Hello there, and welcome to a very odd week.
Canberra have and haven’t been the focus of the rugby league world. Coach Stuart’s behaviour on Saturday started a painful rugby league discourse. All of sudden people were saying bizarre things, ranging from defending Stick on the basis of “it’s not China” (Hoops – that was flipping weird), or whatever Paul Kent’s magical mind came up with, to arguing he needed to be sacked, or at least suspended for the season (as Vossy did). In true rugby league fashion the dumbest views got amplified to yell at each other.
In the midst of it all discussion of actual football went by the waysides. Suddenly no one was talking about the footy anymore (understandably). Stuart may or may not have intended a distraction (my guess is no, it felt too raw), but he got one, and instead of talking about the Raiders throwing away an opportunity to ensconce themselves in the finals race, they got beaten by the Panthers with one-hand tied behind their back. Normally it would be days of recriminations, but instead we got days of absolute chaos. Now Canberra is on the verge of elimination and I can’t decide if anyone actually cares (obviously you and me do, but we’re a bit weird like that).
So while everyone yells about whether or not one game and 25k is the right suspension (hint: it is), let’s chat about what the hell is actually going to happen on Sunday.
Arguably more important than the Raiders missing Stuart is that Joe Tapine will be out. Canberra’s go forward went from worst in the comp to top 4 based on Tapine deciding to pick the team up and carry them. Metres are still the best indicator of likely success we have (publicly – I reckon teams keep more interesting stats than the NRL), and while Big Papa and the Horse have been good at different points this year, neither are able to provide what Joe does.
The Horse is obviously back, theoretically starting on the bench (will Brett White do a Sticky Smokescreen? What do we call it? Whitey’s window-dressing?). Emre Guler starts, which makes the Milk big, but not fast early. Adam Elliott will play lock, and time will tell how if Ryan Sutton gets through the concussion protocol. If he doesn’t Ata Mariota is waiting.
Xavier Savage is also back. Nic Cotric is out suspended and Albert Hopoate will swing around to play left wing (Brett’s bamboozle aside). Jordan Rapana is back at right winger, which suits him better than fullback.
What we’ll be watching
Can the Tapine-less Raiders pack monster the Dragons? They’re bigger than them, which should give you an idea of how Canberra will play. Papalii and Guler are two boulders to carve a crater in the earth for the rest to follow. Horse and Elliott will provide width and a bit more agility from the middle forwards. Zac Woolford had a quiet outing last week, and his minutes are shrinking each week, so the middle forwards creating a bit of width will be a necessary compliment to Tom Starling’s increasing presence.
Elliott Whitehead has taken over the traditional role of ‘veteran lightening rod’. It’s a bit sad really. He hasn’t been good – don’t get me wrong – but the last two weeks his job-share replacement has been gallingly worse. If Corey Harawira-Naera defends each week like he has the last two, the Raiders won’t beat any teams with a memory longer than a goldfish. Ben Hunt doesn’t forget, so if Corey is going to play the majority of minutes at that spot he needs to play like he did against the Storm, not the Panthers or the Titans. Long term I don’t know what the best option is, but it makes the Milk’s decision to bail on the Eli Katoa chase even weirder. He’ll be a star in Melbourne. Sigh.
How the Raiders can win
Winning the middle is a start. Better defence on the right edge is another step. Wighton and Fogarty have made some improvements, and at the very least it’s been nice to see the Milk get some repeat sets. But there has to be something more pointed in the attack than what was offered against the Panthers.
There’s weaknesses in the Dragons defence that can be taken advantage of. For starters Josh McGuire will be defending on an edge, so forget my complaints about Harawira-Naera’s defence and get him on the field to make McGuire defend in space. Between Corey and Matt Timoko the Raiders should be relentlessly targeting the right. We’ll see if they do.
Canberra on the back of some of Whitey’s wisdom.
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