The torment that is the Canberra Raiders’ 2022 season continued with a victory that somehow kept both their finals hopes alive and made them seem as vulnerable as ever. Instead of pummelling their opposition and making up precious points differential, they stood nude in front of the world with all their flaws to see. That they ended up victorious may prolong their absurd pursuit of finals footy, but somehow they made it seem even further away. Only the Raiders can lose when winning.
This was a game marked as necessary not only to win, but to bridge the points gap between them and the competition. The Green Machine are chasing two of the form teams of the competition (and the Broncos), and it’s weird that they’re theoretically potentially on the same plane as these other teams. Their opposition, which put five fucking tries on them in the first half (just under 10 per cent of their season total before this match) came into the game in chaos, without a host of players, including two that have tormented the Milk for fun (Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best) and other that fell through the cracks on game day (Daniel Saifiti got Covid, and Tyson Frizell a rib injury in warm up). Adam O’Brien seems to have as strong a handle on the coaching job at Newcastle as I do. If there ever was a day that Canberra should have joined the ethereal plane of the good team that puts an opponent to the sword, it was this day.
Instead it was one of those games that is one way until it isn’t. For forty minutes it seemed like Canberra would be lucky to not have a score run up on them. They lost a middle battle they normally win (they were outgained by 150m in the first twenty minutes). They gave up possession and position through poor handling (they completed only 66 per cent of their first half sets, compared to Newcastle’s 100) and through ill-discipline. They gave their opposition six penalties, three of which resulted in tries. A fourth try came from an error followed by a set-restart. The final try of the half a comical forward pass from Adam Elliott. When the Knights got into anything approaching field position, their defence was not the salve it needed to be.
Partly this was because of the dominance Newcastle had through the middle of the park. They weren’t playing exciting footy, but they were punching up the guts with great success. When they did try to play a bit of footy, their ball-players – in particular Anthony Milford – were given so much time to make decisions. The defence could or would not get off the line, and it made what had been to that point of the season an impotent attack, effective. Three of the five tries came because edge defenders were asked to solve the problems created by the middle. The first try came wide on Canberra’s right when the inside defence didn’t push up or out and the Raiders were stripped for numbers. The second was a mirror; Hudson Young bit in on a Klemmer crash decoy, and if he doesn’t cover out no one can.
The other tries weren’t so much structural issues as pure mistakes normally not made. Seb Kris was beaten by Dane Gagai one-on-one, then later made a poor read to let Mat Croker through a gigantic hole. In between Jordan Rapana got caught between decisions, and neither challenged Edrick Lee for the ball, nor tackled him when he hit the ground. That Jayden Brailey scored on half time felt fitting. The Green Machine had been outplayed, and a 14 point deficit was a fair reflection of what they had produced.
That Canberra turned it around so abruptly to start the second half was as heartening as it was frustrating. It made it feel attitudinal rather than anything structural. The line-speed of the defence changed and suddenly the Knights were getting 30 metres on a set instead of 50. The speed of the ball-runners increased and the Raiders started making metres hand over fist. The net result was instead of barely getting out of their own half in the first stanza (they’d been tackled 9 times in the Knights field through 30 minutes of the game), it was all being played down the other end. After conceding a 150 yards going into halftime, they ended up outgaining their opposition by 400 freaking metres. That’s insane. Normal teams do not have a 500 metres differential just because the oranges taste good.
Joe Tapine (15 for 175m, 79 post contact, 120 metres in the second half), Josh Papalii (12 for 140m, 48 post contact) and Emre Guler (16 for 158, 61 post contact, 102 second half) punched through the middle. Hudson Young did that thing were he takes hard runs and also is a threat on the edge (14 for 174m, 69 post contact, 120 odd metres in the second half). Corey Horsburgh had no results (8 for 69, 34 post contact) but impressed in a short stint. The Raiders smashed them right in the face, and it came mostly from improved intensity, and holding on to the ball. What a twist. It was only fitting that the winning try came from a well-worked connection between Tapine and Papalii. These weren’t the only players kicking the door in. The back five were impressive. Nic Cotric and Xavier Savage in particular stellar in yardage, something is great to see for both of them for different reasons.
But for all the change in game their were constants, and they were undeviating as they’ve been all year. Canberra still was ill-disciplined as mentioned before and that slipped into the second half (it’s been a while between a Jack Wighton kick-out-on-the-full). They were patchy at best attacking in the redzone. They did create two tries in their opposition twenty in the first half, and one, when good hands from Jamal Fogarty, Xavier Savage and Matt Timoko put Jordan Rapana in, could even be described as pretty good. But their second half tries were all either opportunistic or built well before the tight confines of the goal line. Seb Kris caught a speculative bomb because apparently no one else wanted to. Young grubbered for himself in something we’d call a fluke if he hadn’t done it before. Then as mentioned before, an admittedly beautiful interplay between props that started around halfway.
When the game got tight and their opposition decided to fight, their redzone attack fell to pieces under pressure, as it has done so many times this year. Too many times they either went one-out forwards, and aimless shuffling sideways. They looked as bemused and confused as always in short attacking position, unable to find a way through what has proven, and will probably continue to prove, a very breakable defence. The backs got the ball neither early, nor moving at pace in the line, which was annoying given their opening two tries. More than once a forward got the ball on the last with no half around keen to take control. That Hudson turned one of those moments into a try speaks more to his value than anything the Raiders are doing. Tapine kicking well passed dead was a more fitting result.
The causes of this weakness too remain familiar. Like last week Tom Starling’s slow service was a part of the story (it felt even slower today, like he was surprised every time the ball was rolled back to him). So was the halves inability to direct or target any particular part of the opposition defence. Fogarty seems content to wait until the end of the set to throw a shot, and Wighton only capable of running or passing but nothing in between that might surprise a defence. Xavier Savage had some good shots, and I was happy to see him run at the line on a sweeping movement, but he too is mostly either/or at the moment. And for all the reports of Coach Stuart’s ‘new ideas’ borne from watching from home, the only new thing was a prop-to-prop runaround, which, while fun, is perhaps taking the ‘playing to a strength’ thing a bit far. Canberra cannot rely on their middles to do everything, no matter how rad Hudson Young’s short kicking game is, nor how perfect Joe Tapine’s touch is on short passes.
There were some good signs and moments of structural and team-wide advancement. For all of our complaints of the red zone attack, perhaps the first half successes represent an improvement. The new connection of a prop-to-prop runaround fooled no one this week, but may be the building block of something new. Late in the game Canberra actually manoeuvred for a field goal before rightly not forcing it (though they probably waited a tackle too long). One can hate the attitude that got them into their halftime hole, but in doing so we have to admire the way they yet again dug themselves out. They may have been lethargic in the first half, but they were equally courageous and relentless in the second.
It’s just these moments, these improvements, like this victory, aren’t enough to bridge the gap between Canberra and the better sides of this competition. The Milk tend to play down to the level of their opposition, and it makes the week-to-week feel chaotic. While the better teams are busy asserting their dominance, the Raiders are struggling with also-rans and hoping to squeak into the finals and then fix everything on the day. That may work occasionally, but it doesn’t feel sustainable.
Instead they tease us with this nearly but not quite season. Each game they win keeps them alive, but also reveals just how far they are from success. Their demise feels inevitable, and yet they fight for another week of hope, but in doing so somehow make the aspiration feel more like a mirage after each outing. They are still pushing their boulder up the hill while laying the foundation for their eventual demise, like some twisted mix of Shakespeare and Sisphyus.
There’s too much to change and too much to fix and not enough time. The Raiders are walking a tightrope and at every step it looks like they’ll fall. They still up, for now. Only time will tell if fate, or themselves, is what finally brings them down.
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