The Canberra Raiders 24-14 loss to the Newcastle Knights was the worst of them. Every limitation, every problem, every structural issue that they had masked through three weeks was exposed and ravaged by an average side. Instead of finding stability, they’ve turned an opportunity into a critical wound. They can survive but this must be their nadir.
Canberra came into this game with an opportunity to provide proof. A statement, if you will, that the two losses in Queensland were unlucky, that the win over the Sharks was indicative of who they are as a team. That they were a worthy team with a stable foundation that, given a chance, could compete with the best. Instead all they did was confirm the worst fears about this side. If this was a statement then it was a cry for help, the equivalent of the best man going full Steve Buscemi (you could also choose Jarome Luai here if you would like). The Raiders had their chance, dropped it, and puked on it.
For what feels like the fourth weekend in a row Canberra were their in own worst enemies, only this time they couldn’t tackle their way out of the problem. They committed 13 errors. They gave away 8 infringements. The Novacastrians completed a full 11 more sets than the Milk. In a game where they could have had the ascendency built by a middle that dominated they instead fumbled the ball and forfeited field position. That many of those errors came from experienced players just made it worse. That the penalties came from people who should know better was infuriating.
Sometimes it directly resulted in points. Two of the three tries that broke the game early in the second half started with the Milk giving away late-set penalties. The second try the opposition scored had two separate set restarts piling the pressure on before the Raiders snapped. The pressure that was built for the Knights first try came from Jack Wighton being surprised someone was passing him the ball before the last, followed by a Seb Kris error. Soon enough Canberra were asked one too many questions. Only one try didn’t start with a dropped ball or a penalty.
Unlike previous weeks the Milk couldn’t tackle themselves out of trouble. There was inconsistent effort and contact through the middle third. Sometimes the opposition wandered ten metres before contact. Other times players were shooting out of the line at pace trying to end a movement – they almost never made contact, and Newcastle took advantage. It allowed the Knights to undermine the Raiders dominance through the middle of the park.
And in a tale as old as this blog, when the middle couldn’t control the game defensively they put pressure on the edges to solve problems they simply couldn’t. The Knights tries almost exclusively came from dragging defenders to the middle, and asking edge defenders, either two or three in from the sideline to bring down ball-runners with little or no help. Matt Timoko failed on Bradman Best. Tom Starling failed on Tyson Frizell. Harley Smith-Shields failed on Dane Gagai so often it became worrying. Each of these players was isolated at the point of their errors, with little or no help. Timoko was fine when James Schiller and Matt Frawley were more alert to the challenge of Best. Starling should never have been defending at Jack Wighton’s defensive position. Smith-Shields got no help from Albert Hopoate, who on the second try in the second-half rampage found defending the sideline rather than the ball.
In a sense this was a long time coming. The back five is inexperienced as they come, and asking them to solve problems created elsewhere is unfair. Timoko’s defence continues to improve, and Jordan Rapana returns soon which will bolster his edge. But Harley Smith-Shields needs more support, or whatever happened in this game will happen against better sides, and his confidence could be shot (and given the lame fumble on a shift at the end of the game, we may be too late). Canberra are still weeks from Xavier Savage returning, and Seb Kris moving back to the centres. Given Jarrod Croker is apparently not an option, this could become real problem.
If discipline put them in a hole, and defence failed to dig them out, the attack barely had a scrutable impact on the affairs. Canberra’s attack is beyond insipid. It’s ineffectiveness stems from a lack of cohesion, a lack of ambition, and a stunning lack of innovation. The game is stuck in the middle third, which makes sense given the quality of the side. But the inability to shift with pace and cohesion means that all the benefits of winning the middle go uncollected. They drag the defenders to the middle, seemingly unaware that the whole point of that is that it creates space elsewhere. Like a child in primary school, they’re not up to that bit yet.
The ball was stuck around the middle too often in attacking sets. This wasn’t determined by who was at nine – both options did it. Too often Canberra would start a set with upwards of four shots one pass from the ruck. Elliott Whitehead, playing as a ball-playing middle this season is too often in a situation where he’s tucking the ball and running. Most of the time that’s because his colleagues outside him have defenders in their pockets as soon as he catches it. Sometimes it’s because he is a good, but not great, ballplayer. It all speaks to how obvious and slow the Milk’s movements are.
When the ball does get wide though the movements are clunky if we’re being polite. The ball never got easily across the field, and there was rarely pace or intent in what Canberra were doing. Matt Timoko rarely saw the ball in good attacking position, and when he did he looked threatening. The next time Corey Harawira-Naera gets the ball running a damaging line will be the first. Neither half was engaging the line, instead playing well before the line, almost hesitantly tip-toeing into close contact with defenders like a teenager sneaking in after curfew. Late in the game Wighton caught a ball and hurtled at the line at pace. It was startling, and revealed how much of the attack before then had appeared to be at three-quarter pace.
One Canberra try came because the attacking movement to the left fell apart, and Wighton was forced back to a middle that was comically ill-prepared to tackle him. It wasn’t the first time in the game this happened. The only other points came with Matt Frawley managed to stand in a tackle and offload to Hudson Young close to the line. If Frawley taking on the line and not getting flattened is your attacking plan, then what you’ve got is more hope and prayers than American politicians after….well…you know. All the while Hudson Young just ran decoys, and Matt Timoko got the ball in space once. Part of this was the new combinations caused by Danny Levi’s injury, and Jamal Fogarty’s sickness, but Frawley is hardly a fresh face. He’s here and was chosen ahead of Brad Schneider because he’s meant to fit like an old glove. He did not. More than just new faces, this is structural.
It’s such a shame because there are things that are working. Apart from a few frustrating errors Joe Tapine (17 hit-ups for 241m, 101 post contact) was the best forward on the field, and it was pleasing to see Josh Papalii (11 for 103, 40 post contact) re-establish an easy dominance despite a lack of match fitness. Hudson Young got few opportunities on the left, so instead got involved in the hard stuff and cracked 150m for his troubles. Kris and Timoko got well over 200m on the ground, and Hopoate just below, such was the mountain of yardage work they eagerly did.
Like we’ve said before, there’s a platform provided each week by quality middles and through yardage. The Green Machine basically made as many metres as their opposition on a truckload less ball. This is a foundation that should provide enough position and space that more should come from it. But like the discipline, defence and attacking structural issues, this now feels like a feature of the system, rather than something to be fixed. Canberra’s middle and yardage work will provide a foundation for success. And it’s discipline and structural issues will undermine that. Occasionally they’ll overcome those shortcomings and succeed. But the side will remain in battle with itself. It’s all so cliche.
There’s one hell of a challenge ahead. One and three with games against the defending premiers and the current ladder leaders to come. The 2023 season is staring down the barrel, and if this sides’ famed resilience is anything but circumstantial hype, they’ll need every ounce of it in the coming weeks. It may not even be to furnish a win but rather after struggling through the mud over the next two weeks, to simply believe they can.
Smarter people than me will tell you to be patient. We’ve seen Canberra turn this around before. There is work yet to be done. Please wait for results. All it takes is a victory over the Panthers or the Broncos and they’re back on track. This is all true. We’ve seen these very players turn up against good sides, and struggle against average ones. They’ve inexplicably found the Knights difficult every time they’ve played them for as long as we’ve had this blog. It’s so Raiders to fail against a fellow straggler, and beat the best after.
But expecting this requires faith that is blind. It hopes rather than envisions. It has a hunch rather than a pathway. Expecting a turnaround because it’s happened before isn’t what sustainable success is built on. After this game it’s hard to envision them beating the best when they capitulate so meekly to the worst.
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YOUR comments are all spot on. We were inept. But it is extremely hard for 13 players (and for 10 minutes with the captain who seemed to be the referees target in this game) to beat another 13 with such incredible assistance from the 27th person on the field. The moment the game officials were announced my forecast was that the Raiders could not win. They have never won under this referee and never will. Why is it that a couple of referees frequently appointed to our games go out of the way to see we dont win. And if you want proof of todays performance Id be happy to supply it. But please watch a replay of the game and work it out for yourself. It is pretty obvious and pretty blatant.
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The issues that confront the Raiders in 2023 have been obvious since the first trial match & maybe since last season, with no obvious change. Our biggest failure has been our attack & the Raiders have seem to concluded that attacking the opposition is only done in the opposition 20 metre zone, preferably from 10 metres out! The other 80 – 90% of the field is for grinding out sets from our 20 metre zone & then putting in a questionable high kick, or yardage kick in the hope of a mistake from the opposition.
Sometimes it works, but it is predictable & good teams know that loading up on Wighton & Hudson Young quickly throws our attack into the usual one off the ruck barge over attempts. Rinse & repeat.
The reality is the Raiders are looking at being 1 – 7 before we hit the bye & if that scenario plays out, while technically a Top 8 spot is still an achievable target, the team will have entered ‘the hope zone’ where you start hoping other teams implode (Bronco’s & Seagles 2022) rather than creating our own destiny.
Let’s face the elephant in the room. We have a coach in his 10th year who has won barely more games than he has lost. In that time we have made the grand finals once and the finals 4 times in total.
He has been in charge for longer than most of the team has been in the NRL. The players have been selected to suit the system and that system is frankly predictable and does not yield the kind of results you expect of a coach in his 10th season at the same club. Are our spine players any good? We won’t find out when week after week the tactic is 4 crash balls then either throw it to Jack or launch a bomb.
Until there is a change in coach Canberra isn’t going to win anything. The fans are being held hostage by a board who apparently doesn’t give a crap about getting results.