Raiders Review: The best and worst


The Canberra Raiders 31-30 victory over the Dolphins was a frank examination of both their best and worst as a football team. For enough of the game they kicked the shit out of their opposition, bashing them through the middle, allowing more creativity on the edges. It seemed almost like this team had found something. But just as quickly it was lost, chaos set in and the Raiders only just escaped with what was rightfully theirs.

They say prepare how you want to play. If so Canberra’s week prepared them for the chaos of that game. After Jack’s announcement you could have told me it could have gone in any direction. But instead it went in all of them. Brilliant but baffling. Dazzling but dumb. Ingenious and idiotic. It was the Platonic ideal of a Raiders game. Everything, everywhere all in eighty minutes.

I said earlier that the Milk’s middle machine mangled their opposition. Josh Papalii again was stellar (10 hit ups, 18 runs for 208m, 71 post contact, 4 tackle breaks), to the extent that a representative career I had hoped was finished now feels like a very real possibility to continue. He looks as agile as ever, and was getting between defenders with his ballerina feet and dragging tacklers with him like a strong man pulling a tractor. Corey Horsburgh (20 hit ups for 196m, 80 post contact) was not only a critical runner but a huge part of the attack, a critical link man through the middle. Joe Tapine had a ‘quiet’ 180m (from 16 carries, 82 post contact) – what a world it is when he ambles 15 metres as defenders grab at every limb to try and leverage him to the ground and you know there’s another gear if needed). The only mistake he made today was to let Coach Stuart only play him 46 minutes.

These three were part of every set. For the first 10 minutes of the game where the Raiders scored twice and the ‘Phins barely touched the ball the sets were like variations on a theme. Papa, Taps. Horse. Backrower. Papa, Horse, Taps, other backrower. Each set marching down the ground like it was divine right rather than a competition. They were so ably supported by a brilliant performance by the back five. All except Jarrod Croker cracked over 150m, evidence of the work they got through in yardage as well as the efforts they put on the back of good ball. Add to that their safety around kicks and it would take a brave man to break them up, even for the talent waiting in the wings.

This dominance – the Raiders outgained their opposition by 600 metres, had 300 more post contact metres – meant that they had plenty of space to play a bit of footy and for a change we got to see a bit of attacking ingenuity. The first try came after the Milk uncharacteristically shifted the ball on the first set of the game, Jordan Rapana popping an impossible ball to Matt Timoko and he was through. He didn’t panic, and neither did the rest of the backline as it went through the hands on the next tackle. Jack Wighton trusted Hudson Young. Young held the ball just long enough to keep the defence honest, and Croker did the rest.

This wasn’t the only time this sort of expansive football was played. It may have been the angle I was watching the game from (behind the posts instead of the on the box) but the Raiders seemed more comfortable pushing the ball to the edges and testing the edges. Jamal Fogarty and Jack Wighton were constantly in movement, popping up on both sides of the ball. Both took on the line, both looked decisive. Both threw perfect passes to the men outside them. Sebastian Kris looked comfortable as the second man at fullback, setting up one try, scoring another and generally being a menace. Dynamic runners like Matt Timoko (if he was born in Atherton rather than Auckland there would be so much origin buzz) and Hudson Young got the ball in space rather than with people in their pockets. For the first time in ages the Raiders attack, at least for about 50 minutes or so, felt free. Unbeholden to the conservative fear that has plagued their attack (and our country) for too long.

One try came when the Milk pushed to Timoko on the right edge again, dragging the scrambling defence to that edge. Then Jack Wighton, who’d been a part of the movement to the right, swept behind Corey Horsburgh propping and locking in the line, took a pass of his left shoulder and barged through a hole like me through a party when I hear there’s cake. Minutes later a simple shift in the red zone became a try when Seb Kris weighted a ball perfectly to put Rapana outside his winger. Another try came before halftime when Jack double pumped at the line, Croker ran a perfect outside-in line, both of which resulted in a defence looking at everyone but the Seabass who tore onto Wighton’s pass and into a hole bigger than your mum’s (say hi, it’s been a while). There was two more tries that I’m convinced were that but the referee wasn’t (Emre Guler didn’t really have control but the ball never separated, and they changed that rule this year, except for Wagga games apparently. Hudson Young’s touch-pass to Hopoate looked fine to me, but I was front on so keen for people’s views).

It was all tied together with Jamal Fogarty’s kicking and organising game, which impressed. The more he takes control of this team the better the people around him are. He continually put pressure on the ‘Phins with placement, earning the Raiders repeat sets, and their final try when Roberto Jennings finally dropped a kick he needed to take. It made the mess that followed at the end of the game – where the Raiders failed to get a field goal kick off in 15 odd tackles in the red zone – more confusing and contra to how so much of the game had been played. When he propped off his right foot, reset and won the game he completed a task that in any sane world would have completed five minutes beforehand.

That all this was put together in a way we’ve rarely seen in recent times made the rest of the game so infuriating, and made the second half collapse so familiar. The Raiders defence was brutal, and great in contact, except when it wasn’t and instead just let in tries so soft you’d think a teddy bear was selling fabric softener. Euan Aitken took some of the only good position the Dolphins had in the first half and turned it into a try because Emre Guler and Joey Taps decided that they were going to do a Lachlan Miller only as a tandem and against a player incapable of anything but running straight. BRENKO pushed off Jarrod Croker, and everyone seemed so surprise that it granted him an overlap, Jermayne Isaako space down the outside, and the Hammer a try on his inside.

Then there was five minute period that Elliott Whitehead would likely wish were stricken from the records. First he failed to get across on Kodi Nikorima (there’s an argument that Jamal Fogarty should have helped in) and then he over-pursued (almost in compensation). A ball went against the grain and Papalii was trying to save the day in the hole Whitehead created. Then as if not wanting to be outdone by his opposition, Hudson Young came up with nothing but gentle caresses in a ‘must make’ as the B defender on the goal line. There’s a fair question as to why the second-rower was defending where one or two props would normally be, but there was a job to do, and unusually for Young, he couldn’t get it done.

And as mentioned earlier, all this pandemonium crescendoed in the Raiders giving the game away, then getting it back, giving it away again, and then having the chance to seal it, and being unable to get to a proper field goal despite spending more time in the red zone than a tourist in Amsterdam. On a couple of occasions Fogarty got ran off the spot. On another occasion it felt like Jack called for a spread and the team trusted his instinct, and got caught out wide unable to re-centre for a field goal attempt. These sound like excuses but they’re more attempts to reason the unreasonable. To explain the unfathomable. If the red team had gotten into field goal range it may have been a season-defining moment.

But after this week the Raiders deserve something to go their way. After all the reason the ‘Phins couldn’t get to a field goal was because the Milk did so many other things right in that tight period. Their kicking made the ‘Phins start from imperfect field position. Their defence was more disciplined and impressively physical for that point of the game, and Redcliffe simply never got a chance. And then when they got an opportunity to take the shot for about the fourth time, they finally got it. Blessed be.

So that’s three in a row and a 4-4 record heading into magic round. It hasn’t been a smooth ride but we’ve got to appreciate where they are. While there’s still going to be noise around this team going forward, the emotions of Jack, of Sticky, and other players around this team suggest there’s not animosity in this group. Yes there’s anger and sadness but it’s from a place of understanding rather than hostility. They’re still in this together, even if it’s only for the next few months. Here’s hoping they can continue to keep a happy locker-room. Sticky better watch some Ted Lasso.

The season at this point feels much like this game felt. There’s so many good things going on, and almost as many that vex. Finding a way to let the good times roll (Quincy Jones edition, not Jim Murphy’s version), to play with this freedom would be good. Matching it with a defensive discipline that has characterised other weeks would be ideal. But hey, nothing’s ever ideal for the Canberra Raiders. At least in this game it worked out.

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One comment

  1. a monster reason why they struggle- 9 is taken off…14 takes over-a bunch of stats says this is a failure
    At this rate we’ll be playing games on Mars before there’s a change of game plan
    Tremendous skill by JC to stay infield & score!
    Hopoate gets bttr & bttr
    Its all sweet
    because they hung on again (just!)
    Could be an easier way to play and win.
    Who knows ?


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