The Canberra Raiders are the team that no one wants to face.
They beat the Melbourne Storm 28-20 with a mixture of power and passion, a willingness to earn victory with hard work, and by taking the opportunities that the game offered. They weren’t perfect, but by now this team knows it never will be. They simply ignore what they can’t do and focus on what they can, and make sure it’s enough to win. There is no fear in this team. Their reward is another final.
Canberra came into the game with the record in Melbourne that everyone knows about, but the Storm came with a pedigree. The Milk were barely in the finals, the Storm had been so long ensconced they practically owned the real estate. They were the favourites – by an alarming amount – but that doesn’t matter between these two teams. Not right now. That’s the thing about finals footy. What you did before, the form you have, the points you scored previously, none of that matters. It’s what happens in the 80 minutes that counts.
The two teams paraded around each other like flamenco dancers. The Milk wanted to win the game by boreing through a Melbourne middle that just couldn’t, or wouldn’t compete. They wanted to jackhammer through the Storm’s centre like they had been pointed in that direction by a well-paid engineer in business attire and a hard hat. Canberra knew they were more powerful than their opposition, more capable of winning physical battles. The Storm had Nelson Asofa-Solomona. To the Storm, the Raiders were a team of Asofa-Solomonas. Melbourne wanted no part of it, so while the Green Machine played hard-nosed straight line footy, the opposition tried to find ways in and around them. The whole game the two sides pirouetted around each other, each seeking to take advantage of a different area of the ground.
Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii were central to Canberra’s plans. Big Papa has rarely made me look smarter than he did in this game. The clock was turned so far back by Papalii I could have sworn daylight savings just ended again. He was an unstoppable force in this game, bouncing out of contact for 168 metres and nine tackle breaks. Tapine got through bulk work for 216, 70 post contact metres, six tackle breaks, three line-break assists, a try-assist and a lasagne he made for your mum because he literally does everything. Between the two of them they made every set they were involved in productive, no matter how imperfect the work that followed them.
And more than that, they started so much of the good stuff that Canberra did. Tapine’s offload to Wighton burning through the middle started the movement that would end with Matthew Timoko Sr asserting his dominance over his newly adopted son, Cameron Munster Jr. It was a stunning try that revealed the gap in power as bright as when Edison, renowned rugby league fan, first turned on his lights to see the Milk a little easier. If only he’d known just how bright the Raiders would shine. Tapine didn’t get the try-assist on that, but he did later in the half when the light that shone drew the Storm defenders to him like a moth to a flame, only for him to slip a pass at the line to Elliott Whitehead. The old-stager did well to take the ball, and find the line at speed.
They got help from elsewhere. Hudson Young was in everything on the left, constantly pushing and pulling the defence around with his off hand. He scored off a Jack Wighton kick that I thought was going dead, as evidently almost everyone else did, except Hudson, because he doesn’t stop. Whitehead, on the end of the Tapine pass for a try, took some critical runs, finding his belly repeatedly. With his defensive work – more on that later – and his willingness in support, he too turned the clock back. It wasn’t full ‘second-five-eighth’ of 2016, but it was a full expression of what his body can create these days. The back three were hemmed in by the Storm’s precision and discipline, but still all three still took the hard carries, and Nic Cotric in particularly seemed to always put the set in a better place than he left it (he only had 71 metres, but 32 of that was post-contact and he broke four tackles along the way).
It was a foundation that Canberra could work from. The Raiders used the dominance of the middle as the basis to test the Storm edges. They’re less precise in their attacking movements than other teams, so at times it can look as though they’re overly structured, or clunky. Their best attack came on the back of moments of middle dominance, and used players tearing into the line, forcing Storm defenders with too many problems on their minds to bring down players that were too powerful for them. Jack Wighton and Young were obviously important here. But so was Jamal Fogarty. He pressured the line with his running in a way that he’d promised, but rarely quite delivered this year, and scored when he got between two defenders and couldn’t be brought down close to the line. It wasn’t the only time he put the Storm defence in a bad position, but it was the most profitable. Xavier Savage also had some mature decisions as a ball-player, making the right call on when to run and pass (I only wished he recognised opportunities a little quicker and pressed the nitrous a little earlier, but that’s just experience). He chimed in with quick hands on several movements, including Timoko’s try, and of course the game-sealer, a well-worked move until Seb Kris’ head got in the way, and it became perfect.
Their opposition were cats (and not in a derogatory way). They couldn’t win the battle with big men, so they found another way, because with Craig Bellamy at the wheel there’s always another way. They used their ingenuity and agility of Cam Munster and Harry Grant to test the Raiders A defenders, creating quick rucks not though power but through forcing big men to help across time and time again. And then they pounced on opportunities that followed. As soon as they forced Hudson Young or Jack Wighton in for a tackle they would target that edge with pace and ferocity – the big middles like Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamakamica, rampaging at smaller defenders looking for contact and offloads, the smaller players using guile and nimbleness to dance through defenders and test the entire line.
Xavier Coates got around them twice using this philosophy, and the Storm stripped the Raiders for numbers after hitting an edge and dragging the defenders towards that spot. Asofa-Solomona got through once, when Harry Grant’s probing and Emre Guler’s lack of agility terrified Hudson Young, who came tearing in to save the day only for the big Kiwi to be lurking as the man out the back. This combination of big players hitting edges, and the Storm utilising width to test the Milk was combined on their second try, when Asofa-Solomona piled into the defenders on the left and drew their attention, then flipped a pass that ended with a Jerome Hughes kick to Coates.
But. And here’s the thing. But because the Storm had to always hit the edges to find metres and opportunities, they pushed right into the some of the best defenders in the Raiders side. Outside of his blunder on the NAS try, Young consistently shut down sideways movements with brutality. Elliott Whitehead on the other side did similar, and Jamal Fogarty continued to show that while he might not be laterally as quick as those he faces, he can lay a tackle when needed. Between Young and Whitehead they made 73 tackles – both more than any other Raider. And they all did it with a physicality that the Storm did not enjoy. Even when they got wider, the Milk were making good contact, generally pushing the ball-carriers in to touch (except, unfortunately, Seb Kris on Xavier Coates third try). It was the kind of defence that had been characteristic of good Canberra teams of recent vintages. Brutal outside in, but able to scramble with tenacity should ‘plan A’ fail.
Also impressive was the Milk’s endurance. Outside of the Timoko try, all of Canberra’s best moments came in the last twenty minutes of each half. In both halves they weathered a period without the ball, able to keep the damage to a minimum, before working their way back into the game and then taking over. The longer the game went the less it felt like Melbourne would pressure the line. Not that they felt impervious – hardly so – but rather it felt like whatever the Storm had to offer, the Green Machine had a little more. When the game was tight, it was the Raiders who seemed more willing to embrace the moment. They’ve seen too much darkness this year to be afraid of the light.
For the Raiders victory is never straightforward. It’s won with tremendous effort. With a courage that requires a belief in more than just yourself. It means finding points where you can, desperately, like a hardworking person down on their luck scratching for every dollar to help their family. And it requires luck. Not a lot, but enough to make it override the random chance that can eat the Milk alive at the worst moments. Canberra took their fortune, but more importantly took every key moment of the game too.
This was all that and more. Canberra played with a pace and a intensity across eighty minutes that was necessary to beat a side of this quality. They went into one of the most feared road trips in the competition and succeeded (though, that’s pretty standard at this point). They played with a confidence, a belief that the 17 players on the park are good enough to beat anyone, anywhere, regardless of the names on the team list opposite them. Their flaws are still present but they now sit like a beauty spot. The Raiders are aware of them, and win despite them. They are maximising what they have.
God knows where this team goes from here (outside of to Parramatta) but one and done isn’t the goal of this team. It’s clear there’s an ability, a will, and belief that next week doesn’t have to be the end. They fear no team, no trip. No one wants to play them. There’s so much more for them to chase. I cannot wait to see how far they go.
No one wants to play the Canberra Raiders. But they just might have to.
I wrote this after three pints and a tasty burger with Dave so there may be more typos than usual. It’s 1am so I dunno, do me a favour and like the page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or share this on social media. Don’t hesitate to send us feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment below if you think we are stupid. Or if we’re not.