The Canberra Raiders one point loss was a courageous effort undermined by poor execution and imperfect strategy. The Raiders played this game like the pack of beautiful idiots they are. They tried with all their heart. They searched every inch of their bodies to scrape together another run, make another tackle, no matter how depleted their energy stores. When they should have been too tired they went again. They fought for every inch, only to have their fight undermined by the devil in the mirror. Thus as it has always been, it always will be.
Going into the summer heat and humidity of Townsville was always going to be an incredible ask physically. In these circumstances one would think the best thing to do would be to find ways to take the pressure off. Play smart, hold the ball. Find the breaks within the game, like kicking for touch or earning repeat sets. Something that stops you from having to make a literal hundred more tackles than your opposition in forty minutes. A team can have that kind of courage, that kind of willpower, but it’s probably better to save it for when you need it.
The Raiders didn’t manage that, and instead found themselves on the wrong side of an ambush. For forty minutes the Cowboys had 68 per cent of the ball. They completed 21 sets to the Raiders 9. 95 runs to 37. 957 metres to 365. Two Cowboy forwards had 100m on the ground in the first half, and Jordan McLean finished with 95. Joe Tapine had 23 tackles through his first stint. Corey Horsburgh was the only Canberra forward with more than three carries through the first half.
From the 8th minute, when Seb Kris dropped a kick return in contact, to the 27th minute, the Raiders had one set, which ended when Jamal Fogarty dropped the ball on the back end of a meagre 30m set, had to scramble, got into space and forgot he still could kick the ball. In the meantime the Cowboys had scored twice, missed one penalty, and nailed another. By that time they’d been tackled more than forty times in the Canberra half. The Milk had reached the opposition half of the field for three total tackles.
Some of this was based on the good play of North Queensland. Their game plan was simple enough – use their talented bigs to bash a hole in the Canberra middle and then test the edges with precise shifts off the back of it. Twice the Milk’s wingers knocked down passes when stripped for numbers. Once the Cows got outside them, a mixture of Matt Timoko being too passive and Nic Cotric being too aggressive on a shift in their direction. A second try came from a well-placed kick on the next set. The middle collapsed from exhaustion (Sticky brought the second unit on a set too late) and Seb Kris was so far out of the mix on the last-tackle grubber that Hudson Young, coming from the other side of the field, got closer to the try-scorer. Another try came on a kick behind the ruck later in the half. It was a tough lesson for the new fullback.
Canberra didn’t help matters. Joey Tapine blew up the Raiders first foray into attack with an uncharacteristically harried attempt to run around the Cows which ended with him dropping the ball. Harley Smith-Shields couldn’t find a way to play the ball correctly. After the Milk finally got a kick away, and got the ball down the other end, they gave away a penalty to march North Queensland right back into their half. It was one of five first half infringements by the Green Machine.
It could have all been so much worse, if not the most heartening aspect of this game – the defence. Canberra’s goal line defence was stunning, as good as it’s been in recent years. They scrambled with all their heart, and beyond effort, even looked structured, coherent and capable – 13 dudes tied together by string, moving as one. Everyone was impressive, but Pasami Saulo, and Corey Harawira-Naera (playing as an edge forward…there’s always one smokescreen) both impressed with their effort and success, particularly in dealing with
Thor Jason Taumalolo as he attacked the middle and right of the Raiders defence.
When the Raiders finally got their hands on the ball they were stout, if not overly impressive. The middles, so cooked from the level of defence they had to get through, were admirable in their effort, and even begun to win the day through much of the second half. Corey Horsburgh (12 hit ups for 123m) and Emre Guler (9 for 95), whose performances in the trial period had given us such anxiety, were both stellar. Joe Tapine’s first stint was just tackling (he made 23 tackles, and had 3 carries) but in the second half he looked as good as last season, too strong and mobile for anyone to handle. He had 100 plus metres in that stint. Elliott Whitehead got through 80 minutes practically all as lock (it seemed on occasion he and Harawira-Naera would swap to give the Englishman a breather on the edge). The middle were supported by courageous efforts from the backs in yardage. Only Nic Cotric didn’t crack 100m (9 for 95) and all of them got involved, and were effective in yardage work. This work was of the utmost importance, and for periods they were effectively Canberra’s attack coming off their own line, while the middle desperately tried to get a breath.
It was all good enough to put Canberra into position to score and that’s where things got messy. The Raiders attacking plan was nothing but crash-balls and one-pass attacking raids focused at the posts. There’s keeping the defence honest, forcing them to coalesce around the ball, dragging defenders in and creating space for your outside attackers, but the Raiders never really got to that. On most redzone sets Jamal Fogarty didn’t touch the ball unless it was for a kick, and Jack Wighton only got one shot at most. Instead the Milk had Danny Levi and Tom Starling, two hookers whose best attributes are not doing this, trying to be the creative force of the attack.
It was a confusing plan. This is the kind of attack that would make sense if Canberra had an elite, creative nine helming play from the ruck. Josh Hodgson is long gone. Zac Woolford, while obviously not at that level, is at least the style of player than can create and find the holes around a ruck. Starling and Levi are athletes who have many skills, but this structure doesn’t play to their strengths. And so what resulted was multiple sets in which the Milk ran at the middle with the tactical nous of a dog trying to get a big stick through a dog door. An additional aspect to this was the prominence of Elliott Whitehead here. You’ll remember at the beginning of last season the plan had been to use him a ball playing middle. He barely threw a pass in creative anger. Instead he was just another middle, getting the ball from Starling or Levi and hitting a line.
Having a poor plan and no structure was as familiar for Canberra’s fans as one’s favourite trackie dacks, and looked just as bad (what is that stain? No don’t smell it). It meant points had to come through a mixture of opportunism and their opposition’s errors. Emre Guler scored off crash ball try that was part of three in a row that never looked like breaking the line, except the Cowboys defence were mesmerised by the ambling forward, and forgot to tackle him. Tommy Starling’s try was created from a panic that came from a set wasted on hit ups and a hopeful grubber. That it landed in his lap after it hit legs was fortune. That he took it the rest of the way was character. But character isn’t a sustainable attack. When Jack took a short drop-out back to score, it was enough to give even the coldest heart life, but again, it was based on good fortune and opportunism. There should be more than this.
It says a lot that when Hudson Young couldn’t pull in a try-scoring opportunity at the back end of a dominant period it felt like the Raiders wouldn’t be able to score again. At that point it had all been momentum for twenty or so minutes. That opportunity came from Jamal Fogarty not being able to get to a kick on the last, dancing, the ball going through the hands, Smith-Shields grubbering, and the Cowboys not being able to clean it up. It was chaos ball, not well-worked rugby league. There was no plan, and so all they had was enterprise and risk. They had to be perfect to seize those opportunities. They weren’t.
Structure aside, they also got in their own way too often in good position. We mentioned Tapine and Hudson earlier, but Fogarty also dropped the ball in attack. A late game raid down the sideline could have been game-changing but Smith-Shields couldn’t hold onto a ball that hit both his hands and seemed to stick. Similarly Danny Levi offered the same to Jack and it bounced of Wighton’s chest. And depending on how you feel about field goals ten minutes from the end, the Raiders were in position and forgot to do it. The Cows nailed the first chance they got with five minutes to go.
The defensive structure and heart shown was enough to think this is the foundation of a decent footy team. No one would look at Harawira-Naera and Tom Starling bringing down Taumalolo on the line and think they weren’t up for the fight. No one would see the sheer exhaustion that Horsburgh, Guler, and Starling all put their bodies through and think it wasn’t worth it. We can build from this. There will be weeks where the errors are gone, where the battle is easier. When they’re not 13 lobsters boiling in a giant stadium-sized pot. They will beat bad teams just through sheer effort. It’s a big tick for heart, belief and courage.
But they will always be hamstrung by personnel and strategy choices that lack the ambition or the structure to chase something more than just crash balls and hope. It’s been that way with Sticky since the 2017-18 teams fell apart. In 2019 it worked because the Milk had a host of players good enough to create points on their own. It’s a stretch for that plan to work with this list. It’s just round one, so there’s plenty of time. It’s not time to panic.
But it is time for Coach Stuart, and the Raiders, to look for more. For this team to succeed the Raiders need to find more structure and/or more threat to their attack. I would have hoped an off-season would have been a good time to work that out but here we are. It could be that new combinations need time to gel, and that with a better platform there will be an opportunity to prove that this was the anomaly not the norm. It’s good for Canberra to be courageous. It’s good that they are willing to scrap, to show a passion and ability in defence that goes beyond admirable. But if there’s no change or improvement to the offence it will limit their success through the season.
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Our attack has picked up from where it left off in 2022 & is dominated by crash plays or ‘get the ball to Jack’ standing on the left. Our right side attacking options look, since Batemans departure, pedestrian & lacking creativity. If I can see this you can bet our opposition teams must also have also noticed & put ‘D’ around Wighton. The Raiders do not have scintillating sweeping attacking raids & are relying power plays to win games, which has been a pretty successful formula to a point.
Perhaps that was going to be corrected with the injection of Xavier Savage swinging into the line & perhaps stodgy attacking plays will continue until he recovers from injury.
A couple of things. An ‘A’ for effort. Over the last couple of seasons it has become achingly apparent that The Raiders do not have the on field and off field leadership to cope with pressure driven decision making. Typical of this failure is that there doesn’t appear to be a ‘captain’ of sorts that would make the call to have a shot at a field goal when the game situation screamed that this was a possible match winning option or someone who demands on field discipline from his colleagues.. Why do you even need a coach when THE ONLY STRATEGY is bash and barge then chuck it wide? There needs to be someone who trains the team for variations and Plan B options. There still appears to be a lack of fundamentals especially in passing the ball. Watch The Panthers. They aren’t constantly reaching up, reaching back or checking their runs due to errant passes from the dummy half. That’s all The Raiders do. It mutes any fluency of momentum and worse threatens possession.