Hot Blood and Courage


Before Sunday’s debacle, the Fox coverage reported that the Raiders warmed up for forty five minutes in the hot Sydney sun. You could see a sheen on a Elliott Whitehead’s face as the cameras panned to him in the dressing room, and I complemented him on the decision to shave his beard because it was obviously hot. Such was the effort that Josh Papalii allegedly needed attention for his knee before taking the field for the actual game. It was almost like the side had gone through a training session.

Then they went out and stunk up the joint.

It was a curious thing to do before a trial. Outside of the first twenty minutes the forwards were monstered. The team made 15 errors across the match, evenly distributed across the 80 minutes (four in the first twenty, 7 in the first half). The edges looked lethargic and often got cooked simply through what we considered lack of effort – such as Jack Wighton standing still when he and Harley Smith-Shields were outnumbered, or Corey Harawira-Naera not being willing or able to chase a defender inside-out, and thus forcing outside defenders to come in, creating an overlap.

While putting this outcome solely at the feet of fatigue, it’s an interesting thing to consider. Did Canberra fall apart because Stuart cooked them before the game? Certainly some of the above can be blamed, at least in part, on some degree of fatigue. How they collapsed when Jordan Rapana went off to spend ten minutes cooling his heels also supported this. Most good teams can survive a ten minute period a player short. The Raiders have even done it before (let’s all bask in the glory of the 2019 preliminary final for a little bit). But in this game it was three tries in ten minutes and barely any completed sets in the intervening period.

The obvious interpretation (and one put in my head by several of you) is that Stuart sees a couple of games coming that will be a ridiculous test of fatigue and is preparing his team accordingly. The Raiders first two games are basically games in summer Queensland sun, which, fuck man, should probably be an OH&S issue. Like coaches whipping out soapy balls to practice for wet weather games, perhaps the extra miles in the legs pre-game was an attempt to mirror the fatigue the Milk will feel after the scorching northern sun burns the intelligence out of them.

If this was the case, I’d love to know how much input new conditioning guru, High Performance Manager Josh Strahorn, had into it. It may have been his plan, or at least the elongated warm-up designed by him for maximum impact. One would hope it was built as an evidence-informed strategy, not an old school hunch. As we noted earlier, Josh Papalii’s knee needed treatment, and deliberately putting bodies in fatigue before an elite sport outing would surely carry with it greater risk than a normal outing (worth noting: I am not a doctor, not a sports scientist, and got tired carrying shopping bags full of Doritos and ice cream from the car to my kitchen today).

Will it work? Canberra has never really performed well in the tropics, so lord knows it’s not as simple as the win/loss ratio coming its way. They could lose both games and perform better than they’ve performed at both Townsville or Redcliffe in recent years. Remember the collapse against the Warriors last year? Remember how they were absolutely overwhelmed by a Cows side that played like they’d discovered a 44-gallon drum full of pre-workout while the Raiders had eaten a big roast before walking out onto the field? Marginal changes like this might not overturn a massive gap in performance, but at the margins it might be important.

Is that the plan? Will this work? Is this a stroke of genius or madness? Is Ricky Stuart a better than average coach? A good coach hamstrung by a small market? A bad coach that is a good recruiter? These and other questions will only be answered in the fullness of time. In the meantime maybe it, alongside the side’s habitual hatred of trial matches, is enough to help you keep that sweet, sweet, optimism around a little longer.

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