Yep, you got me again - this time I took Monday off to drive back from Australia's version of the steel city. I could've typed this out on my phone, but I like having thumbs that aren't broken. Besides, there was some local drama in the miniatureverse that required my attention.
I have family in Newcastle, so took the opportunity to tick three boxes at once - taking my little one on a road trip, seeing the Raiders play away, and seeing how the other side lives.
McDonald Jones Stadium (real name Newcastle International Sports Center) is an interesting stadium. Half suburban ground, with open grassy spots at either end of the stadium behind the goalposts, and half stadium - with boxes and tiered seating. Where we sat, in the away supporter's bay, was almost sunken - turning around in my seat and seeing the steep incline of the stands gave me the impression I was in a pit.
Otherwise the pregame ritual was pretty tame - one (quite large) gripe in the end was the Knights didn't bother to tell us about the Raiders team list. Which meant when Matt Frawley took the field I had no idea why. At half time I had to find out for myself - Jamal Fogarty had been stricken with a stomach bug.
I had somewhat called that the Raiders were going to lose to the Knights - not that the thought filled me with joy. Even when Newcastle were at their lowest ebb, in 2016, Canberra have struggled to convincingly defeat the Novocastrians. As the lads ran out on that sticky Sunday, even without Jamal Fogarty, and the Knights missing Kalyn Ponga, it was going to be a mammoth task.
Somewhere in the realm of the footy gods, a six-sided die was rolled, and the chart of "how long will the Raiders play well" was consulted. The portents determined that Canberra would play well for exactly the first half - no more, no less.
Even playing "well" was a stretch. Signs were promising early when Hudson Young stormed over, shunting Lachlan Miller out of the way and giving Corey Harawira-Naera an easy conversion.
Newcastle were quick to equalise through Greg Marzhew, before going ahead courtesy of yet another barging effort from Bradman Best. Long-suffering Raiders supporters will be getting flashbacks to Best's first game against Canberra, where he scored two tries and ripped his opposition wing and center to shreds. Fun times.
Thanks to the poor angles the Knights had been given, Lachlan Miller struggled to convert either try, leaving Newcastle with a precarious two point lead. This was the only black mark on his record, though. Miller played with vim and vigour, powering the Knights out of the backfield, and linking effectively with Tyson Gamble to terrorize the Raiders' left edge all game.
However, we're not yet at the high watermark for Canberra. Eventually after an error from the Knights gifted the Raiders some quality field position, Jack Wighton gave the Canberra faithful a flash of individual brilliance. At speed, he shrugged two defenders and kicked in Newcastle's front door, reminding everyone in attendance why his Clive Churchill and Dally M medals aren't just for show.
Another easy conversion gave the Raiders a four point advantage - and then, for the last time in the game, Matt Frawley displayed individual brilliance and footy IQ to slot a forty meter field goal, stretching the lead to six.
At that point, the sands in the hourglass ran out, and the Raiders began to slump. Errors and penalties let the Knights march up field, before Newcastle spread it expertly to give Greg Marzhew just enough time to score in the corner. Further compounding matters, Lachlan Miller had adjusted his radar at half-time and slotted the conversion, allowing Newcastle to draw level.
Less than two minutes later, Newcastle were back again. In a move eerily similar to the first, the ball was spread again, this time Dane Gagai was the beneficiary to score a fantastic (I guess) diving try in the corner. The conversion, though difficult in the wind, was expertly kicked, and the lead was relinquished to Newcastle.
To make matters worse, Jack Wighton tried to (figuratively) kill Jackson Hastings, earning himself a sin-bin and a two week holiday. In the ensuing set, Tyson Frizell muscled his way over, just to make sure the Raiders weren't going to walk out of the stadium with two competition points.
Having established a sturdy lead, Newcastle were content to defend out the rest of the game. Canberra had chances and came close on a number of occasions, but the Knights defence held firm. Joe Tapine losing possession on Newcastle's goal line, then unsuccessfully challenging the decision, signalled the end of the game. Seb Kris, after being so good all game, then dropped a Jackson Hastings bomb to further reinforce that Newcastle's fortress would remain unpillaged.
And so the Raiders drop their third game in four weeks.
In my 2022 season review, I noted that Ricky Stuart said his side was top-four quality, but was cruelled by injuries. Admittedly, Xavier Savage is five weeks away, Jordan Rapana was suspended, and Jamal Fogarty had a tummy bug. But the skeleton of a good football team is supposed to be there.
The Raiders also need to work out what they're doing at the rake position. I understand Zac Woolford did not feature in the first three games thanks to some unwanted preseason heft. Same. But even after Danny Levi had his face (sadly) rearranged and a spot opened up this week, he wasn't allowed on the field until the sixtieth minute, when the game was already lost.
One day I would love to understand the mentality of coaches and managing the bench. They obviously see things that me, the average grognard, driveling into the void, cannot.
Far be it from me to jump aboard the hate train properly just yet. Here's some copium:
As noted earlier in the piece, the Raiders, generally, struggle against the Knights. Especially away from home. Don't let the television fool you, it was hot, sticky and miserable at the stadium. The Raiders do not play well in those conditions.
Canberra typically do not start seasons well. Even in years where they have surged to deep finals runs, they've had chequered starts. Once the conditions start to suit Canberra (for some stupid reason the mercury is still in the mid 20s despite it being the end of March) they'll start really hitting their straps - we hope.
Seb Kris is arguably a better pick at no. 1 than Xavier Savage. He's strong under the high ball, he takes tough runs, and he's resilient. I don't know if he's the best fit for what the Raiders want in the position, though, which is creativity, speed and synergy in attack to feed Canberra's forwards, which Seb Kris does not provide.
Matt Timoko. That's it. That's the whole sentence.
In conclusion, if the Raiders are struggling in the middle of the year, that's when you start to go to panic stations. Normally the seeds of a late season lift are sown then, and it starts to become clear if the Raiders are going to play in the post-season, or spend another year in the wilderness.
I refuse to entertain any discussion around Ricky Stuart being sacked. I understand Des Hasler is floating around, and as awesome as it would be to have Des coach the Raiders, Ricky is a living legend of this club and deserves every chance possible to succeed. His contribution to the club goes beyond player and coach, he is a genuine Canberra icon.
The #98 on his shirt, jacket, and profile on the Canberra jumbotron aren't just for show. He loves Canberra and the Raiders, and through his love he may one day lead the Green Machine to a premiership. He came so close in 2019, and I just don't trust anyone else other than Sticky - particularly now that Craig Bellamy has had enough of this coaching malarkey. Look forward to that one, Storm fans.
That's me for another week. This week, Penrith and Ivan the terrible are coming to town off a loss, and will definitely be painting the town black. Yeesh.
Catch you next time,
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