Raiders (trial) Review: No Answers


The Canberra Raiders 34-18 loss to the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs was a messy and disappointing affair, even for a trial. The Raiders were outmuscled and outclassed by a side with more invested in the game. What had started as an opportunity to tie-up some remaining loose ends before the start of the season instead became the manifestation of mediocrity. Canberra walked away with almost nothing gained, and only more questions to resolve to before the season starts.

Canberra would have come into this game with no expectations about the outcome (because it’s a trial, and Ricky Stuart takes trials less seriously than I do editing). But even with low expectations they would have hoped to tick off some key issues. A look at the young middles, a better idea of the potential depth options on the edges, and some clarity about how the depth chart at hooker might pan out. The young backs (and Jarrod Croker) would be given a chance to prove their worth, and make a claim to be ‘next’ when the inevitable injury comes (which it already has….sigh).

The Raiders definitely got a look at these things, but it was about as appealing as the liquid chaos that came out of my youngest child at 3am last night (and then oops just as I was writing this…that’s why we’re late). Defensively they were completely outmanoeuvred through the middle of the park, losing the battle in contact with the opposition forwards. They were outgained by 500 metres over the match – proper boys amongst men stuff. Canterbury were able to make near 50 metres a set, kick to a corner, and smash the Milk.

Canberra’s inability to compete in defensive contact created opportunities for the opposition, both in getting them into good field position, but also directly creating points. This was compounded by a middle that couldn’t succeed with the ball and a back three that couldn’t get off their own line. The bigs were surrounded by defenders on almost every carry. Ata Mariota was probably the best middle – nearly half his 85 metres came in post contact. The back three were consistently unable to bring the ball off the Canberra line, and there were an unnerving number of examples of Canberra being four or five deep into a set and stuck 15 metres from their own goal line. It highlighted how hard it is to battle for yardage when you’re coming out of a corner, but also how important players like Nic Cotric, Jordan Rapana and Matt Timoko are to the Milk. This imbalanced field position was only compounded by frustrating handling errors, and a series of infringements (of which at least three occurred after the 4th tackle).

This created a problem their goal-line defence simply wasn’t good enough to fix. On so many occasions they simply didn’t get off the line effectively. Guler got caught ball-watching at ‘A’ defender and allowed Danny Levi to get isolated trying to take down Ryan Sutton, who fell over him to score. Zac Woolford did the opposite, expecting the Canterbury rake to shift the ball, and not getting off his line quick enough to shut down the running nine. On another occasion three Raiders defenders watched a Bulldog ballplayer wander across field until he could find a gap he wanted to exploit. Three steps further towards the attacker and the movement would likely have been shut down. Even moments when they did the right thing – such as Xavier Savage’s trying saving tackle on Josh Reynolds – came because the defence was on their heels.

Canberra’s attack had some good moments, but the lack of opportunity, and the fact that most of the work was done in the dirt meant Coach Stuart won’t be any clearer on some key points. Danny Levi and Zac Woolford both had moments around the ruck, Brad Schneider looked good when he got the ball with a chance to go to the line and create. Xavier Savage offered an interesting and potentially improved option as the second man and supporting creator on both sides of the ruck. But all this was just glimpses, and there’s little to take from them other than a speck of hope and a thought to the future.

The bigger problem is that there were no obvious data points for Coach Stuart to use to answer the questions he no doubt has around key positions. Around the ruck Levi’s service was adequate, and he had some moments – such as a good read to go blind that ended in an Jarrod Croker error, or a in-and-away that stunned the defence and generated the space for Schneider to burst onto the ball and through the line to set up the Elijah Anderson try. However, the side struggled with him at the helm, and looked faster and more confident of their direction when Zac Woolford came on the field. For his part, Woolford’s first stint was excellent – there was a noted increase in the pace of fluidity of the team’s movements with him at the helm. He tested the defenders around the ruck much more than Levi, and if someone else was at centre instead of Albert Hopoate, a movement he started would have ended in a try. But his second stint with a host of young players was marred by errors. It was no doubt influenced by never having played with this unit, but if Sticky’s depth chart for the 9 wasn’t settled before this game, little will have been changed by it.

There was also no clarity on whether there was any serviceable depth at the edge forward positions. Clay Webb was enthusiastic in defence but had almost no opportunities in attack. He looked fast but sometimes too small to take the weapons that came his way. Trey Mooney barely got a run in anger on the other side. He spent most of the game being targeted with Hopoate by a merciless Dogs attack. He looked happiest in the back end of the game when he got a chance to take some runs in the middle.

Similarly in terms of the thirteen position and the broader depth of the middles, there was no obvious winners. Ata Mariota was probably the best but he was hardly dominant. Pasami Saulo spent more time tackling than running. Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh, who are both likely in the starting 17 come round one had disappointing days (and that’s being polite) and by this stage they should be beyond the rookie errors they made. Horsburgh dropped too much ball and Guler’s defence was far too polite for someone his size (it was his attempt to cuddle rather than corral a defender in the sixth minute that allowed the Bulldog to free their arms to offload, create a line-break, and start this whole mess). Hohepa Puru gave an intriguing performance as a ball-playing lock, but found himself physically undermanned when it came to tackling the big Canterbury props. When his body catches up to his skills, he’s going to be incredible. But that might not be this year.

With these problems not fixed, it seems a cruel twist of fate that another may be created in the injury to Xavier Savage. We’ll have more to say on that tomorrow, but it’s fair to say there’s not an obvious solution to fill this critical position. Equally, it’s so sad to see Savage potentially have to take time off just when he seems ready to really take off. And for it to happen in a practice match, and one that was particularly frustrating to watch, is only more depressing. We wish him a quick recovery.

It just adds to the pile. What had seemed like a relatively settled side ready to build on success feels a little bit more fragile. It’s not like the result of the trial matters, but rather the way it occurred. It’s preferable to see depth, skills and competition down the roster rather than the messy mix of frustration and injury we got in this outing. There’s no reason to hit the panic button, but any overly-optimistic views got a healthy dose of reality. It could be good for the Milk if they heed the lesson.

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