The Canberra Raiders 24-22 victory over the St George-Illawarra Dragons kept their marginal finals hopes alive, and that’s about the happiest take-away from it. The game itself was another expedition is frustration. Canberra turned their dominance into nothingness, and helped the Dragons do the opposite. They should have won by 30. In the end they just hung on. It was sufficient, and that’s about it.
The Milk desperately needed this win so perhaps beggars like us shouldn’t be so finicky. Coming in to the day the Raiders had to win to stay alive, they did that, and now they have another week to make repairs on a plane with only one functioning engine. It doesn’t feel likely, but more time is better than plummeting.
This game itself was a familiar story. Even without Joe Tapine the Green Machine still dominated the middle, and consequently field position. This began with Josh Papalii (16 for 150m, 60 post contact, 5 tackle breaks and 3 offloads), again showing an improvement from his mid-season swoon. Ryan Sutton (11 for 111m) and Adam Elliott (12 for 104m) were reliable in their support. Emre Guler was not. But winning the middle was not just the packs job and it was pleasing to see the outside backs play such a prominent role in yardage, particularly on exist sets. All five cracked 100m. They had 13 tackle breaks and four line-breaks between them, re-enforcing the good work the pack were doing. In particular Albert Hopoate continues to impress in yardage, as well as in his willingness to play a bit of footy out of the backfield.
Outside of the goal-line, Canberra matched that hard work with brutal and enthusiastic defence. The Dragons found metres almost impossible to come by, routinely kicking from disadvantageous field position. It meant the Dragons could only get into attacking position through a Raiders error or penalty, or by Ben Hunt’s stunning kicking game. He took a 40/20 early, added a rare 20/40 to it, and even a cross-field kick to the winger from his own 20. They were all brilliant, but also spoke to the inability to the St George to get out of their own half, and the quality of the defence that was keeping them there. They only managed to score when the Milk brought them all the way to the goal line. The first try came started with a Hopoate handling error. The second was helped by ruck infringement. The final try started with Jack Wighton’s grubber being hit so strong it was 100 proof, and was followed by a set restart. Only the third try came from something the Dragons created – the aforementioned 20/40.
If any other team had the absolute field position domination that Canberra enjoyed, it wouldn’t have been a close game. When the Milk faced similar buzz-saws, they were pansted by the Panthers and the Cows earlier in the season. While they played the ‘right’ game between the 20s, they were unable to turn this into the scoreboard advantage they deserved. Once the ball was in either red-zone the Raiders were brazenly inept.
In recent times the goal-line hustle has always been a feature of the best of the Milk (as it is with any good team). In this game Canberra gave up four red zone tries and all felt softer than fairy floss. Emre Guler got terribly beaten alongside Zac Woolford by Talatau Amone for the first. The second came Hudson Young trusted his inside defender (Woolford) too much. He nearly recovered, forced a mistake on the pass, but unfortunately Amone picked up the scraps and scored. A third and fourth came late in the game. The first when Amone did the Papalii what he’d done to Guler. Papalii was isolated on an edge and Jack looked out, leaving Papalii scrambling to bring down Amone at the line alone. Then later Young and Wighton took down a left side raid, but when they were both left at marker the Dragons made hay with the remaining defenders on the next play.
They say never give a sucker an even break; well the Milk gave their opposition way more than they deserved. This wasn’t defence made poor from fatigue. It wasn’t worked over by superior play. It was poor organisation and structure, and a line-speed which became less the closer Canberra got to their own line. It was more concerning given the problem up until now had been the right side defence. Conceding four tries down their normally “good” defensive side was worrying. It’s hard to know what to blame for it.
If the goal line defence was bad, what Canberra did with the ball was downright criminal. They wasted so many tackles in the red-zone area. People often complain about the tendency of the Milk to overuse crash balls, but this was more than that. On many attacking sets the ball wouldn’t get more than one pass wide of the ruck. Sometimes the Raiders were deliberately playing a power game. Other times they were forced into it by their own incompetence. On the set before half time rather than take an opportune try, they were more like kids throwing eggs at a house: no plan, just chaos. When it seemed like Wighton had set up for a field goal to end the half, Tom Starling instead passed it to Adam Elliott. I guess he’s the boss now. This was just one set, but it was indicative of a pattern repeated across the afternoon.
The cause of this wasted ball is hard to pinpoint. It’s more than one person, or one position. There is blame to be shared across the park. Each rake made life difficult for those around him in different ways. Woolford’s defence was exposed, but with the ball he was prone to making some strange decisions, such as attacking a loaded blind side late in his first stint. Starling’s passing is still a problem. A big cause to the lack of space on the right was that every pass Jamal Fogarty caught from him either floated like Forrest Gump’s feather, or was so direct at him that he had to stop and wait for it before starting again from scratch. The slow and ineffective service was a big part of why both Wighton and Fogarty were constantly surrounded by the jamming defence. If only there was a rake in the top 30 who can pass with width like Josh Hodgson (*winks at Adrian Trevilyan*).
But the service wasn’t the only reason. The Raiders made strange decisions. On so many attacking sets Jack Wighton, by most people’s reckoning the most dangerous player in the team, stood idly by watching everyone else do stuff. Canberra would take hit-up and hit-up, waiting for the opportunity to take a shot on 4th tackle. If that play wasn’t for Jack then he simply didn’t touch it on the set. Sets lacked a point, a direction, or a clear idea of how a try might be scored. When they did, it seemed so confusing that they simply didn’t try that again. Outside of Jack Wighton running his favourite runaround movement with Hudson Young, there was little that felt structured or thought out (and even that play felt tied-on like a hackneyed love story).
Recognition also has to go to the fact that the Dragons goal-line defence tried to put the ball in the hands of the Canberra players they could handle. The jamming defence on the right often kept the ball out of Xavier Savage or Matt Timoko’s hands, forcing Fogarty to take on the line. He would, and often looked threatening. Unfortunately perception and reality remain frustratingly far apart. On the left Jack seemed so isolated from the rest of the game that he kept running the ball, even when there were opportunities outside him, almost as though in the confusion he figured he tried to do it all himself. It was a shame he couldn’t.
The Green Machine did managed four tries, which speaks to the amount of good position they had, and the ingenuity of specific players. Woolford’s grubber for Hudson Young surprised everyone on earth except Young. Ryan Sutton’s charge down try was a bonus that turned out to be critical. But the best work came from Xavier Savage. He set up one try for Jordan Rapana, and another for Hopoate. Both required errors from the Dragons to come off, but it was his smart play that put the opposition in positions to make those defensive errors.
Most notably, Rapana’s try came on a simple shift. Savage caught the ball outside Wighton on the left, and pushed towards the line. It attracted the wing, and Rapana was unmarked outside. It was set up by a few plays before when in the same position Savage had put the foot down and nearly scooted through. The next time that opportunity came, the outside defence hang around to make sure that threat was defused, and it was all the Raiders needed. It was small sliver of sunlight. Savage showed development in multiple areas, most notably in his burgeoning role as a creator at the line. We’d noted in recent weeks he’d been really happy to simply send early ball to Matt Timoko and Seb Kris instead of take on the line. I’d begun to note how much I’d prefer to see him test the line occasionally. That he did exactly that to such great effect, and then use that effect to the Milk’s advantage moments later speaks to an ongoing development that is good news for the future of the Raiders.
That was good work by Savage, but Canberra had enough ball and opportunities to score 40 plus, but never really threatened to. Instead the Ryan Sutton charge down try became the difference between hanging on to the game, and the season. Such attack early in the season would be something to work on. At this late stage it feels like it is what it is. Trent Barrett would be embarrassed.
It’s upsetting because it’s like someone is writing a dark musical of the Raiders season, and these same issues keep coming back like some repeated theme. Just when things are looking good, the notes start tinkling, and those familiar refrains set the hairs on the back of our collective necks abuzz. And yet for all that, they’re won more than they’ve lost. Go figure.
The lucky thing is that Canberra won, and therefore remain a chance, though increasingly mathematical. All they can do is keep piling up the competition points, and hope for the best. That’s the charge for the mess they’re in, one they’ve built themselves, brick by broken brick.
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