Raiders Review: Victory Palpitations


The Canberra Raiders 34-30 victory over the Bulldogs was dominance without satisfaction. They ate all game but without satiation. Their middles rolled, they scored points with ease but still they had to scrap for victory. For the second week in a row they found a way to manhandle their opponent and still end up in a dog fight (no pun intended). They should have won this game by 20, but through an abject fear of the kicked ball, some imperfect defence and a unique refereeing display, they found themselves yet again scrapping and scraping their way to two points.

The game was won by a middle that must be wondering what the point of pushing the rock up the hill is if everyone else keeps letting it roll down again. For the second week in a row they didn’t just win the middle – they overpowered, overwhelmed and turned the Bulldogs pack into a whimpering mess. By mid way through the first half it was clear Canterbury couldn’t get down the field consistently without help (either by penalty, error, or Matt Burton’s boot). But when the Milk had the rock they rolled down the field with ease. It was brutal. It was brilliant. It was the difference in the game, and frankly that difference should have been greater because of it.

In the end they outgained their opposition by more than 200 metres, but even that understates the dominance. They had more post contact metres, more line breaks and more tackle breaks than their opposition. Four members of the pack cracked 100m. Zero of their opposition did. Corey Horsburgh (13 hit ups, 174m, 79 post contact & 4 tackle breaks) was unstoppable. He had multiple hit-ups of near 30 metres. One he tore into the line and simply refused to go down. On another he stepped off his right, turned under the defence and simply kept going. It was astounding. That he matched that with 60 plus minutes of solid defence, and critical link passing on almost everything the Raiders did well in attack, made the performance breathtaking. He had a solitary moment of weakness – a failure to pass out the back on a sweep play when there was an overlap. But even disappointment with that is indicative of a rapidly rising expectation.

Horsburgh didn’t do it alone. Joe Tapine (11 for 128m) and Josh Papalii (8 for 102) were both impressive, the former particularly through his first stint and the latter particularly through his second. Both are using their feet so well to test the defence, and while it’s something we’ve seen before it remains impressive. The increasing comfort with passing between these three bigs has added another dimension to the Raiders attack, creating chaos in defensive lines that are having to send five or six defenders to corral them rather than two or three. Hudson Young was again in almost everything. Call him a handyman because he’ll do whatever you need, you just have to ask (no, gross, not like that).

A special mention too for Zac Woolford. His ruck manipulation was excellent, his service prompt and accurate and he even had two good kicks (one for a repeat, one for metres). It’s hard to attribute causality to his work – he may have had an easier day because the pack was dominant, but there’s no doubt he influenced that dominance. It’s also not hard to notice that the for the second week in a row all but one of Canberra’s tries came with him at the helm of the attack. In this game he got through fifty plus minutes of work before being substituted, and one feels that if the Coach thought he could get through more he would’ve.

The Canberra middle beat Canterbury’s defence into such a pulp that it created opportunities for tries that shouldn’t have existed. The first try to Jordan Rapana came after the Raiders rolled 70 metres on the first set. Xavier Savage scored off the back of a perfect Jack Wighton kick because the defence had been folded one too many times and didn’t have the numbers to cover. Matt Timoko simply ran through a defence that was petrified at the thought of tackling him (and given he had 200m on the ground, a good chunk in brutal yardage work, you wouldn’t blame them). Jarrod Croker scored because, again, the Dogs didn’t want to tackle Timoko, and an imperfect pass landed in his lap with a pathway carved to the line. If Burton wakes up in a cold sweat screaming “Timoko!” I wouldn’t be surprised. He should call Cam Munster for advice.

These were opportunistic to an extent but there was also a continuation of the smooth function shift plays that appeared last week – evidence that the Raiders did work on something during the bye week. Rapana’s second came on the back of a beautiful movement that included Horsburgh digging into the line like Isaiah Yeoh in fanta pants, a beautiful catch and pass by Timoko to put Rapa in the clear. This occurred shifting in the other direction, though not as perfect. More than once Canberra nearly got Xavier Savage in space, only for the last pass to not land in his hands (or for X to be taken out).

Jack Wighton was again highly involved, and it felt like he could have scored on many occasions, either taking on the line at second receiver, or offering fullback style support to props heading into the line. He also looked dangerous as a creator, and made several good reads on passes to Savage and Croker and set up Emre Guler for a try the referee in his wisdom incorrectly assessed a forward pass. His kick for Savage was point perfect (though Savage let it bounce in what was a harbinger for later in the game), as were most of his other kicks. His defence was brutal. After a Dragons game, a bye week and a personal decision, it’s clear his head is very much in performing for the Raiders.

After all this gushing praise it’s important to remember Canberra only just won this game. That is infuriating, though not confusing. The closeness of this game was influenced by three factors: the Raiders discipline, some poor defensive efforts, and a frankly chaotic inability to handle any aspect of the Bulldogs kicking game. As noted earlier the Dogs simply couldn’t get down the park, such was the sheer ‘sonning’ they got from the Green Machine pack. To get into scoring position it required a forty-twenty (try one), a penalty (try two and three), a chaos bomb (try four) and a refereeing error that gifted them ball in the Milk’s half instead of awarding their opposition a try. Compound that with the fact that four of these five tries came directly from kicks and what should have been a solveable attack was unfairly terrifying.

But alas Canberra too often couldn’t solve it. It’s fair to say that Seb Kris and Xavier Savage didn’t have a happy night diffusing kicks. It’s difficult to assign blame but neither would be happy with how they handled kicks at any point, and it got worse the longer the game went on. It’s worth noting that when Kris went off the field late it was Rapana that shifted to fullback, not Savage. Burton’s kicking game is tough to handle, but they’ll have to do better in the coming weeks. Literally every team was watching.

The other part of this was continued exploitation of Elliott Whitehead’s lack of goal-line agility. He was caught in no-man’s land on the first try, unable to fulfil his primary role of bringing down Jacob Preston at the line. The second try came from a Josh Reynolds kick that threaded into the space created by Whitehead’s slowing line speed. It comes a week after Connelly Lemuelu tormented him, and made the decision by Coach Stuart to push Corey Harawira-Naera down to Cup footy all the more confusing.

So instead of an easy victory (my kingdom for a leisurely twenty point victory) the Raiders had to fight every inch of the way. It’s a telling state of affairs that even up more than a try with three or four minutes to go you just *knew* that it was going to come down to a last play bomb from Burton. That’s a weird place for a footy team that has scored 30 plus on back to back weeks to be. While luck plays a role these weaknesses are holding them back. The key thing is the victory of course. That’s four in a row and in a competition that is closer than a Kentucky family. But if they keep putting themselves in rubbish positions they’ll get that bin juice all over them.

The Canberra Raiders exist in some glorious football purgatory at the moment. They torment their opposition through the middle and pile on points with opportunistic but surprisingly enterprising and cohesive shifts in attack. But somehow they never quite break the back of their opponents, and each game ends in heart attacks and (hopefully) relief rather than exhilaration. They have been better than their results suggest, and given they’ve won four on the trot that is meaningful. But there are weaknesses that are holding them back. I hope they can fix them. I’m not sure how much more our hearts can stand.

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