The Canberra Raiders 26-6 loss to the Penrith Panthers was an exposition. With everything to play for, and every advantage, the Raiders were instead outworked and outmanoeuvred by a team with more cohesion and direction. Faced with a unique opportunity and the necessity of positioning itself for a late-season run, Canberra instead revealed and revelled in their flaws as a side. There is still a way to the finals, but without a rapid fix of issues that have ailed them for months, the pursuit feels futile.
Canberra had planned to ambush their opposition. We know because they told the world (my guess is the leak was someone whose name rhymes with Bunsen burner). Their opposition was without three strike players. The Raiders had a home crowd in their ears, and something approximating form at their back. Instead they offered nothing but an encapsulation of every defect that has held them back this season. It would be frustrating if these weaknesses hadn’t been obvious for all to see for weeks if not months.
It’s a shame because it felt like early in the game they had adjusted the best to the imperfect conditions. They dominated the middle early, on the back of good work of Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii. Tapine had 82 metres in the first half hour before he left with a rib injury and didn’t return (it feels that like could be a problem for a while). Josh Papalii (11 carries for 122m, 49 post contact, 4 tackle breaks, a line-break and a try) continues to prove there’s strength in Boxer’s legs yet. These two, along with Adam Elliott played a big role in the Raiders’ dominance of the early exchanges, and ensured they were competitive through the first half hour. After 12 minutes Canberra had nearly doubled the output of the opposition. At 25 they’d gained near 150 metres more than their opposition. By the end of the game they were well behind, showing how they their early advantage was wasted.
Instead bad Canberra came to stay a while. They not just invited their opposition into the game, they practically gave them a foot rub and a beer and asked them if there was *anything* they could do to make them more comfortable. It was the worst of the Raiders, when errors and ill-discipline come to visit. After Papalii scored off a rare intelligent and well executed play in the red-zone, the Milk proceeded to drop the ball four sets in a row, in good ball and in terrible, allowing the Panthers to bookend this period with tries to Api Koroisau and Stephen Crichton. They gave away penalties, some unfair, and some lucky (such as Nic Cotric only being sin-binned for his swinging arm on the first tackle of the second half).
This was reinforced by an attack that unable to craft anything against an impressive defence. The Panthers have the best defence in the competition. You can’t beat them with happenstance and talent like the Raiders did to the Titans and Warriors. An attack must be purposeful and studious to find gaps where none are offered. Canberra instead resembled a cavalier student hoping to wing it on a test. What was revealed was the lack of strategy and cohesive foundations in their attack. They looked slow. They lacked direction. They seemed to lack ideas.
Of course some of this was to do with the conditions. The wet ground seemed to affect the passing as much as the handling. The ball was slow coming from the ruck (from both rakes), and so many passes were ill-directed. But as much as this the Raiders were hurt by a lack of unity in understanding what they saw in front of them. Balls passed catchable in front of ball-runners. Other players caught the ball in the line at a standstill, as if they’d thought one thing was going to happen and all of a sudden a ball was in their arms.
The lack of cohesion was exacerbated by a lack of clarity about how to attack this defence. Canberra succeeded early with a smart and well-executed two-man crash ball play. It is one they’ve used before. It’s hard to defend, because it requires multiple defenders to read the same thing. But after that the Milk resorted to clunky sideways shift plays or clear-as-day one-out crash balls, as if they’d forgotten how to attack the defence. More than forty tackles in the Panthers twenty needed to net more than six points. At one point they spent the best part of six sets on their opposition like for as many points as I scored tonight. By the time Jack decided the best way through was more direct, and up the middle – and made some inroads – the game was gone.
There was no creativity or deception around the ruck. There was no cohesion or direction out wide. There was no sense of the game. At one point Jack called for the left side’s patented run-around movement, where he hits Young at the line, and sweeps around the play. It was used to win their round one game against the Sharks. But this time it was deployed on a stacked blind-side with no momentum or space from the previous tackle. The defence walked the telegraphed deception towards the sideline for an easy tackle and a meek end.
On the rare occasion Canberrans shared a comprehension of what was in front of them they put some good movements together. Jack Wighton put Hudson Young in a hole. A good interplay starting with Jack ended with Jamal Fogarty in space. But these moments felt like far-off lightening in a night-time storm. The shot of light only heightened the awareness of the darkness that surrounded. Instead the Milk grew in frustration as they pushed sideways (slowly) as they tried to find space to attack. Fogarty and Wighton’s kicking game earned them five repeat sets, but it just ended up being more sets to frustrate the observer.
And so while they were banging their head against the proverbial wall of the Panthers defence, their opposition were taking advantages of the holes in theirs. Penrith kept it straight, but when they wanted to throw a shot they sent bodies in motion at the Raiders right edge, particularly after Corey Harawira-Naera replaced Elliott Whitehead there. Harawira-Naera rolled some dudes with big hits (poor Dylan Edwards) but he also missed five tackles, which is more than every other second-rower in the game combined.
More than just missed tackles, he repeatedly left Jamal Fogarty on an island, expecting him to take down bigger defenders by himself. This is not a halfback’s job, and it cost Canberra when James Fisher-Harris stood in a Fogarty tackle and offloaded. The interchange of passes ended with Dylan Edwards scoring and putting the game out of reach. It should have ended with Corey smothering the tackle. Whitehead offered little in attack but was more safe in defence. Coach Stuart remains stuck between a rock and something sticky.
The Panthers also took advantage of the Milk’s individual errors. Zac Woolford’s effort on Api Koroisau’s try will be one he won’t forget, and not in a good way. Jack Wighton committed the sin of turning his body out before the ball had passed him, and Hudson Young couldn’t help across to save the day (though it’s worth noting he’d already pushed out from a inner defender). Another try came when a kick exposed that Nic Cotric and Seb Kris had clocked off, and Jordan Rapana was not where he needed to be (and not for the first time in this game. I never thought I’d miss Xavier Savage’s kick positioning).
With everything to play for and all the advantage, Canberra proved who they were. It’s disappointing it wasn’t the stellar outfit we were hoping could emerge from the mess of deficiencies and juxtapositions that make up this team. Rather it’s the imperfect bunch we have all exasperatedly watched for weeks now, hoping they’ll pull it together like that one friend we all have (spoiler I’m that friend). It felt hopeless. It felt inevitable.
There’s still time to fix these foibles but it feels forlorn at this point. The issues of discipline, of lack of clarity, deception and perception in attack, and of the spot-problems in their defence have been obvious for weeks and while some improvement has been made, it feels like the baseline is too low, and the target too high, to fix in time to make the playoffs, let alone make a dint in them. Hoping they can fix in weeks what has existed all year seems naive. They hadn’t learned from their last loss to the Panthers, and that was four months ago. Now they have four weeks.
In the post match press conference Coach Stuart said they’re better than this, and he’s not wrong. They have the talent. They have the character. When the light hits them right they look like world-beaters. There should be a pathway for them. But at the same time this disappointment has felt inevitable. For all there positive aspects, their flaws, their challenges, are so ingrained in their character that it feels impossible to think this team will be put together in any functional way this season. That’s infuriating. Like my dude Billy Shakes once said, there is much music and excellent voice in this little organ, and yet cannot you make it speak? Canberra are the same limited team we’ve been watching for months. We’d hoped something would change. It hasn’t.
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