Hello, can I interest you in some semi final football?
The tests only get harder from here on in. If the Milk have any intention on taking us to Valhalla then they’ll need to lift on last week’s performance. Not because they were bad, they were as impressive as they’ve been at any point this year. But the Eels are better than the Storm, and they’ll be hardened by their preparation for this game, and the desperation of the situation.
When it comes to history it’s pick your poison. The Raiders haven’t been the Eels outside of Canberra since 2017. The Eels have not made it past this game in the Brad Arthur era. The Eels were the better side all season, but they only won two more games than Canberra. Is the getting the right call at Woolongong and holding on against the Warriors all that stands between these two teams?
Probably not. Canberra have a battle. It’s a properly disadvantageous position to enter a final. Shorter rest, more travel, playing at a ground they have yet to prove themselves at. It’s another step up from their favourite road trip to Melbourne. The Eels are arguably the second best team in the competition (and by arguably I mean I argued it). This is going to be an incredible battle.
So how do they manage it?
Match the middle
The Parramatta middle is one of the best in the competition. Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson all average around 150 metres per game (for the record, here’s the list of Raiders that do: Tapine, Joseph, that is all). The edge back-rowers (Shaun Lane and Isiah Papali’i) both average 125 plus metres. For comparison Hudson Young averages 105 a game. I’m not going to look up Smelly’s numbers because I might get overwhelmed. Shit, the Parramatta bench has two players that effectively average 100m a game.
So this goes from being Canberra’s strength each week to being a problem it has to nullify. That needs to be done on both sides of the ball. In defence it’s stopping the team that likes to offload the most in the competition from doing that. That’s about contact in defence, and making sure there’s multiple numbers in the tackle. That’s going to require more work from the middle forwards, so be glad Ryan Sutton is around, because that man loves to work. In attack it means being able to make sure the opposition works, both through offloads, but also the improved ability of the Raiders’ middles to shift the defence around through short interchanges across the front line.
Stop Dylan Brown
If the Eels do get a rumble rolling through the middle of the ground it becomes terrifying because it means that Dylan Brown can get the ball and target the edge with Shaun Lane on his shoulder, or by testing the ruck defenders’ willingness to cover across and help the right edge defence (That’s how you get Dylan Brown running over Josh Papalii). This will be a massive test for Jamal Fogarty and Elliott Whitehead. Shaun Lane is massive, and he’ll hit the line at pace. If you don’t get a body tackle on him, he’ll lay an offload for someone else to fall over the line. Fogarty is great in front-on contact, but he’ll need help. But Elliott Whitehead will be up to his arms and ears making sure Brown isn’t able to turn inside. If Matt Timoko helps in too hard, there’s Maika Sivo waiting outside. Smart teams make this all doubly hard by hitting the edge, then going right back and asking a prop to do the job of a back-rower.
The only way to stop this is to make sure you’re not getting thrashed through the middle, and to be super aggressive in your edge defence. The inside defenders have to make sure Brown can’t come inside. The outside defenders have to make sure Lane and Brown don’t have the space to pull their one-two punch. It’s easier said than done, and even saying it feels hopeful.
That’s a tough battle and it makes it feel like the Raiders are on a hiding to nothing. The Eels are an impressive outfit, but there is a weakness for Canberra to attack. As the god of NRL analysis Jason Oliver will tell you, nearly half the tries the Eels concede are on their right edge (i.e the Raiders left). Mitch Moses has a heap of units in front of him, and Jack Wighton offers many of the same threats that we just outlined from Dylan Brown.
It’s almost a cliche at this point, but the real variable here is Hudson Young. His strength is the variety of his offering, much like John Bateman once brought to the Raiders, though admittedly he’s not yet the defender that John was (but he’s still one of Canberra’s best). Young’s ability to be a front-line creator, a line runner, part of structured shifts, and even kick for himself and others, makes defensive eyes shift to him and potentially hesitate. It may open space for Jack. It may open up space for Seb Kris. Hopefully Canberra take advantage.
Embrace the chaos
In the Storm victory Canberra seemed unfazed by the sometimes chaotic nature of the game, and in fact they took advantage of some mad moments at key points. Both second half tries came from somewhat unusual situations, and the Raiders were the team that took advantage. Part of that is a fluke, part of that is the nature of semi final football. The Milk have always thrived with a bit of chaos. Sticky loves them to grind out a victory, but really they’re a team of opportunity. Structure isn’t their strength. And when you’re the underdog, the chaos that comes with throwing the kitchen sink at the opposition is something you should lean into. The only team that benefits from traditional football is the Eels.
The Raiders by a Jamal Fogarty penalty goal.
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