Raiders Review: Failing Upwards


The Canberra Raiders 20-14 victory over the St George-Illawarra Dragons was a triumph over their own flaws. They played poorly, perhaps as poorly as any game this season, and only survived because their opposition was even more challenged. This game was a failure, except in the only one that actually matters – the outcome, That the they played like that and still found victory is so relieving. Canberra have the time and space now to fix their problems. They better get to work.

This was an outcome that the Raiders needed with a performance that didn’t match. All discussion this week had been on how they would manage last week’s burst of pride in order to roll it into future performances. That victory was built on honour and resolution. This victory had elements of those included, but with the flaws much more present.

The Raiders made innumerable errors (well not actually there were 15 which is a stupendous amount). Some were glaring, some were game shifting (Jack what the actual fuck were you thinking?). They dropped the ball coming off their own line. They fumbled it in attack. They made errors trying to clean up kicks in critical points of the game, such as Seb Kris dropping a difficult bomb to give the opposition a last hope, or Nic Cotric forgetting to catch the ball, getting sin-binned, and tearing his hamstring like Freddy Quimby was chasing him into the kitchen to demand he pronounce ‘chowder’ properly.

As has been the case almost every week bar the Panthers loss, if it wasn’t for the profligacy with the ball it would have been clearer that they were doing a good job in the middle. Joe Tapine (13 hit ups for 136m and 43 post contact) and Josh Papalii (10 for 96) both looked dominant when they were on the field (could or should they play more than 50 and 44 minutes respectively? When Guler is playing 50, I think so). Corey Horsburgh (13 for 121m and 41 tackles) continued his good form through 71 massive minutes, proving a handful with his lateral mobility and unwavering in his defensive effort. Pasami Saulo again refuses to shirk his task off the bench, and apart from a surprising handling error (I swear that was his first for the season) did his part. The yardage of the back five is such a big part of the Canberra game plan, and again Matt Timoko (11 for 130m), Kris (17 for 185m) and Albert Hopoate (18 for 164m) excelled

This should have put the Milk in a good position to take advantage but unfortunately this team is as skilled in attack as Scomo is at shaking hands. It looks clunky and embarrassing. Early in the game they were stuck around the middle in good ball, intent on crashing their way to a try. They wasted so much good ball testing the oppositions ruck defence. I assume this was a plan to wear out the middles, or inspect something spotted on game film, but nothing came of it. At one point in the first half they had four straight sets on the St George line, and only once (by my inexpert count) did they get beyond second receiver. Three of those sets ended with repeats, twice the grubbers coming from forwards because they were the ones catching the ball in creative positions with options. That this period ended with an error was just dressing to the theme for the day.

As the game wore on they got a bit more creative. Fogarty took more control of the attack in the second half and the Milk looked much better. It’s not to say it was fluid, but they looked much more threatening with Fogarty catching the ball at first receiver on both sides of the ruck. He created a try for Kris with a beautiful ball that utilised Jack Wighton in the manner to which he prefers at the moment – as a distraction (zing). This was a rare moment of the half taking the ball to the line, having multiple options and forcing decisions on edge defenders that are fatal when wrong.

On shifts good things happened when Timoko got the ball. He scored a Jordan Rapana-esque try by sizing up six or seven opposition players and simply deciding they weren’t fit to tackle him. Imagine a world where he gets the ball at pace isolated on a defender not fit to give him a sumptuous twenty second massage. Kris made some good decisions to hold the ball, and seems more comfortable as a second man in attack each week. On the other side of the field I would love to see Hudson Young operate inside Wighton on occasion (he usually sits outside him), if only to give Jack the incentive to straighten an attack that tends to run out of space.

But Jack man. Jesus. He did nothing but get in the way. He made an error at a critical moment in yardage late in the game. He threw the ball away for a pick-six, a prayer of a pass that was more fit to the team behind than in front. Passes went behind runners, hit the ground, and his kicking game was only ‘fine’ because one almost terrible kick got a friendly bounce. And if you think that was bad wait until we get to his defence a bit later.

So it meant that instead of scoring points befitting their position and possession, Canberra came up with bupkus again, instead relying on one well worked move, Timoko tearing down the god’s of Olympus himself like he was Kratos, and Young stripping the ball and outrunning the whole side for 80 metres while blood spilled down his face and I jumped around my house like a bad example to my kids. It feels silly to even write this, but my dudes that is not sustainable offence. This cannot continue. If it does the Raiders are going to lose a lot of points with single digits next to their name.

Defensively, like the work of the middle, was mostly a good effort. The Dragons didn’t win the middle battle, and for the most part only got into positions to score when the Raiders helped them. One try came after Pasami Saulo dropped a ball at the 40. Another with the Cotric drop and one more with the Jack intercept. There were more examples of the Green Machine helping out their opposition, but on those occasions the goal-line defence held strong. In particular there were two spells in the first half where the Dragons tested their line for multiple sets. They tried to get Moses Suli one-on-one with Croker and he stood up on each occasion. He was excellent in defence, as was Young on the other side of Wighton. Kris provided excellent cover defence to take Moga out earlier. They tried to get Lomax and other runners on Timoko and Fogarty, and they too were impressive, with Timoko making a try-saver.

There were some blemishes. On the first try the Raiders had five players there and couldn’t keep the ball off the grass. On the second try – with Cotric in the bin – the numbers were so unbalanced that it’s hard not to wonder if there was an organisational error from Kris (though he was obviously operating a man short). But there was much more to be happy about, like Timoko and Croker’s work, and Kris’s kick position.

There was only one weakness, one that became more glaring as the game wore on. Wighton was given a bath by Tyrell Sloane. He was simply too quick and too agile for Jack. He repeatedly got outside him, and it became the entire Dragons attack towards the end of the game (to the extent that they barely attacked the makeshift Corey Harawira-Naera/Matt Timoko edge at the end of the game). It got so bad that by the end of the game Croker was shading in to help Jack with Sloane, and then breaking out to get to Moses Suli in time. Prior to that Jack’s tendency to shoot out of the line had been covered for by Young (who’s defensive efforts are underrated). Late in the game Joe Tapine had to cover across to clean up a grubber from Sloane that came from the young fullback breaking down the wing after getting outside Jack. It was a confusing performance from a player so often noted for his defence, and will do nothing to stop charlatans and idiots speculating about where his mindset it (like I will be doing when my article goes up tomorrow).

There’s a better footballer in there and he, and the club more generally, need to spend the bye week working out how to do things like play offence again, and not drop the ball every time someone is a bit mean to them. They can’t rely on Hudson Young scoring tries each week like he’s Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods. Timoko is incredible but would it hurt for him to get some ball in space rather than having to run through nine people?

I’m not hopeful. They’ve been at it for seven weeks now and don’t seem closer to solving it. The solution of try harder until it gets better is admirable, and victories like this game are so much more pleasant than the opposite. But it feels like a ticking time-bomb until the Panthers or someone of that ilk does to the Milk what has been done before.

The return of Xavier Savage is held up as a reason to believe but after watching him return gingerly in NSW Cup footy it’s hardly a straightforward process. Putting him in the side will shuffle the chairs around but will it solve an issue of cohesion, ambition and innovation? He’ll definitely bring more pace to a backline that lacks it, but hoping it will turn Canberra’s attack ‘on’ seems hopeful at best and dangerously naïve at worst.

The good thing is this win gives them a week of to identify, plan and solve. The two points keep them in contact with the eight, a little bit further from the spoon and a bit of time to breath and reflect. They’ll be under no illusions that their problems are solved. There’s work to be done and time and space to do it. Better get to it.

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