The Canberra Raiders’ 48-6 victory over the Manly Sea-Eagles was a pure expression of rugby league joy. At a moment when their finals hopes were solely in their hands, they stood tall, and treated their fans to a rare feat of dominance. That Manly were atrocious is besides the point. Canberra did what they needed to do, and did it with style, and for once we just got to enjoy it.
I wish there were more days like this. It’s been such a long time that Canberra had an easy victory that I’d forgotten what it feels like. This was a game where anything could have gone, and if it had followed the pattern of the season the Milk would have struggled their way to a close victory against a side that wasn’t disinterested in the battle, but just incapable of fighting effectively. The Raiders have kept so many games close this year that choosing *this* moment to ‘click’ was astounding.
If the end outcome was unusual, then so was the way they reached it. Normally the Raiders spend their time dominating the middle, and never quite manage to get the rest of the game in order. In this game the battle in the middle was even early, and perhaps even leaning to the visitors. It was a both sides of the ball thing too. Canberra’s line-speed was uninspiring early – indeed the set before their first try Manly had careened down the field for the best part of 70 easy metres on the trot. Through the opening twenty minutes the metres were even, and that included a free 100m the Milk has picked up in scoring their second try. They were up 14-0, but the Sea-Eagles were winning rucks and slowing the game down to suit them.
But the weight of possession started to tell as the Green Machine got repeat sets in the best way – by scoring on every opportunity they got. It was also helped by some very good work on key runs by specific players. The Raiders first try came from Jordan Rapana taking a kick in-goal on the full, and burning back through a retreating defence. With a bit of momentum and some quick rucks, the Milk got into field position to score. Their second try came when Joe Tapine knocked down a grubber, Hudson Young turned it into forty metres, found Jack Wighton who put Xavier Savage away. The third try started with Joey Taps turning a nothing set into something because he decided to run 15 metres while the Manly players gave him a back rub. The fourth try came on the back of Corey Horsburgh coming on and starting a set with ten metres before contact and a heap more after. Initially it wasn’t constant dominance, but these key runs were important when Canberra couldn’t consistently win the middle.
And then Jack, Hudson and the boys hit the left edge and made it sing. We should name Jack’s pass to Rapana just so people can give that name to newborns. It wasn’t an isolated incident. The little bit of space that key runs gave him was enough, and he hurtled towards the line and took every inch offered. And while he hit the line on occasion, more than usual he was passing at the line, and Hudson Young was a deft accomplice. On the fourth try they created what felt like the first damaging offensive movement the Milk have put together all year. On the back of Horsburgh’s carry it was Jack hitting the line with bodies in motion around him. Rapa got the ball at centre with a bit of space, embarrassed Dylan Walker as he should, got another good ball to Seb Kris, and Tom Starling got the best arrival gift you could want.
Canberra had seven of their eight line-breaks attacking that left edge. Wighton was brilliant, but so was Hudson Young, who continues to prove me goddamn right. He had a heap of counting stats (122m, five tackle breaks, two line breaks and two tries) but more important was the ongoing improvement of Hudson Young, ballplayer. He had hands in all of the Milk’s best movements, and even on occasion the Raiders just threw him the ball and said “go ahead and cook”. That he added two opportunistic tries to that speaks more about his pure physical ability to keep working. As the game wore on and Manly got more ragged, it felt like this group might score at any point, and by the time Corey Harawira-Naera finished the scoring in the 71st minute, the Green Machine had pulverised the Manly defence. It was a strategic ruthlessness matched with an execution that has not been seen this season.
This dominance down the edge drew attention, and a sniff was all the middle forwards, in a battle early in the game, needed to turn the start from decent to demolition. The position and possession was even early, and Canberra had just made the best of their opportunities. But then the middle put the foot down and Manly couldn’t keep up. The metres had been even (at 300) after 20 minutes. The Raiders made 1000m in the next 20 minutes, and the Sea-Eagles were cactus (For reference the Milk normally make about 1500 metres a game).
Everyone dominated. At half time Tapine, Guler, Young, Elliott had all cracked 100 metres. Corey Horsburgh had carried the ball three times and near 50. By the end of the game every middle and every member of the back five had over 100 metres. It was sheer and brutal ruination. The Raiders just took fifty easy metres whenever they got the ball. It was a surprise whenever they were kicking on the wrong side of halfway, and it didn’t matter where they started. It was back to front. Canberra have spent so long winning the middle to let the edges thrive. In this game they did it the other way, employing Bill Walsh’s famous NFL strategy of passing to create space to run.
It was so good to see the attack with its tail up. Points have been so hard to come by this season, and the Raiders deserved the chance to let their hair down. It was so much of what we haven’t seen this year. Certainty and pace of movement. Connections between the halves and outside backs, bodies in motion, Jack Wighton hitting the line at pace *and* passing. Hudson Young fulfilling his fortune. Wingers in space. It did come with luck. By my count three tries came from Manly being unable to clean up a kick, and another from Canberra creating chaos from an opposition kick. But even without those moments they were creating enough opportunities that the points would have come, one way or the other.
It wasn’t perfect, and there were occasions where hearts were in throats particularly in defence. Manly’s entire offence was predicated on hitting the Raiders right edge, with big men trying to hit Elliott Whitehead’s inside shoulder, and the little guys trying to get outside him. They only successfully made this happen once, when Keiran Foran got outside him (as he did on several occasions) and Ethan Bullemor scored. It could have happened more but while the edge wasn’t air-tight, it cleaned up its mistakes well. It felt like Bullemor got close to breaking the line on several occasions, and each time someone was there to pull him back. This was only a passing worry and soon the game got well beyond Manly doing anything but playing for time.
But more importantly Canberra shut down everything else. The middle, after a battle early, barely let Manly out of their own half. The left edge was air-tight, with the opposition only half getting through once, and that was cleaned up before anything eventuated. Daly Cherry-Evans, who has destroyed the Raiders’ hearts on so many occasions was kept on a tight leash, with defenders constantly in his face. Haumole Olalau’atu, normally a menace, was beaten out of the game by Young and Wighton. The Milk didn’t drop much ball, and they didn’t give away free metres with penalties. What a world. What day.
Manly were terrible and that’s worth tempering what will be heated expectations after this. You know the articles are coming. ‘Are Canberra the competition dark horses’ and words of that nature. It’s meaningless now, because they still need to make the finals, though admittedly they are better placed every day to do that. The team they beat today is collapsing, and right now if they don’t win next week they might not be in the finals, so there’s still work to do. But maybe, just maybe, the Raiders have tricked themselves into form. If winning can become a habit, maybe approaching games with this kind of intent and direction can too.
That’s all tomorrow’s problems. Today was a gleeful exultation to the football gods. Joy. That’s how it feels. An earned contentment. A happiness built from the purest enjoyment of an experience. The Raiders finally put it together. That it put them a little closer to the finals was tremendous. That they sit in the top flipping 8, some 21 weeks after they last were there feels beyond a miracle. The climb back up the mountain was hard fought at every inch. But the view from the top of the world today was breathtaking. If it only ends up a solitary experience then that was worth every minute.
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