These are the tough losses.
The Raiders dominated the first 20 minutes of the game. They found metres and holes at will. When Austin crossed for what should have been his second, and the Raiders’ fourth try, we here at the Sportress started to get a little excited.
Austin was breaking the line with regularity. Cornish looked like he was playing a video game, his kicking game placing the ball with precision. Hodgson had been making our forwards head in the right direction, and Soliola and Vaughan were again making metres up the middle. Life was good.
This is the bit where we say something dramatic like “but we knew it couldn’t last” but the change in the game wasn’t that pronounced.
Sure it started with Austin’s try being turned down by the video referee, but the game didn’t end then. When McCrone came on for Hodgson the pace of the ruck slowed to a trickle, but that wasn’t the sole issue. It wasn’t helpful when Waqa went down during the second half, forcing a reshuffle that saw Croker relegated to the wing in defence, tiring out our already stretched defensive fringes. And the seeming endless supply of penalties that took the Dragons out of their own half proved frustrating. None of these things alone were the reason the Raiders lost. But together they combined for 60 minutes from hell.
Two major issues that became clear as the game wore on.
First of all the defence was awful. Against a team that had hardly scored in the first two weeks tackles were frequently missed and metres gained. The Raiders’ speed off their goal line was atrocious. It’s hard to say it was one area or person was a weakness defensively. Sure the fringes were horrible – Austin again whiffed on 5 tackles, Soliola 3, Cornish 4 and Kennedy 3. But the centre was only marginally better with Hodgson (4 missed tackles), Tilse (3) and McCrone (2) all missing multiples.
Some of these efforts were particularly bad. McCrone’s poor attempt on Merrin saw the backrower fall over the line for the Dragons first. Nuuausala didn’t get credited for a miss when he left the entire ruck open for L’Estrange to stroll 30 metres to the line for the Dragons’ third. Austin and Tupou were responsible for letting Joel Thompson stroll in for the game winner seven minutes from full-time.
The second issue was the play around the ruck. When Hodgson was playing the attack was constructive. Apart from his penchant for trying to dive over from dummy-half, Hodgson usually made effective darts, and ensured our forwards got the ball with the defensive line in two minds. He also displayed an excellent kicking game which took stress of Cornish.
When Hodgson went off however, the attack sputtered – partly because Cornish seems to be less involved when McCrone plays (through no obvious fault of McCrone’s), and partly because McCrone’s service from the ruck appears to be inferior to Hodgson – slower and less deceptive. McCrone often takes several steps out of dummy-half before passing, giving the defence a clear idea of who is getting the ball and allowing them to adjust accordingly. In the close-to-40 minutes that McCrone was in the game, the Raiders didn’t score a point and conceded 12. And while that is an admittedly small sample, it does back up the eye test that the attack sputters with McCrone on the field.
Hodgson’s fitness will get better andMcCrone will see less time at 9, but one worries this will merely encourage Stuart to either carry a utility that sees little time, or start playing McCrone instead of Cornish. Either is a sub-optimal outcome. Baptiste or Buttriss would be more useful at 9, Kennedy more use as a backline and forward cover, and Cornish should never be off the field.
The positives from yesterday are hard to enjoy in hindsight. Cornish was tremendous. His kicking game, as promised, was much better than last week. He garnered the Raiders multiple repeat sets. He showed greater willingness to run the ball, and the three steps he took and dummy he threw created the space for the Soliola to crash over for the Raiders’ second. Games like this show the potential he has. The other bright spot is the continued excellent play of Hodgson. His kicking has been a surprise, providing the Raiders with a second option in kicking that Austin has failed to provide. His ball play, running and ability to take the right option out of dummy-half are more Woolford and Walters than Priddis, Farah and Smith – traditional, brutish but is remarkably effective.
And so the question of last week – are you an optimist or a pessimist – becomes harder to answer in the positive. One can only hope this isn’t the beginning of something worse.