The Canberra Raiders’ season collapsed upon itself in its 40-4 semi final loss to the Parramatta Eels. Their strengths were rendered weaknesses by a superior opposition, the weaknesses picked over like vultures on the carcass of dying roadkill. It was an unfortunate way to end such a good season.
It had been a weird build-up that perhaps obscured the task in front of the Raiders. The news media’s approach to both sides was comical. Parramatta were presented as a side on the brink of collapse. Canberra were presented as an unstoppable force, perpetuating towards the grand final with the momentum of a twitter pile-on. Given all the Eels had done was lost to the best team in the competition it was odd. Parramatta have been a bad match-up recently because they do the same things well as the Milk do. Only generally they do them better.
No better is this evidenced than it in this game. The Eels middle kicked the shit out of the Raiders big men. They won with power and won in contact. They won with offloads that created extra tackles that Canberra didn’t have the energy to keep covering up. The Green Machine’s middles couldn’t win a ruck defensively, and it gave the Eels a free-run on every carry. By half time they’d outgained the Milk by 400 metres, and most of the Parramatta pack had already cracked 100 metres on the ground. By the end of the game that was 800 metres. The Eels made an average of 55 metres a set. Such was the possession and position disadvantage the middles just tired themselves out trying to get control of the ruck. They never managed it.
This was compounded by the injury to Adam Elliott before the game, and the Head Injury Assessments for Elliott Whitehead and then Corey Harawira-Naera during it. Elliott was sorely missed, as a source of pace and effort through the middle. Someone that could win a ruck on both sides of the ball. Corey Harawira-Naera was meant to play this role, but he only came on to spell Whitehead after a head knock, before quickly suffering his own. The middle was already being manhandled for the first time in a long time, and suddenly it was down on troops. Ryan Sutton playing 50 minutes was in no-one’s plans for this game, but that was required by circumstance.
Without a middle that was at least competing, both Eels halves acres of space in which to sew chaos. The Raiders’ edges and outside backs were exposed. No one survived the examination, and it laid bare issues that Canberra had papered over throughout the second half of this season. Shaun Lane and Dylan Brown tormented the right edge in the exact way everyone had feared. Lane was used to punch holes in the defence, forcing Jamal Fogarty or Matt Timoko to make near-impossible tackles to save the day. When edge defenders did manage to get Lane’s legs, the Eels took the quick ruck and went right back at the gap the absent defenders had created. While early points were all created on the other side of the field, the first incision usually begun here.
It put the Raiders outside backs in difficult decision-making positions. Matt Timoko and Seb Kris were both beaten on their outside repeatedly. While sometimes you can bank on Jordan Rapana or Nic Cotric to save the day, in this game they made the wrong decision, or executed the right decision appallingly. Both turned half chances into tries – only for the wrong team. Rapana slipped over in defence, moments after dropping a ball cold on an exit set, and the Eels were off. On one try Nic Cotric found himself hanging out when his centre had gone in. On the Maika Sivo no try he came in when he wasn’t needed. Then when Marata Niukore scored the final try, Cotric managed to swing his arms and tackle no-one on three separate occasions as Sivo and the try scorer combined down his wing. Poor Matt Timoko was left trying to bring down a giant with no help.
Given how experienced chargers like Cotric and Rapana performed, it’s unfair to be too critical of Xavier Savage. He scored the Milk’s only try – a quiet reminder of the possibility in him that remains untapped. But he had a rough night, and is still yet to learn his positioning on the field. When Mitchell Moses ran across the field to seal the game in the second half Xavier took too long to recognise what was happening, and couldn’t make up the space he’d offered He was nutmegged by a bad bounce on a kick that he probably should have got to the bounce before. And he was dragged back into the in-goal from near the 10 metre line on a kick return. The Eels scored on the consequential repeat set.
And while chaos reigned when they didn’t have the ball, the consequences of being dominated by the Parramatta pack were to be seen in attack too. The plan was predicated on the game being close so the Milk could continue to attack around it’s strengths between the tram lines. Joe Tapine (11 for 134m, 64 post contact) and Hudson Young (12 for 117, 49 post contact) both were admirable but clearly fighting a losing cause. Josh Papalii (7 for 77m, 6 tackle breaks) looked astounding when he had the ball, but he had so few opportunities (those 7 runs came in 50 plus minutes) that it was unimportant.
Canberra’s plan was thrown out the window as a consequence of the scoreboard, and they were forced to play a game that doesn’t suit them. In the chase of points they pushed wider and wider. The shifts were never cohesive, passes hitting *just* behind where they needed to, players timing just a little out. It looked slow, and the only threat that ever came was getting all the way over to a wing, before centering a kick in a dramatic expression of hoping against hope. Jack Wighton nearly scored twice doing this. On a day where a single thing went right maybe he would have.
The tiredness of the middle and the need to score not only forced Canberra wider but continuously dragged the Milk away from what works for them. Jack Wighton kept trying to find a pass around the Eels instead of running it through them. He put Kris and Rapana into touch without help on multiple occasions. Similar Jamal Fogarty had a unidirectional attack, shifting slowly to his outside men. More than once he stepped off his right and desperately wanted someone to send back against the middle of the defence, only everyone the middle was standing still, exhausted from their battle to maintain a shred of dignity. Even Hudson Young, he who had previously given us light when there was none, became human in the face of impossible circumstance.
Canberra didn’t help itself. They only had seven errors for the game, but nearly all of them became points, either directly (i.e on the next Parramatta set) or shortly after. After much noise had been made about bombing at Waqa Blake, the Eels kicked to him before the Raiders did. They earned zero repeat sets, which is part of the reason they only had 39 per cent of the ball (the bigger reason obviously being the Eels getting repeats (3 forced drop outs) but also the better kind of repeats, tries).
It’s sad the season ends this way. This side has come so far over the last few months, and worked so hard to get there, they simply didn’t deserve such an embarrassment. They’ve struggled their way up from the bottom of the competition (almost literally). They scraped for every inch in the hope that they would add up at the end of the season. It seems unfair they came so far and all they got a memory that might tarnish all that came before.
But in a sense this sort of game was always a risk. Canberra had been red-lining for some time now, finding the fullest expression of their limited capabilities through the dominance of the forward pack. As soon as Plan A was rendered moot, the backup plans were an incohesive mess. There’s plenty of talent in this side, but it’s also a team still finding it’s style. Still developing coherence in what it does and how. If anything this game reminded us just how far away actual top-line excellence is.
There’s work for this side to do but I must admit I’m optimistic that what occurred this year was no fluke. While this side maximised it’s potential this year, there’s another level it can go to. Finding a more complete approach isn’t inevitable or even likely, but you can see it there. In the run of Xavier Savage. In the play of Matt Timoko. In the burgeoning partnership of Jack Wighton and Hudson Young, and the ongoing brilliance of Joey Taps and the Big Papa. I don’t think this is the loudest we will sing for this side. There’s better times to come. Let’s hope they’re next season, because this one is, sadly, over.
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