily. In the Storm example the previous run had bent the line and created a degree of space from the get go. Similarly in the Warriors example, a tough run by Emre Guler had put pressure on the middle of the Warriors defence. In both examples Fogarty got the ball relatively close to the ruck, removing the need for the dummy-half to extract any width from their pass.
Two games is hardly a sample size. It’s worth keeping an eye on though to see if this remains a consistent pattern. How Stuart works in Harawira-Naera on that edge then becomes a key question. Without Whitehead being available, Harawira-Naera played 70 minutes off the bench in that spot. In the Warriors game with Whitehead there, he only played 26. It’s worth investigating what sort of rotation Stuart intends to use.
As reader James wonders, a key question is whether Harawira-Naera remains an impact player, or takes up an 80 minute role. To be the obvious answer is he need s to play more, but it shouldn’t be a simple case of all in on Harawira-Naera. I get nervous about what can happen to the energy of a side with decisions that involve demoting or changing the roles of senior players, including the captain, especially when you’ve already changed it once this year. Of course, the opposite can be true – if the team feel energised by the use of Corey, then this argument is moot. Only Stuart is close enough to tell for sure.
The usefulness of Whitehead, Corey and Adam Elliott is that they can all cover both middle and edge minutes, so there’s no need to be rigid. Given Tapine’s near 60 minute workload, it could be that the Milk have more options to play with than simple start/sit metrics. But it’s hard to ignore the change in effectiveness that’s accompanied Corey’s increased involvement. There’s an argument that Fogarty deserves more time with him to continue to build what already seems like a beautiful relationship with him. There remains a question of defensive efficacy – Whitehead is unquestionably a btter defender, but as we pointed out in the review, he’s made enough errors lately that the gap between the two is shrinking. Regardless of whether Stuart wants to play him a full complement, or as a sub, I think the key fact is that he needs to play more than 26 minutes.
Will that solve Canberra’s attacking woes, prime them for a late season run where they tear the competition apart through a structured and balanced attack?
Yes let’s all by grand final tickets. Obviously no. Anyone who has watched the Milk become everything and nothing all at once this season will say one fortnight’s competence isn’t a foundation you want to build your season on. It’s just as likely that next week this all goes away and this is just a blip of heat on an otherwise tepid year. That’s the type of season it is. I feel more confident that they’ll miss the finals than make it, and that’s just how it goes.
But for now at least, it feels like an invisible limit has been removed from Canberra’s potential. By opening up the attack it not only is creating more options for the Milk on that side of the ground, but it also means as teams adjust, it could make things easier across the park. That doesn’t mean 26 points per half from here on in, but it could just mean the Raiders have solved one of their biggest problems.
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