How you feel about the Raiders loss to the Warriors on Sunday probably is determined by whether you’re naturally a pessimist or an optimist.
The optimist would have seen the Jack Wighton stretch the Warriors line almost at will. They would have marvelled at Mitch Cornish’s deft accuracy on the bomb that was well met above his opposite by Sisa Waqa for the Raiders only try. They would have seen the performances of Austin, Boyd and Vaughan as vindication of Ricky Stuart’s decision to play previously established players off the bench (in the case of McCrone) or not at all (in the case of Shillington). They would have seen four fifty/fifty refereeing decisions go against the raiders in the second half and thought “that can’t happen every week”.
A pessimist would have seen a team that lost in the exact same way it lost so often last year: competitive for sure, but unable to avoid catastrophic mistakes (such as Vaughan’s unforced error to start the second half) that led to points against at critical junctures. And they would have pointed to a first half in which the Raiders narrowly held on, preventing several promising attacking raids from Warriors. And this doesn’t even account for the tries the Warriors left behind.*
The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. This year’s Raiders are massively improved on the version from last year. Ricky Stuart admitted as much in his post-match press conference. But it was similarly clear on Sunday that Ricky Stuart’s rebuilding project is still in its infancy .
Noticeably, the deliberately more mobile forward pack was snowballed by its opposition, the holes coming not just on the edges as has so often been the case (Jarryd Kennedy missed six tackles, Blake Austin three) but often right up the middle. This could have been the result of a lightening ruck enforced by the refs throughout the night, but Warriors forwards seemingly made 60-70 metres every set, with Hoffman (175m), Matulino (187m), Mannering (124m) and Lisone (130m) dominant. Rarely did the Raiders’ defence manage to finish a Warriors set with the opposition kicking from their own half. With the ball the forwards made good, consistent metres, particularly early in the game and were aided by good service by new recruit Hodgson. Soliola (182m) and Vaughan (122m) were particularly impressive. But because of the defensive weakeness, sets often started from poor field position and ended in the midfield unless a break had been made. Handling was again an issue as key drops from Soliola and Vaughan in the defensive twenty directly led to tries for the opposition.
The backs did find space consistently. Working in behind the ruck Wighton seemed to always threaten the line, although never being credited with a line break. He connected well with Croker, who too seemed to bend and stretch the Warriors defence, particularly in the first half.
Austin and Cornish connected on the left several times in the second half, the former particularly threatening in making two line breaks at the back end of the game. Waqa made the best of the limited space he received.
Both Austin and Cornish had inconsistent games kicking, although both were often kicking from suboptimal positions. Cornish’s bomb for the Waqa try was a glimpse of his capability, but similar kicks were marginally askew – minor weighting or accuracy issues enough to remove their danger. Too often Cornish was content not threatening the line, allowing the Warriors to close off any space for his outside backs. Wighton was inconsistent under the high ball, notably fumbling the ball dead in the first half, and mistiming his jump early in the second to allow the ground-bound Hoffman to end up with the ball for the Warriors third try. Croker and Lee had five errors between them, and the backs contributed eight of the eleven errors the team made.
And so we head to week three, less optimistic than this time last week, but holding up hope that the good things we saw last night will eventually be the norm. Whether or not the glass ultimately ends up full or empty remains in the balance at this stage, and depends on whether the errors and misjudgements can be eradicated.
*I’m pretty sure this was Matulino who bombed a try in the second half, but I haven’t been able to check the replay yet.