The Canberra Raiders capped their remarkable run to the NRL finals with a 56-10 domination of the inept Wests Tigers. The Raiders were as impressive as their opposition were pathetic. They did what they wanted, when they wanted, and the Tigers offered almost no resistance. Thus few insights were gleaned, and instead all the Milk got was a training run in preparation for their finals match up against the Melbourne Storm.
There may have not been lessons to learn but there were pleasing signs – as it should be when you put 56 on the opposition and 42 in quicker time than anyone at Leichardt could get a beer. After the Broncos lost on Saturday night, Coach Stuart revealed just how worried the Raiders were of conceding 54 to the cellar-dwelling Tigers when he announced he was resting both Jack Wighton and Elliott Whitehead. In a sense it was a test of the side. Here was the coach announcing that he expected this to be a training run. To the side’s eternal credit they made sure of the fact.
Not that the Tigers didn’t play their part. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they’d come out from halftime dressed as Mario, or Batman, or whatever else football players think is funny, so ready did they seem for Mad Monday. It’s hard to know if it was precision or pathetic-ness that led to the Milk racking up points like they had many guns, necessitating an entire rack. At one point Canberra scored three times in three sets while barely breaking a sweat. It was a profound destruction of a team with no spirit for the fight.
It’s kind of hard in a game like this to say it was caused by X or Y. The Raiders slapped them silly across the entire park, particularly when the game was alive in the first half. They scored across the park with little intervention from the opposition, and frankly, by halftime Coach Stuart had turned his mind to resting more stars beside Jack Wighton. Jamal Fogarty didn’t return after half time, and Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii only got through 40 odd minutes each. One wonders if they would have returned at all if not for a brief flutter of effort from the Tigers after the halftime resumption.
One place Canberra was obviously better was through the middle. They took sixty of the simplest metres from the first set, working their way straight up the middle. There wasn’t much deception about it. It was a standard opening set where two teams feel each other out. But by the end the Raiders were up the other end with an attacking kick and didn’t settle down from there. By halftime they had outgained their opposition by 600 metres. A lot of that came from the fact they scored a heap of tries, many from long distance. But it was also because the Tigers simply had no answer for Tapine, Papalii and co.
Tapine (16 for 190, 87 post contact), Papalii (11 for 139, 56 post contact, 9 tackle breaks), Adam Elliott (14 for 117m), Corey Horsburgh (11 for 127) all cracked 100 on the ground. The entire back five did too, and while plenty of that came from breaks, it was pleasing to see them continue to do solid work in exit sets. Matt Timoko got particularly involved here, as did Nick Cotric. Hudson Young somehow didn’t crack 100 on the ground – probably because the try-line kept getting in the way – but he continuously terrified the Tigers middles with his jinking runs back against the grain. These forced them to make repeated efforts in defence, and when you look at the two tries he scored as evidence, they weren’t up to the task. Both times he should have been tackled. Both times he was just too strong, too fast, too agile.
This middle dominance didn’t just translate to points for Hudson. Jamal Fogarty scored in the first half off the back of Zac Woolford running straight up the guts while the A defenders marvelled at his roguish charm and stylish running (presumably). Nick Cotric finished what Nick Cotric started (which sounds like something Nick Cotric would say) when he took the kick off after Seb Kris’ remarkable try straight through the Wests defence from 40 odd metres, and then jumped off a sweeping movement a few tackles later for a confusingly unimpeded run to the line. And Josh Papalii looked like part Gene Kelly part George Foreman dancing and pummelling his way to the goal line.
In the meantime the Raiders tore the opposition in a range of ways. On the left it was using Hudson as a fulcrum on many occasions. His quick hands created the chaos that allowed Jordan Rapana to get outside his man and put Seb Kris in when the game was still hot. I also enjoyed Young and Savage running the Jack-and-Huddo runaround, only with X sweeping along the back. Savage didn’t get the ball, but it’s an option they can build on. Another try came when Zac Woolford made a great read for a blindside move, Kris made a beautiful decision to hold the ball, and Rapana got the points. On the right Cotric scored the aforementioned try when Xavier Savage and Corey Harawira-Naera both held the ball and dug into the line perfectly, creating an acre of space for Cotric to run into. They also found tries with some smart short-kicking; one for Timoko through a Fogarty kick, and one for Savage through an impressive hook-chip thing.
(Is that all the tries? I think I got them all).
It was 42-0 at half time and then it became less than a training run and more a bit of fun. The Milk swapped Albert Hopoate in for Fogarty. He defended at the halfback position and got the ball as first or second receiver. Then Savage took a knock and left the field, so Hopoate went back there and Tom Starling was playing at the #7 position. He defended there for a good twenty minutes and looked about as comfortable as you’d expect a hooker to look. Timoko was on skates covering in and out, and it meant an already vulnerable Raiders’ right edge became a source of multiple opportunities for the Tigers. Both tries actually came over the other side of the field, but it always felt like the right was only just holding on. But that was just a moment. Young rolled through, Papa did his dance, and a gap that was already too big went from Warren Smith saying it *could* be an embarrassment to it objectively being the case.
In the end it was a celebration, rather than a football game. Canberra had a party, toasting their own resilience, the Tigers (and Broncos) incompetence, and the gods of football and sun and beers and the soul of Australia on a small hill in Leichhardt. In a sense they got to enjoy themselves because they kept their eyes on the prize and won the game (and easily). When that darkest corner of your mind was prepared to start doing maths about minutes and points and making sure 54 was too many, the Raiders just went out and won, did it well, and made everyone’s day just a little more enjoyable.
It represented a maturity that has been a hallmark of the side over the back half of this season. Not within games – because, well, you’ve seen – but between them Canberra has kept their head and kept putting themselves in the position to take advantage should a catastrophe or calamity afflict an opposition. Winning. Finding a way. Making sure you got the two points, no matter how chaotic the pathway there. The Broncos played ball, and the Raiders kept their nerve. Then when they could have taken the day off, they unleashed hellfire on their opposition, suggesting that perhaps this team has a bit more in the tank we haven’t seen.
There wasn’t much else to learn than that. The Tigers were awful – a basket-case on-and-off the field. Turns out Madge wasn’t the problem, but just the sticky tape holding Bruce Reid’s limbs on (it’s a 12th man joke from the 80s man – trust me it was funny at the time). Their middle gave the impression of being about as tough as me in bar fight. Their edges communicated like an 80s Dad trying to say he was proud of his kid. But as importantly, for the second week in a row, Canberra didn’t let an opposition like this get away with it.
And now the world changes, and the Green Machine move from facing incompetence to the best and brightest. The Storm in Melbourne is intimidating for anyone but Canberra, but make no mistake, this will be a incredibly tough game to win. Even if they do squeeze a victory, it doesn’t get any easier, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s been a weird way to get here, a road so uncommon Robert Frost would be proud. But the Raiders have earned every opportunity they are offered by finals footy.
I cannot wait to see if they take them.
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