The Canberra Raiders 24-20 victory was desperate. Playing in borderline inhumane conditions they scrapped and fought for every advantage, against the opposition, against themselves, and even the referees. It was a stunning battle, won through some impressive football and courageous defence, coupled with a long period of mindless footy. It was anything but perfect but it was certainly better than what has come before, and revealed a possibility that they may yet be a real menace to the competition.
This game was a rampant battle in the middle. Both sides have big middles, and their attacking movements build inwards-out. Winning contact in one tackle would beget more excitement, and as such the battle between these two packs became the ground zero of winning the game. It was a brutal affair; with so many moments of ferocious contact between ball-carrier and defender it was more Streetfighter II than NRL. That it happened in what seemed like something approaching 800 degrees underscored the pressure it put on the control of the middle. To the winner of contact went momentum and space, to the loser was scramble and fatigue.
The Sharks did win contact, repeatedly, but Canberra won it more. Joe Tapine was stellar as always (14 hit ups for 172m, 50 post contact). He poked his head through the line with an arm free on several occasions – he just needed someone to throw the ball to. His defence was also important, and through sheer force of contact he changed the momentum of several opposition sets. Corey Horsburgh looked agile when he had the ball between the 20s, testing defenders with his feet, and being an important link passer through the middle. He showed his power game in scoring two tries against defenders weary from trying to keep a lid on the Milk’s middle. Pasami Saulo was also exemplary. 9 for 92 and 18 tackles isn’t a big stats day, but everything he did had intent, and his energy in defence is so critical to the Raiders tying together the middle third. Hudson Young had a return to form after last week’s down-turn, and the back five all did their jobs in yardage to ensure that the work by this middle was supported and reinforced.
Canberra weren’t as sophisticated in their response to winning contact as the Sharks were. Usually it just meant more stuff at the middle. But for much of the game it looked more pointed and coherent than it had at all this season. Tom Starling played almost the entire game at nine after Danny Levi broke his jaw and provided relatively clean service, creating two tries from crash ball for Horsburgh. One was the Horse just putting a good move on some soft defence, but the other was a good read and a decently long pass. Together with Elliott Whitehead they made the majority of the decisions in the middle third, and outside of the period towards the end of the game where they lost their way, it seemed Starling and Whitehead had a strong grasp on the game.
The Raiders game plan remained committed to winning the middle third, but they did show more enterprise than recent weeks. Jack Wighton looked as energetic and effective in attack as he has all season. He created one try for Albert Hopoate with a pass so perfect it created an overlap where there was none. He jumped up on the right, creating an overlap that resulted in James Schiller getting in space. Schill-dog’s grubber bounced the wrong way but on another day it would have been an exciting try beginning with Wighton. Jack’s chip over the top from his own twenty in the 39th minute would have resulted in a try if not for a heinous bounce. Three opportunities only resulted in one try. Canberra was showing more enterprise to almost no reward.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was good to see a bit more pace and movement in the Raiders attack. It does not feel like they’ve unlocked or perfected what their attacking plans are, but this game was the first time that we saw something beyond slow-moving, rote-learned structures. They looked fast – no doubt helped by what the middle was doing – and hit the edges at power particularly through Matt Timoko. No better was this demonstrated than in his try, a brutal run to end a shift in which he sonned Matt Moylan so hard that I guess he’s now Cam Munster’s brother? I don’t know the rules. The key is that Timoko’s fast feet, and brutal fend, made up for an uncomplicated shift and created the points Canberra needed. They still didn’t find a way to properly utilise either edge forward, so there’s work to do, but for once it felt like points weren’t going to be a struggle.
Indeed Canberra should have had more than 24 points. Apart from the creative opportunities they couldn’t finish off, they still found themselves with a few chaotic sets, and went too many sets with problems they’ve had in other weeks popping up (such as playing entire red-zone sets without really throwing a threatening shift at their opposition). The last thirty minutes of the game was poorly handled. Between Cronulla’s two tries in the 55th and the 71st minutes, the Milk gave away three infringements and made three errors, and conceded points despite the Sharks being down a man for a period.
But even that underscores how suddenly aimless the Green Machine were. It was frustratingly typical chaos with Canberra almost asking their opposition to take the game that was rightly property of the Milk. Blame here is hard, because it’s a question of who’s in charge. Fogarty let Jack run the show, and Wighton’s plan involved too many errors and kicking the ball out on the full for my liking. What resulted was not just a waste of the ball in attack, but an inexplicable transfer of stress from the Sharks to the Raiders.
What that did was put pressure on an already exhausted defence to mask the problems. If there was a takeaway from this game that makes me happy is that the defence, particularly on the goal line, was powerful and robust for the most part. Despite facing arguably one of the better attacks in the competition, the Raiders never felt overwhelmed. They battled hard to control the middle, and when they did lose it, mostly momentarily, they were generally composed enough to scramble in the middle and on their edges. Fogarty and Timoko were impressive as an edge pairing, and Jack and Hudson Young looked as strong. Starling’s try saver on Jack Williams was also noteworthy, and underscored his defensive effort across practically the whole game. And Timoko, Smith-Shields and Hopoate somehow scrambling together to gather a kick and get it out of the in-goal was high-stakes, high-pressure and highly impressive stuff.
The defence wasn’t perfect, but all four tries the Milk conceded came from individual errors or Cronulla’s brilliance rather than structural issues. On the first try James Schiller just got beaten. On the second William Kennedy’s grubber was inch perfect. In the second half Albert Hopoate and Harley Smith-Shields took it in turns to not come in with their inside man and ended up watching as the inside runner went unimpeded to the line. It spoke of inexperience, and perhaps some unfamiliarity, of the back five as a collective. That’s not surprising, but will improve over the weeks to come – it will have to given Nic Cotric is expected to be out a while. Madge and Sticky are building something functional in this facet of the game, and while the Raiders work out their attack the defence will keep them in plenty of games they don’t deserve to be in.
This game however, they very much deserved to win. Indeed it was a more impressive performance than a four point win suggests. Sticky loves to talk about the variance of chance eventually reverting to the mean (ok he says something about the bounce of the ball but mine sounds fancier) but in this circumstance there’s something to that. So few balls found a way to bounce to the Green Machine’s favour. So many referee decisions landed in the laps of the Sharks. Add to that the self-wrought chaos, and the Raiders had to work harder for the two points than one would normally think. Canberra lost their head for a bit, but their courage and effort without the ball masked their misdirection with it.
But they got there and frankly that’s all that matters. There is a time to be good and there’s a time to just win baby. We’d already started absent-mindedly working out things like ‘how many teams have made the finals after starting 0 and 3’ and worrying if the Raiders would put it together in time. This victory was proof that there is a good footy team lurking in amongst the chaos. They need to find it on a more consistent basis, but at least they know it’s there.
They now have an opportunity to properly right the ship next week, and frankly that terrifies me. All the good work done in this game becomes meaningless if the Raiders aren’t able to find a way to take this performance and result through to next week. There’s tough times ahead. At least we know this side is ready for the fight.
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As always love reading your take on our games. I would love your 3,2,1 at the end of these.
For me this game was AWESOME. First half Ashley Klien was great because he let the game flow. The second half….well best just leave what my words are be unsaid…
My 3 would go to Tom Starling..2 Corey Horsburgh.. My 1 (may be contriversial) Jamal Fogarty…reasoning here His defence was impecable, kicking goals won us the game, and he started to look like the Jamal from the back end of last year… However I would give the team as a whole a big big wrap for the guts and determination they showed.
PS can ANYONE show me where in the rule book it says you have to be steady on your feet to play a ball. (this ruling was a joke, Jack was the only player the whole game who used his foot to actualy roll the ball backward in the ruck).