A casual observer might be tempted to view the Raiders’ 32-18 loss to the Dragons today as the end of the good performances of recent weeks. But Raiders fans should be encouraged by the consistent display of the Raiders in the face of an impressive opposition (and less than helpful refereeing). The strengths that have emerged in recent weeks were shown to be repeatable and potentially permanent, and some notable deficiencies looked better than in recent times.
As we often do in this space we should note that the Raiders forwards again were the Raiders main weapon. As usual they were led by the excellent performance of Vaughan (14 runs for 138m), Soliola (12 for 112) and Boyd (11 for 103). Vaughan and Boyd did excellent work in the middle of the park, both managing to take advantage of space when it was there, or to create momentum when space was sparse. Papali (11 for 103) had hit best yardage since his return to the fringes and nearly repeated last week’s try assist to Rapana, with an excellent offload following a bustling run only failing because the winger dropped the ball.
Papali and Soliola each scored a try on the back of practically the same play, just run to different sides. In the first half an excellent cut-out ball from Hodgson found Cornish who held the ball up excellently for Soliola to score. In the second it was Baptiste who sent the ball to Cornish, who timed the pass for Papali to score. It was indicative of the Raiders strengths recently – the brilliant dummy-half play of Hodgson and Baptiste with the excellent ball-running of our forwards. Cornish was an able intermediary in both cases. It was a similar play that led to Croker’s try (after Soliola’s brilliant outside-in run on to a well-timed Williams ball) last week and is something that oppositions will need to game plan for.
The inconsistency of the Raiders halves was again on display today. Cornish’s work around the ruck was excellent, and he notably helped set up the aforementioned tries for Papali and Soliola. But he rarely kicked well today. This was often because of the game situation – he was forced into attacking kicks (such as mid-field bombs) from positions of weakness as the Raiders rushed to make up points at the back end of the game. But even in the early going, the Raiders kicking game rarely found good metres – indeed St George made double the Raiders’ metres from their kicking game (555m to 267m). The Raiders short kicks also rarely found the space behind the try line and no repeat sets were to be found. Austin’s kicking game was much better than usual and he often found the space between the back three – it should be hoped he is warming to this task.
Austin’s limitations with the ball in hand were clear however in front of St George’s impressively stout defence. Time and time again he dummied and took off, only to find the disciplined Dragons’ defence refused to allow him the space that the Bunnies, Tigers and Titans have offered him recently. Austin was unable to adjust in the game, and so the Raiders failed to threaten much when the ball was in his hands. Austin has only been a full-time half this year so his ball-playing will no doubt improve but at the moment it remains a limitation.
The Raiders defence today was sporadic. In the first half the Dragons often made metres through the middle and on the fringes at will. Tyson Frizell (12 for 142m) and Joel Thompson (12 for 122m) tormented the Raiders on the edge, while Leeson Ah Mau and Trent Merrin did excellent work around the ruck. The commentators noted the line-speed of the Raiders defence was a contributor here and that should be a concern. But the right-hand defence improved markedly and wasn’t the sieve it proved against the Titans. Austin and Rapana were often forced into difficult decisions, and for the large part they held on. In the end 3 of the 5 Dragons’ tries came from kicks that were expertly executed. The other tries were the result of excellent ball-play, not the usual defensive-read errors we’ve seen this year.
Ultimately the Raiders got beaten by a better side who executed their set moves and their game plan to perfection. The Dragons held the ball, completing 89 per cent of their sets, kicked well and grinded the Raiders out of the game.
It was a loss for the Raiders, not a debacle. There is plenty to improve on, but the Raiders are showing that the gains they’ve made appear to be permanent.
 Ok two side rants. The Raiders got pinged in the ruck a lot. The Saints did not. And my god that was a try to Croker.