They say you learn more in defeat than victory, but if the Canberra Raiders don’t learn a fair bit from their 36-24 win over the Gold Coast Titans their finals aspirations will be as limited as my editing abilities. Canberra beat the Titans by smashing their middle and taking advantage of the ineptitude of the bottom-feeders. But in doing so they also revealed weaknesses in their own game that continue to limit their potential. It’s good and necessary to win, but there’s work to do.
Beating teams when they’re meant to should never be taken for granted by the Raiders. A chance for a third victory in a row that would keep them in touch with 8th position. An away game on a Saturday afternoon in warm weather. A team that hadn’t won since May. It had all the hallmarks of a trap game and the good guys did what they needed. In that context a win is relaxing and should have most fans, if not floating, then at least light on their feet.
It should have been a relatively easy victory because the Raiders starting middles stomped their opposition. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Moe Fotuaika are deservedly highly rated forwards, but they were made to look pedestrian in attack and defence by the efforts of the Canberra pack, particularly when the first string was on. The Milk would routinely take close to 60 metres on a a set, while their rivals struggled to 40. The Green Machine had outgained their opposition by near 300 metres within 25 minutes. That ended closer to 150m but not for anything that the pack did or didn’t do.
I write this every week, but it was another masterclass by Joe Tapine, outside of his sin-binning. 19 hit ups for 170 plus metres, 78 post contact, 13 tackle breaks, four offloads and a try. Every run was a different kind of dominant. Some were just overpowering defenders. Some were using footwork to get in between. He still holds that pace from his backrow days and if he gets outside a defender suddenly the defence is scrambling to keep up. He even was the first man in support when Adam Elliott made a half break through the right hand side. He did everything but mow the lawn for your Mum, and if he does then he’ll be her favourite so you better do it before he does.
Josh Papalii (11 hit ups for 160m, 60 post contact) proved yet again that there’s plenty left in the tank-shaped individual. It was his third straight improved performance. Sometimes people mistake his lumbering gait for lack of agility, but he used his feet and his body well in this game, and his offload put such doubt in the defence that there was always four defenders bringings him down because one had to take the ball. The interplay between him and Adam Elliott in particular may have taken all year to develop but it threatens the line in multiple places, which creates a more sustainable superiority. For his part Elliott (12 for 141m, 56 post contact) was again a crucial swiss army knife, providing energy, hard-running and ball-play depending on the needs. They were ably supported by a back five that got through plenty of work (all cracked 100m on the ground) but in particular Nic Cotric who had some of his best carries this season.
This dominance in yardage and through the middle gave Canberra the position they needed to crank out seven tries. While it wasn’t a fluid attacking performance it was brutally effective, and it was helped by some of the more frankly pathetic defence I’ve seen in first grade. Cotric scored from dummy half when four defenders should have been able to stop him. Tapine similarly had five defenders around him when he planted the ball down (and that was after he’d skipped across the rest of the defence that watched him like a drunk at the train station). Matt Timoko and Seb Kris both scored on simple shifts running through attempts from Titan defenders that were like running through the winning-tape of a marathon. In between Hudson Young scored when a Jamal Fogarty grubber proved too difficult for Jayden Campbell.
There were moments of brilliance from the Milk though. Primarily this was based around Jack Wighton deciding to make something happen, and Hudson Young proving his consigliere, stepping into fill gaps and make sure good decisions resulted in good tries. In the first half they finished a perfect set – it started on the Canberra line – with Jack running on the last, hitting Kris outside who passed to Young inside, who flicked a pass to Nic Cotric that Zac Lomax wishes he could. Cotric somehow caught it jammed it between his forearm and thigh, and then beat the opposition one-on-one with his patented hit-and-spin. It was a tidy bit of rugby league that was probably bettered in the second half when Wighton picked up a stray pass from Tom Starling, beat his man, found Young inside him, who pushed off a forward who was already his pockets, beat two defenders, flicked a pass to
Cotric for his hat-trick Kris for a double. It was enough to make you thank god for inventing rugby league football on the seventh day.
It was great to see a(nother) game like this from Young. He continues to prove his immediate worth and his potential to be an exceptional backrower. He played a decisive role in three tries, cracked 100 metres on the ground, and generally played air-tight defence. If not for a moment in the first half when Tino stole his lunch, it would have been a near perfect game. When John Bateman left we wondered if we’d ever find someone as good. Hudson Young’s promise and performance shows we might have that in the near future.
Canberra didn’t muster much attack on the right outside of the Timoko try. Again, the attack felt limited when Whitehead was on the ground. Fogarty got him into some good positions he didn’t have the athleticism to take advantage of. But it didn’t open up when Whitehead was subbed off mid way through the second half as it did last week. Partly that was because it didn’t need to – the Titans were so poor on the other side of the field it felt silly to go anywhere but left in good ball. But in limited opportunities Corey Harawira-Naera offered little but missed tackles and errors. While the attack heading right might not have been perfect, Fogarty’s short kicking game meant that the Raiders kept getting opportunities even when they couldn’t get points. It’s just a shame that Albert Hopoate’s perfect short kick diffusion wasn’t as successful as last week, otherwise there may have been more chances to press late in the game.
With all that ascendency the Raiders should have a much easier game. But they continued to revel in the areas of weakness that have held them back in recent times. Despite the Titans not being able to make metres through the first stanza of the game, the still found points provided by the Milk in the most accommodating fashion. Errors or penalties got the Gold Coast the ball in good position, and then defensive errors did the dirty work. Canberra gave away multiple late-set penalties to get the Titans in good field position. They dropped as much ball as their incompetent opposition. And when the game was ready to ended as a discussion late in the first, Tapine got himself sin-binned. I didn’t like the hit on him either, but a punch = bin. What should have been an easy became like watching me put together IKEA furniture. The result was right but the process was clumsier than it needed to be.
Amongst the top performance in the middle, there were some mixed performances at other spots. Xavier Savage had his worst game since becoming the full-time fullback. He dropped a bomb (and looked uncomfortable in the takes he made) and had three errors in total. He was out of position on a kick for one try, and it would’ve been two if Beau Fermor had grounded the ball properly. After a stellar effort during Tapine’s sin-bin to hold out multiple sets of attack, the Titans scored when Savage failed to take the ball-runner, allowing Tannah fucking Boyd to stroll through to score. It was the kind of defensive decision you make when there’s no other defenders, but Ryan Sutton and Tom Starling were on his outside, and he took the easy way out. Combined with the knock-on of Jack Wighton innovative scrum kick for him, where he neither scooped nor dove on the ball (and hold on got beaten to it by Seb Kris?) and well, it was a day that we should chalk up to a learning experience.
Another problem highlighted in this game was the right side defence. So much noise has been made (by us let’s be frank) about the need of the Milk to give Corey Harawira-Naera more time on the field, but this game showed the bind Coach Stuart is in. The right side defence, which wasn’t stellar but was holding up to that point, fell apart when the Kiwi international came onto the field. He missed on his first three efforts, and ended with four missed tackles in twenty minutes of football. The entire Titans attack was predicated on isolating athletic forwards on Jamal Fogarty, who did remarkably well for much of the game. But when Harawira-Naera came on to the field, Fogarty was suddenly on an island, consistently faced with Femor or Tino in his face and Harawira-Naera nowhere to be seen. It resulted in one try for Jayden Campbell and could have been more. If Harawira-Naera is this bad in defence, and Whitehead so anodyne in attack, it really is the worst of both worlds.
It was as much frustrating as enjoyable but as they say a win is a win. The 80 minute performance remains elusive, and the finals are coming up. The Raiders continue to prove they should be good enough to stand toe-to-toe with the best in the competition. The biggest obstacle is themselves, and that’s what makes them so compelling. They/re the footy equivalent of the hero before the montage. The ‘right stuff’ is all there, they just can’t put it together. Someone start pumping eye of the tiger and throw some chickens around at training. They need to find their best before it’s too late.
But, and this is the important bit, there is still time and this victory, combined with the previous two, means they don’t have to be perfect on their run in to find the finals. They have a really unique opportunity next week when they face the Panthers without their halves. They face no other top-eight side on the run home. They are continue to show they are good enough to beat those sides. Whether they will is another question.
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A good summary. Savage plays defence like a schoolboy, or is that insulting many schoolboy fullbacks? He is yet to pull off a good try-saving tackle during the times I have been watching. It is also probably time to drop Whitehead, others can do more than him nowadays.