The thing about trials is that they don’t matter.
At least that’s what the entirety of the Canberra Raiders organisation, their fans, and anyone within the ear-shot of any of the two previous groups will be repeating like a mantra in an attempt to keep perspective before the season starts. The Raiders were unimpressive in their 36-4 loss to the Wests Tigers. Actually, scratch that. Unimpressive is too tame. They were out-hustled and out-muscled, ill-disciplined to a comedic extent. If this inept and lethargic display is repeated any week this season, it’s not that Canberra might struggle. They’ll be destroyed.
The core of this debacle came from stunning and comical lack of discipline from people who should know better. The Raiders made 15 errors according to NRL.com but that feels light. Joe Tapine, Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh all threw the ball away trying to offload. Emre Guler, not satisfied with wandering unsurely into the line like a man who just discovered what florists were on February 13, added maddening handling errors to the putrid offering. Players gave away last tackle penalties on multiple occasions. Tries, and repeat opportunities that led to tries, came from Canberra being unable to clean up kicks. Jordan Rapana got reported for a high tackle, and then added a sin-bin to that a few minutes later for another high tackle. By the time James Schiller returned in his place, the Tigers had blown the game open.
This ill-discipline was evident in the defensive efforts of the Milk too. While the game was alive the Raiders middle defenders seemed capable of handling the Tigers middles, and even for periods seemed physically dominant. But the weight of possession at key points, combined with Rapa’s little break, meant that Canberra had to be perfect and committed in defence to hold out the Tigers. The Green Machine’s own defenders so often created overlaps because they didn’t trust the player inside them to make a tackle. A lack of cohesion and trust in edge defence is an issue that can go beyond effort if not solved quickly.
This disorder put pressure on the young edge defenders, and both Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko made notable mistakes. Timoko was beaten cold by Brent Naden to create the Tigers first try. Smith-Shields was beaten in contact on several occasions, and looked enthusiastic but inexperienced in solving the difficult decisions that came his way due to the Tigers dominance. It wasn’t ideal that experienced players didn’t help. On the Tigers second try, Smith-Shields was put in an impossible decision between three defenders. He was in that position because Rapana had been sin-binned, and because Jack Wighton nonchalantly watched as the play unfolded, tackling no one. Smith-Shields may have been out of position at that point, but Jack’s statuesque defensive technique didn’t help. This was more maddening because on all previous plays in that set, the defence had hardly been troubled. A moment of not giving a flying fudge was all it took.
Jack wasn’t the only experienced player to seemingly play with all the enthusiasm of a person filling out their tax return. On one Tiger’s try, Corey Harawira-Naera never got out of second gear chasing a player across field. It forced the defence outside him to shift in, creating the overlap needed to score. He wasn’t the only one. And while these are again discipline and effort issues largely influenced by the coach’s attitude to trial matches, good teams build good habits.
In attack, when they weren’t busy throwing the ball away, the top level middles actually looked fine for the most part. Joe Tapine looked like he is primed to be as good as last year, with several dominant runs, but he also added to the misery by throwing a ball to no one early in an uncharacteristic lack of patience. Josh Papalii and Ata Mariota had good runs, and Pasami Saulo got big minutes, proving he has the motor and the defensive workrate to play first grade. The only worrying signs were the back-to-back bad performances from Horsburgh and Guler. Both are critical to the Raiders success this year, and they’ll need to improve to make the 17, let alone contribute. Horsburgh in particular is frankly better than this, but he looks timid and slow so far this year.
It was pleasing again to see Danny Levi have more good moments. His service was adequate, and he made some smart decisions to run from 9, not just for metres but also to find new angles to test the ruck defence. He relied on crash balls to a significant extent when the Raiders got close to the line, but that’s so long been a characteristic of Stuart attacks that it feels like a feature rather than source of concern. Add to that Stuart’s notorious paranoid nature (the man pulled a selection smokescreen for a trial!), and I suspect that was as much about showing nothing on tape as anything.
It now seems inevitable he will start in the first week, which is good because Tom Starling had a terrible outing. He didn’t connect with the other forwards well, his service was shoddy, and apart from a few broken-play moments (sometimes broken by his disorganisation around the ruck), offered little. It was a frustrating performance, and one that if repeated too often this season will see Zac Woolford pushing for his spot in the top line side. Woolford’s first twenty minutes last week remains the best performance by a Canberra nine across these two trials.
The discipline in other parts of the game meant that the flashy side of the attack got few opportunities to prove itself. The left side shifts were often done in a shoebox, struggling for space against a defence keen to restrict their time. Hudson Young’s connection with Jack Wighton is evident, but how Smith-Shields fits into this is still a work in progress. More than once a pass in tight space either hit the ground or went behind a player, and it’s not hard to think that the late change forced by Xavier Savage’s injury played a part. If Kris is going to be the fullback, then Stuart needs to hold fast with Smith-Shields. He’s too talented, and he’ll only benefit from being surrounded by players that hopefully don’t play so idiotically, or indifferently.
The Raiders looked better going right, and it was possibly the only exciting addition from last season. Elliott Whitehead looked rejuvenated playing at right edge (before, interestingly, shifting to the middle for the second twenty minutes of the game when Harawira-Naera came on), playing a critical role in several shifts as a connecting passer. Most notably that occurred on the Milk’s only try, when he took the ball at first receiver, and put Jamal Fogarty in space (that pass might not have hit Fogarty entirely on purpose). But both inside and outside Fogarty, Whitehead looked an important part of rightward shifts, and showed a good connection with Fogarty.
Fogarty seemed happy to use Whitehead and Timoko on his outside, and even played a few times inside to big forwards coming through the middle. It was exciting to see him take on the line so directly, and with Timoko looking such a threat to bust the line (as he did in the limited opportunities that came his way in this game), it could be a real weapon for the Milk in 2023. Given how much the right-side attack struggled in 2022, that’s a big deal.
If there’s succour from this mess, it’s that to a degree many fundamental parts of the side worked, or at least worked when there was a chance for them to work. The middles were competitive and even dominant at times. Those that were poor have been better in the past and give them two weeks and they’ll hopefully be again (though I trust Horsburgh more than Guler). The new spine looked solid if unspectacular. The right-side, which had been such a worry in the pre-season, looked to have the parts it needed to work. The left side has the talent. It just needs a bit of time.
The good stuff is there, but it’s been hidden in the muck of two weeks of inept and absent-minded football. This effort screamed a team looking over the shoulders of their opponents towards round one, hoping to not ‘show’ too much but rather just make sure they got a good hit out. In short, it was a Ricky Stuart team in a trial, and that will remain the key takeaway. This game didn’t matter, and so the Raiders treated it as such, and the performance flowed from there.
But while the outcome is irrelevant, the nature of which the eighty minutes played out was worrying. To be frank, Canberra are not good enough to take plays and days off. If this was week one of the season we would be lighting beacons and hoping the riders of Rohan were saddling up. The Milk looked ill-disciplined, uninterested, and bereft of a way to get through the next set without fucking up. That energy cannot be brought to round one. Because while trials don’t matter, every game after them does.
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