Two in a row. Five tries in a half against the defending premiers. Another (!) victory on the road. But is it time to get excited by the Raiders?
It may do us a service to remember the first half. It was 16-4 at half time. The Raiders first try at this point seemed like a distant dream, coming on the back of good work from Hodgson (as per usual), good hands from Waqa and an excellent finish from Rapana in the second minute.
The Raiders were losing up the middle. They were losing on the fringes. They were being mauled by the Bunnies’ forward pack. At half time Isaac Luke (105m at half time), Tom Burgess (120m at half time) and George Burgess (99m at half time) had run roughshod over the Raiders forwards. The defence could only hope to bend instead of breaking. The tries had come against the Raiders right hand side defence – again. One try came by McQueen aiming his run directly at Blake Austin, another resulted from Souths taking advantage of a compressed line to score in the same corner.
The Raiders offence had spent most of its time coming out of its own half, and close to half time the Raiders had only been tackled four times in the opposition twenty – presumably mostly in the first minutes – compared to 19 for the opposition.
The forwards had struggled to make an impact, only Vaughan having more than 50 all-run metres in the first half. Williams and Austin had both played awfully in the period after the first try; Austin making an error to end an attacking raid before it could even begin, Williams’ kicking game eluding him, rather than the South Sydney back three. Neither threatening the defence. Wighton had attempted to inject himself into the game and only succeeding in sending an attempted cut out pass into the fourth row. Hodgson – again impressive – had been the most reliable ball-player, and he was taken off the field around the 25th minute.
So it’s fair to say if the game had ended at that point, we would be writing a long tome about the how this was a return to ‘form’ for the Raiders after some promising signs over recent weeks.
But the second half was a different matter altogether. Vaughan (100 metres for the game), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (117m), Boyd (99m) and Soliola (88m) all turned the tables on the South’s forward pack, seemingly making yards at will. Soliola showed his ball-playing ability putting Wighton into space. Lee, having hands-down his best game of the season – finished strongly to bring the Raiders back into the match as soon as the second half started.
Baptiste was again exemplary around the ruck, and his two runs out of dummy-half resulted in 55 metres and a line break. His run in the 47th minute should have resulted in a try and a South’s player sin-binned when Waqa was held out of the play.
As it was the Raiders went in regardless when Boyd’s brute strength saw him force his way over. It was the second time in two weeks he had done so and he continues to impress.
The comeback momentarily stalled there. Austin and Williams had yet to insert themselves into the play and while the forwards competed, the halves struggled. For the first hour of the game Austin was not at his best, making notable errors in trying to connect with Croker on the left. The second of these failures was reminiscent of Josh McCrone’s ‘paint by numbers’ approach to passing, firing the ball into Croker’s chest from a foot away despite Croker clearly being covered by defence. Williams too was barely heard from in a positive manner until the last ten minutes of the game.
After Souths again scored after making huge metres directed at the right side of the Raiders defence, the forward pack again drove the Raiders into good position. Hodgson chose to go to the right, finding Austin whose good ball caught Papali running a great line inside his defender, and the Raiders were within two points again.
By this stage the excellent work of the Raiders forwards had clearly tired the Rabbitohs forwards. Yards were everywhere. On the Raiders next set a good run by Rapana was followed by bustling yards from Nuuausala. Waqa picked the ball up on the last at dummy-half, flicked a ball inside to Papali who found a running Austin for another try. Williams and Austin began to come into their own, Williams making an excellent run and putting Nichols into space before finding Lee with an excellent kick to seal the victory.
The victory was a great one for the Raiders. They showed they have the forward pack, and the smart players around the ruck to compete with best. Unleashing these strengths across a full game has not happened yet. When they do this, then it will be time to get excited.