The Canberra Raiders lost 20-14, mostly to themselves. The Dolphins also attended the game, but more as an observer of the angry battle of one team against its own flaws. Redcliffe enjoyed the fight, jumped in occasionally to strike a blow, but mostly they just got out of the way and witnessed the very stable genius go to work. Canberra tried their hearts out, and one can not question that. But if ever a team needed to work smarter and not harder, the Green Machine proved in this game it’s them.
The rain made for a tough affair. It was a game primarily played through the middle, two teams hampered by the wet trying to bash each other as much with power as with guile. Canberra’s middle obliged, and we got to see some typically exciting performances from Joe Tapine (14 hit ups for 174m, 72 post contact) and Corey Horsbugh (10 for 113m and 43 post contact). Most good things the Milk managed happened on the back of a Tapine or Horsburgh run that created space that would allow a functional team to play a bit of footy. Occasionally the Raiders did. Ata Mariota (6 for 75m) was also impressive and looks more and more comfortable each week. Pasami Saulo got through all the dirty work, ever-present in defence.
This was also supported by a back five that got through a ton of yardage work. Nic Cotric (15 for 149m, 4 tackle breaks) looked the most threatening, consistently creating little half-breaks that allowed other backs to get easier metres because of the pace he created in the ruck. Seb Kris (19 for 191m) had some flaws in his game – we’ll get to those later – but when presented with an opportunity to take a run he didn’t shirk his task. Matt Timoko (12 for 121m) too enjoyed this tough work.
It didn’t lead to them dominating field position or metres – they were pretty much even for the game – but when Canberra had the ball they generally found a way to punch their opposition in the mouth, and create a moment or space that could have been advantageous. The wet compounded that, making the defenders around the ruck a little less agile, and less quick coming off their defensive line. A bit stuck in the mud if you will. It created a little space around the ruck to exploit, and it was mostly exploited by Tom Starling (10 for 107m), playing as a loose forward through the middle of the game who enjoyed the space. Elliott Whitehead started at 13 again, and though he didn’t get through 80 minutes this time, there was nothing to question in his running (7 for 82m) or defence (27 tackles, no misses) to suggest he can’t handle his new role.
It meant that for the most part Canberra had the best of the game. They gained more metres per set, broke more tackles, and had more time in their opposition twenty. They defended well – 93 per cent tackle efficiency – and missed just twelve missed tackles for the entire game. This work in the middle. This defence. These things are the foundations of a good football team, and with smart and slick play around the scaffolding they should be able make merry on nights like this.
*Should*. Goddamn it.
For all the good work the middle did, or that they did in yardage, Canberra were seemingly incapable of finding a consistent or coherent way to take advantage. For all the good work they did in defence it fell in a heap because basic skills apparently sit beyond players in key positions. When the structures are in place individual failure keeps getting in the way. When the structures aren’t properly built, the players aren’t good enough to overcome it. It’s Leonardo Da Vinci, but he can’t find his paintbrush. Jimi Hendrix strumming on a fish. Lewis Hamilton driving my fucking Golf (my god I hate that car).
Blame the system. Too often Canberra took entire attacking sets hanging around nines that were content to shuffle the ball to bigs who bundled into the line with nothing else going on. This is a game plan suited to creative nines and the Raiders are playing running nines. It’s not Levi’s nor Starling’s fault this plan doesn’t match the skill-sets on offer. But it narrows the attacking range unnecessarily, and compresses an offence without the ability or willingness (you choose) to exploit the space outside.
Even when the forwards cracked open the middle, as Tapine did in the 58th minute, taking the ball to about the 35m mark, with two tackles in hand and options and space left and right, the Raiders decided the best option was for Emre Guler to take the easiest fifteen metres he’s ever run in his life rather than show a bit of ambition. Even when they threw a good shift left in the 55th minute, they wasted the opportunity through Young trying to go over from nine (did I say ambition? Maybe dial it back from trying to burrow between three defenders).
Attacking sets required four hit ups for one shot – and that one shot at a shifting movement rarely got out of first gear. Even when they wanted to go wide they often couldn’t, caught up with balls that had to go to middles first because the nines can’t pass with width, or when nines floated passes to the halves. The rain no doubt made shifting hard – but the ‘Phins managed it, and no one who watched the Raiders this season would think fluidity is but a dry-track away.
Too often they came left, and kept coming left until it made no sense. Young carried a ball to the middle on one play, and the Milk shifted back in that direction on the next, trying to take on more defenders than there were attackers. More than once Young or Corey Harawira-Naera burned at pace into a hole only for the nine, or the half to watch him go by like the Queen (King? Pope? Your mum?) waving from a car. The Green Machine did score twice going right and it was the best they looked all night. One came from Canberra having something like eight tackles in a row at the line, barely getting past one pass on any of them. Eventually Redcliffe couldn’t handle it, and Danny Levi made a good read to hit Jack Wighton on a blind-side second-man play. The second came from a good Corey Horsburgh offload. It created an overlap and an easy through-the-hands gave the Raiders their only other try for the game.
Matt Timoko and Harawira-Naera were both wonderful on the edge for the most part, attacking the line with a ferocity in their angles and their carries that suggest something that should be exploited more. They were given plenty of ball in space, but mostly it was forty metres out from the Raiders’ line, not the other way around. Even then it was the most threatening the attack looked. Rarely did they get a structured shot at the goal line, and the one time they did Harawira-Naera bundled the ball as the goal line beckoned.
Blame the system yes, but also the individuals. Jack Wighton’s and Jamal Fogarty’s short kicking game was more threatening to Canberra’s goal-line than the Dolphins. Neither managed to offer a dual-threat in attack. Either they were straightening and taking on the line with no intention to pass, or they were angling across the field, obvious in their intent to pass the ball. It made defensive decisions easier for the Dolphins than they should have been.
One wonders what they’ve been working on at their ‘camp’ this past week. Instead of building much needed fluidity in their attack, the frustration spread to other parts of their game. Their defence was energetic and physical. They handled most things thrown at them, and their goal line defence was strong. The middle mostly looks strong. Corey Harawira-Naera got caught inside the ball a few times in defence, and it’s worth keeping an eye on that, but he generally managed to do the job that Whitehead used to do on the right. Hudson Young and Jack Wighton remain robust on the left. Structurally they look sound, and when they have 13 men, they seem capable of holding the line.
But again they proved unable to appropriately diffuse even timid kicks. Seb Kris mishandled one and it resulted in a try. Matt Timoko forgot to knock another dead and it meant that Tom Gilbert was allowed to manhandle his way to Redcliffe’s second. A third came because Albert Hopoate jumped at the ball and literally forgot what his job was. Mid-air he looked like he was trying to run a block for himself, only belatedly realising there was only one of him and that guy should be catching the ball. Moments later a tired defence was exploited when Timoko jammed in, and Cotric didn’t and that was the game.
That’s five tries of six that have kick defence at their core, and good teams will notice. It’s not like Kris can fix his positioning in a week. You can’t teach Timoko or Hopoate to keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs. Throw up your favourite position change – Elijah Anderson in, Kris to centre. James Schiller in for Albert Hopoate. I’m not saying they’ll make the same errors, but after two real games and two trial ones with the same chaotic mindset it’s hard not to think that this is more systemic than I want to believe.
This is not strange to you, me, or these players. We’ve been here before. I just hope this is the most painful confirmation bias. The hope is these 50/50 moments find a way to revert to the mean. There is a good team amongst the rubble of these two games. I say that with a straight face and a pure heart. They are better than this. I’m not saying they’ll turn it around. I’m not saying it won’t make your heart ache. But this team can be better. As to whether they will is another question. Maybe that’s what hurts so much.
The problem is that good teams await in the future. The Sharks, with or without Nicho Hynes, look legit. The Panthers and Broncos are on the other side of a Knights game and suddenly the week 8 bye appears like the cleansing waters of an oasis. Canberra cannot bumble their way to points in enough volume to beat these teams. These teams are not going to let the inability to complete a basic skill of cleaning up short kicks go unexploited If the budget halves that have rendered Canberra’s kick defence a blubbering mess can do this, what awaits us when Hynes, Reynolds, Cleary, or even Ben freaking Hunt get involved.
There’s enough good things in each game to keep hope. There’s also enough ineptness to turn a man to whisky and Gordi. This team is an engine never finding the gear. All revs and no outcome. It’s not time to crack each others heads open and feast on the goo inside, but wow we’re getting close to calling in Dr Ratna Pertiwi in to survey the remains from these two losses.
Next week is home cooking, but more than just a desperation to win, the Raiders will have a need to prove that these two weeks were just a season’s worth of bad luck distilled into two depressing weeks. The systemic issues and the individual failures make function feel miles away, let alone salvation. The demons inside will keep biting. Canberra need to slay them before they will beat anyone else.
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You’re on the money but failed to mention The Raiders not using two of the most basic moves in the game to at least add a second and third dimension to their boring and predictable ‘attack’. The old school ‘run around’ and a reverse direction run just off the ruck. I realise it was a wet day and not suited to razzle dazzle plays but the two I’ve referred to are fundamental moves suitable to any conditions and should be easily executed by adept ‘professionals’. And this raises my ongoing criticism of Stuart and its impact on his team. There is a distinct lack of professionalism shown in every game where a lack of discipline and attention to detail results in the typical play by Jamal Fogarty where holding on to tackled player’s leg after a tackle led to a new set of six and try. It’s a small thing but small things win or lose tight games. What does Ricky Stuart actually do from week to week at training? Give the ball to the big guy times three or four, give the ball to a smaller guy once then kick the ball. You can email that in and stay at home.
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