Raiders Review: Relapse


Like an addict falling back into bad habits, the Canberra Raiders reeled off a greatest hits of atrocious and perplexing football in their 42-14 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles. It exposed the fragility of the success they have built, and revealed that the progress made over recent weeks isn’t bedded down. If they intend to play finals this year then improvement is needed.

This was a bad match-up for the Raiders. Manly aren’t a big team in the middle and they don’t try to play there. Instead they shift and shift, trying to test edge defences and make big men move side-to-side as well as forward and back. Canberra prefer a team to meet them face to face for a battle in the middle – an old school war game. To beat a team like this you need to be disciplined in defence and patient and precise in attack. Unfortunately what was revealed was a deficiency in both these traits.

Indeed the willingness of Manly to play with width exposed the still imperfect edge defence of the Raiders. It wasn’t so much any one individual – they all had good moments and bad – but rather a lack of cohesion and structure in their movements. Smart people will often talk about defences needing to be tied together, a set of players moving together, responding and reacting to the opposition in the same way. If anything this game highlighted just how far Canberra have yet to come in that regard. The middles got exhausted, the edges couldn’t cover what came their way. It was a perfect storm.

Too often Canberra players all did different things, and the Sea-Eagles exploited that. One try had Jamal Fogarty defending two players while Matt Timoko tackled air. Another try came when the defence slid to take care of a shift, and when Trbojevic cut back against the grain the inside defence wasn’t agile or enthusiastic enough to cover. Another try came because Jack Wighton wasn’t where he should have been, Tom Starling couldn’t cover out and Croker couldn’t cover in. Another when Croker read in, but Hopoate didn’t come with him. Trbojevic put Saab down the sideline and by then the game was well over.

If you’re going to have such flimsy defence across the park then the best way to combat it is to be really good with the ball, or at least disciplined. But Canberra compounded the matter with an frustrating array of errors and brain-snaps (66 per cent completion rate – yikes!). At one point through the first half Manly had the ball for eight of ten sets, only interrupted by a couple of Raiders errors and one actual factual set where they got to their kick. In between they compounded the matter by adding penalties to the mix to allow Manly to start nearly every other set at halfway, and even a Daly Cherry-Evans 40-20, where the Queensland halfback was allowed to take about eight steps to set himself before the kick. Kris got a wicked bounce, but Cherry-Evans never should have had that much time.

When they got the ball it was back to the attack from earlier in the year, more ponderous than someone who’s just knocked the top off some cones and started watching Carl Sagan youtube videos. Everything was slow. While Josh Papalii (10 for 120m), Joe Tapine (14 for 134m) and Corey Horsburgh (17 for 153m) all looked dominant whenever they hit contact (despite getting whomped Canberra basically had the same amount of post-contact metres as Manly) what happened before that never felt like it was moving.

For much of the game the redzone attack seemed more like the first half of a hangover jog; sputtering effort with little pace and no direction. The middles were surprisingly ineffective in contact and so quick rucks weren’t as plentiful as one would have hoped. It wasn’t until the game was gone that the pace in shift movements that had characterised their offence since the bye emerged. Too much of the attack got caught around the ruck as the Raiders’ halves struggled to find a consistent or effective solution to Manly’s jamming up-and-in defence. The face ball that Whitehead scored the first try from (a beautifully weighted ball from Wighton) should have been a hint but it took them well into the second half to go back to that, and Whitehead nearly scored again.

Despite seeing this Timoko rarely got the ball in space (and looked immediately threatening when he did), there was never an option given when he could come inside the jamming defence to avoid even having to navigate it. Instead Canberra kept forcing itself into a wall of defenders and bouncing back, like a confused dog trying to drag a big stick through a small door. Jack Wighton rarely took the ball into the line or even tested just how much Cherry-Evans wanted to tackle him. Hudson Young got one good ball that was nearly-not-quite a try, but yet that was the last time it was an option. Mixed in with this was some of the more confusing kicking you will ever see – high kicks to twelve-foot tall Jason Saab are a bad idea and that’s even if you execute them properly.

Part of the lack of pace in the middle and space on the edges has to go at the feet at the Raiders ‘worst-case scenario’ hooking pairing. The service was slow, sometimes shocking, and without any deception. Manly knew what was happening before it was happening, and didn’t even have to move fast to do anything about it. If this is the Coach’s preferred unit then I must admit I am more confused than a mule with a spinning wheel (or a town with money). That isn’t the only thing he’ll need to fix. In a game where the middles were being worn out by Manly’s ‘rocking boat’ style attack, he took until well into the second half to use either Ata Mariota or Pasami Saulo. Saulo in particular would have been well-suited to the task in this game – he’s an impressively mobile middle defender.

Many will point to refereeing decisions that were arguable but these did not determine the outcome. But Canberra’s reaction to them did. The Elliott Whitehead no try ruling was followed not a tackle later by simple defensive errors and a long-range try. Timoko had a try (rightly) denied, and on the next set Manly scored. It spoke to a lack of mental clarity. Luck certainly played a role – it felt like one of those games where nothing went Canberra’s way. A break in the first half was stopped to watch Manly have a player sent to for an HIA, allowing a broken defence to regroup. More than one kick ended up with the Sea-Eagles after pinballing around and one of those resulted in a try. But like the refereeing it was more how the Raiders reacted to ill-fortune.

This, like many of the problems identified above, are not new problems. Rather they are issues that have existed all season (and for seasons before). Canberra’s performance over the last few weeks suggested improvement in some areas, and a papering over in others. But flimsy edge defence, brainless attack and a lack of discipline across the ground are not new. The Raiders had minimised those issues over the last few weeks This game provided a more unabashed view of what can happen when they get those things wrong. The five games before this weren’t accidents, but they did give an impression of solutions found for problems that persist.

Well now they must get solved because they need a win, and this year whether or not you think a draw is easy or not seems irrelevant. The ladder is as flat as the Raiders’ performance and according to the Tele they’ve not been done any favours by the New South Wales selectors, who are reportedly going to leave Damian Cook and Campbell Graham at home. There will be no cheap Origin wins this year. I’ll tell the children.

After this relapse Canberra must find a way back to the straight-and-narrow. The good thing is that they’ve got five weeks of tape of how they can minimise their faults and maximise their strengths. They’ve proven they can do the right thing. One slip up shouldn’t condemn them. But no one should be in the dark now. There’s work to be done.

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One comment

  1. Tom Starling is a target for opposition teams,
    both rolling downfield & on the tryline (where he’s been brushed aside in 3 last minute tries)
    Danny Levi is not a solution
    It is possible to put a microscope on other areas- like stupid by-play from Young…& the errors from whoever/
    It all falls apart with the selection at hooker,/
    Canb Raiders may win the occasional game but will never be serious contenders with this set-up
    It is said a definition of insanity
    Is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result !
    from a glance at the press conference it seems unlikely to change..
    which is a real bummer because there are good players in the squad,
    & even tonight some really good plays,
    this team deserve better
    them play with this line-up is like self-harming !
    Some sort of insanity.


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