A bizarre, and confusing, aspect of Canberra’s loss to North Queensland was the adherence to a strategy of crash balls.
Each attacking set started the same way. Three or four balls straight to middles hitting the line, sometimes at pace, around the posts. The set would end with a shift to the left for Jack Wighton to create, and then somewhere for a kick on the last. If Jamal Fogarty didn’t get to kick the ball he barely touched it (outside of one error when he was second receiver on a shift outside Wighton). Matt Timoko only got to carry the ball out of yardage. Otherwise he and poor Nic Cotric were as likely to get the ball as you or me (but boy you should see the step I have. Put me in coach!).
This wasn’t a one off. It was something we’ve seen over previous years, though with less strict adherence as we saw on the weekend. When the Raiders did this previously most complained it was Josh Hodgson trying to do too much. If anything last weekend’s game, and the trial matches, established this wasn’t a player-led decision but rather a strategic one. Through the trials, the game against North Queensland, and even in the NSW Cup match against the Parramatta Eels, we saw a variety of rakes become the focal point and fulcrum of the offence.
This strategy is designed to do two things. Obviously the hope is to score. That is done through isolate a tired, or small, defender in the line and hitting them with a big forward at speed. Force them to make a tackle or at least the initial contact by themselves. The idea is to put that defender in an impossible position – go low and have a forward fall forward into a scoring position, go high and have them power through an arms tackle. Should the defence be ready and able to get multiple defenders to the ball this then should create more space for creative halves and outside backs to make merry.
It’s not a sophisticated strategy but if done well it theoretically earns a quick play the ball, and positioned at the sticks it keeps options to attack in either direction. Earn the right to go wide is the truism and a well-placed hit up or two can provide the space for the flashy players to go to work. Hopefully the defence has been dragged in to cover against big runners (and in the future maybe even shades in that direction due to the fear of it occurring again), allowing players like Jack Wighton the sliver of space they need to get to the line to ball-play or run.
Canberra aren’t the only team that have implemented a similar strategy this weekend but they did adhere to it with the most fervour. Perhaps this is the ‘sticking to the game-plan’ they’ve often spoken of. If so then the discipline with which they approached it was admirable, if probably misguided. The Raiders didn’t look like scoring and when they did it was a surprise – almost an accident. Look at Guler’s try. Even when the crash ball was thrown it wasn’t done well. He was sent at three defenders all of whom were well-rested and ready to take him down. He wasn’t isolating one of them. He wasn’t hitting a gap outside them. This should’ve been handled by the defence. Then they just sorta forgot.
That it worked this one time isn’t a reason to continue with the cult-like adherence to it. The strategy itself has obvious flaws. Most prominent is that it puts the ball in the hands of players that aren’t quality creators, and asks them to do just that. It needs a step here, a look that way, and a perfectly timed and placed ball to work. Danny Levi and Tom Starling are both good footy players, and both showed tremendous courage on the weekend, but neither are the kind of player that can take on the responsibility of being the prime creator on the side. Zac Woolford, so far not preferred this season, is a better creator around the ruck than either of these players but relying so heavily on a player that’s less than a season into his career seems foolish.
In putting the ball in the wrong players’ hands it also takes it out of the hands of Canberra’s best players. On the left Wighton and Young got one shot per attacking set. It seems insane to me to limit the number of times Wighton goes to the line in attack. Young similarly gets so few opportunities. At times these two have felt like the most exciting aspect of Canberra’s attack. Why limit their opportunities? On the right it also limits Jamal Fogarty’s options to create. One might not be too worried about this, but when you have Matt Timoko outside him, and Corey Harawira-Naera, presumably playing on the edge to get a chance to run those devastating lines he excels at, it seems silly to not utilise them.
The hope here is that this is a one week thing. A specific strategy put in place to target and tire the big Cowboy pack. Their outside defence was aggressive, and perhaps there was a recognition that in order to keep them honest, the Milk needed to test the middle defenders. If that was the case, I would have hoped to see more angle runs, particularly outside in, from players like Young and Harawira-Naera. It was once a feature of the Raiders attack (John Bateman coming back against the grain is forever burned in my brain) but it was nowhere to be seen in this game. If the intent is to persist with this, giving a chance for that to happen would at least add a bit of variation to a staid idea.
This could also be helped by relying less on the crash, and more on the decisions of first receivers in the attacking twenty (this take brought to you by other unspicy things like chicken without seasoning, weak coffee, and two minute noodles without the little spice packet). It is unclear though as to what Elliott Whitehead’s role is in all this. He got the ball at first receiver a lot only to take on the line. It wasn’t clear to me if he was expected to play more of a ball-playing role and circumstances didn’t allow it, or if he was just being used as another prop to barge the door down. That’s something we’ll have to watch.
Regardless, if the idea is to use Smelly more as a ballplayer, I would caution against doing so at the expense of opportunities for Jack and Jamal to create. Whitehead’s footy brain is underrated, and his passing game is as good as any forward in the game. He can definitely play a role as a connector and additional creator through the middle third. But relying on this instead of on what your Dally-M winning five-eighth, and your halfback who led the team in try assists in 2022 despite missing half the season, seems a misalignment of intent. Add to that Xavier Savage being back at some point in the coming months, and it feels like the whole attack is titled away from its talent.
Canberra can fix this. This season has more stories to tell, and there’s no need to have anxiety the attacking approach adopted after one week. Whatever approach was taken is in its infancy, and as Coach Stuart showed last season he is able to adjust on the fly. Further, the change to fix this isn’t dramatic. After all it isn’t that hard to throw a pass to a halfback (don’t take that to heart Tommy). It’s just a matter of whether Sticky has identified this approach as a problem, or a feature of his attack. Discipline and sticking to a game plan are all well and good, but if your attack gets points from Emre Guler beating three defenders, Tom Starling dragging another three over after recovering a shin-kick, or Jack taking a short drop-out to the house, it’s simply not sustainable.
And after what they showed on the weekend, it would waste what looks like a very good defence.
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And if we notice it, you can bet opposition defensive coaches are also seeing the same attacking patterns.
The crash ball works best when the defensive line is scrambling to shuffle for your expected attack out wide. The Raiders attack has been so predictable that most teams are willing to roll the dice on a short dropout confident that they can defend another set of 6 if they don’t recover the ball.