The Canberra Raiders 26-18 victory of the Parramatta Eels wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t built off moments of brilliance interspersed with madness. It was instead a calm execution of a battle plan to win the game in the middle and take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. When a relatively disciplined defence didn’t provide many to them, they didn’t panic, and instead found ways to win the game. Who are this team?
Canberra came into this game having won four straight, but the streak was built with more madness than method. The victory over the Broncos had been heart. The struggle against the Dragons had been two poorly-performing sides in a mutual dance-off to see who had the least rhythm. Then two high-scoring heart-attacks followed, in which they played expansive footy but allowed their opposition to do the same. It was enough for the people that don’t watch the Raiders to say things about the team that simply weren’t true.
Or maybe they were. This game was the most disciplined and repeatable performance of the lot. It’s no surprise it was born from the Milk’s strength through the impressive work of the middle. This wasn’t like previous weeks where the Green Machine got to strut through their oppositions’ forward packs like me walking into the pub . This opposition was not willing to cede the middle and even without Reagan Campbell-Gillard had the talent to make it a battle.
Canberra wore them down though, eventually taking carriage of the middle in a way that allowed them to control the game through the second half. Joe Tapine (17 for 190m, 80 post contact, 3 tackle breaks) was immense, but particularly through this second stint. He is harder to get down than me at the pub on pay day. Josh Papalii (15 for 154m, 67 post contact) was also hard-working, and Emre Guler (12 for 122m) had his best game of the season, getting through a monster load of work on both sides of the ball. Corey Horsburgh only had 131 metres on the ground (55 post contact) but continued to display his importance to nearly everything the Milk do. The link he provides through the middle, the indefatigable nature of his work. He was still tearing into the line despite hovering above 60 minutes played, not for the first time this season (it’s wild that he was once seen as the out-of-shape one).
These metres going one way were impressive, but equally so was the effort put into defence. The Raiders were tested early, both by the work around the ruck of Josh Hodgson (so many feelings) and while the Eels had some big sets, the effort to cover back and ensure that it was a bend but not break scenario was noticeable. Even when they had 60 or 70 plus on a set the middle didn’t lose control. The Eels are so happy to be expansive that if you let them kick in the door they’ll have a party. The middle instead held tight for the most part, and that was hugely important. It was no one-way path.
Similarly it was visible when their discipline was tested by Parramatta edge players either pushing outside-in or inside-out. These angles were an attempt to make the Raiders middles help out against faster players, or ensure they couldn’t clock off when the ball went wide. More than once big middles helped out on halves, or on second-rowers or centres coming back towards them. One time Josh Papalii did it on one side of the field early in the set, then brought down Jake Arthur in a one-on-one tackle on the other edge later in the same set in a glorious example of what you can do when you’re loaded up with birthday cake calories. It’s part fitness and attitude and the Canberra middles had both. It was a huge part of why they only conceded the one, frankly unlucky, try late in the Horsburgh sin-bin spell.
This kind of battle in the middle meant that while the Raiders had the better of the field position, it was still a battle. Unlike previous weeks when they walked in tries this was a bigger test of their ability to create opportunities. This made Jamal Fogarty’s ringmaster impression behind an imperfect platform all the more impressive. He did a stellar job driving the side around the park, always looked threatening with ball in hand, and outside of one poor kick had a tremendous night with the boot. He kicked one of the more impressive 40-20s you will see, set up two tries with his boot, and it could have been more if not for a slips catch by
James Edward Stuart Clint Gutherson and some other desperate defence.
This control that Fogarty has (and has had for much of this streak) has allowed Jack Wighton to take a more roaming role. He’s popping up on the right far more often, and more free to test the line. He also kicked a 40-20, which was equal parts brilliance and luck. It’s the freest footy he’s played in years, and no surprise it’s his best. Both men and gods fear what that might mean as South Sydney next year but for now it’s our goodbye present.
It meant that while the impressive defence from the opposition didn’t allow them the easy walk to the try line that other sides had offered, the Raiders still put themselves into position to score. Their shifts, while not resulting in points, continue to take on more complexity and fluidity. There were occasions where Wighton was heading to the line with an option inside and out. He threatened to hit Seb Kris inside, pushed out to Croker. It was just a moment in attack but it speaks to the improvement that has been made since the bye, even if it didn’t directly result in points for this game.
Indeed the Eels defence was impressive and it took some impressive efforts to actually get to points. One try required Hudson Young’s good offload to Jordan Rapana’s better drop to Jack Wighton who threw the best pass in the movement, only for it to be outdone by Albert Hopoate’s excellent put down. Another try came on the back of Matt Timoko getting bored being in his own half so decided to just run the ball forty metres down the field, despite the seven different tacklers who tried to dissuade him. A few plays later and Horsburgh nearly crashed through, and then Fogarty propped off his right and grubbered behind an off-balance Gutherson for Seb Kris to score. A few minutes later on the back of a helpful penalty Tom Starling and Hudson Young did that thing that makes you think they’ve been playing footy with each other for twenty years (they’re mates from Newy, maybe they have), with Young jumping on a kick from Starling.
Despite the more traditionally haphazard nature of the point-scoring it didn’t feel like the Raiders were out of ideas. Timoko was always a threat on the right. More fluid attacking motions on the left put Hudson Young in more positions to try things than any other this year. His offloads started one try, and created other opportunities, and he hit more holes and traditional second-rower lines than any other games this season. That he put this together with 100 plus metres on the ground in support of the middle speaks to his multi-faceted utility. Seb Kris continues to chime in as the second man, and the fluidity and comfort of these attacking movements are hugely influenced by his presence. There were a few moments I wish he passed rather than held the ball, but it never felt like a bad decision, just a safe one.
This is still an improving outfit, but given they’ve won five on the trot that’s incredible news. Their attack wasn’t perfect against a better defence, but it showed that the improvements of recent weeks were able to be put together in harder environments. There’s more to be done there. The Milk’s edge defence was flimsy at times. The Eels really targeted Matt Timoko and Jarrod Croker and made some line-breaks isolating them in one-on-one situations. But Canberra’s reaction to that – both in their immediate scramble and the increasing aggression of their edges in response to shut down movements before isolation was possible – was testament to a greater defensive confidence. But there’s clearly work to be done in both of these matters.
But if the Raiders left points on the table, their opposition maximised theirs and it was heavily influenced by factors beyond the immediate structure or execution of the Milk’s defence. Their first try hit uprights on a kick from a backrower. Another try was born from a break that started as a set stuck in their own ten, a line-break created from Croker laying a cracking hit on Gutho and creating the broken play that allowed Will Penisini to make a massive break. A final try was a knock on, and also required Elliott Whitehead (or maybe Hudson Young?) idiotically challenging a dropped ball scenario, turning an error in attack into a 7 tackle set, a set restart, an obvious knock on and finally a try. That it took all those matters conspiring against the Green Machine to score is a sign of their strength.
More than just this when the game was on the line the Raiders didn’t seem panicked. Outside of Whitehead’s moment of captaincy madness they kept their discipline and their heads against a team that threw caution to the wind. Their defence retained its shape. They didn’t go into their attacking shell. They kept playing the game, kicking smartly and basically doing all the right things. God I hope it continues.
There’s a bit of a vibe about this team right now and maybe it’s just the victory whisky talking, but winning is way better than losing. The improvements made in recent weeks, the increasing cohesion and vibrancy in attack is pleasing. The effort in defence, and trust that the next man will do the right thing, is as unusual as it is welcome. Each week they make fewer and fewer galling errors. One might even argue that they approached the difficult moments of this match with an *extremely relative* calmness one might not be familiar with from recent vintages. It speaks to a side that while far from perfect, is right in the mix given the chaotic nature of this season more broadly.
They need to keep improving. But man if they do is there an opportunity awaiting them. Roll out this kind of complete, intelligent and impressive performance on other weeks and they might even squeeze out an easy victory here or there. One can only hope.
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