“If they are real contenders, it has to start today” Andrew Voss
All season we have been compiling pieces of evidence like a puzzle, waiting to see if the picture showed the Canberra Raiders are good. In losing yet another heartbreaker 21-20 yesterday to the Cronulla Sharks, the 2015 Canberra Raiders definitively answered the question in the negative. Poor defence, errors and disjointed attack have proven their weaknesses. They will not contend this year.
All season the Raiders’ success has been built on the back of their forwards, so the biggest source of worry has to be the destruction of their defence in the middle of the ground.
The Sharks made massive metres easily. Gallen (25 runs for 238m) and Fifita (23 for 233m) destroyed in the Raiders around the ruck; Graham (24 for 198m) lived fat on the Raiders right edge. No better is this demonstrated than when after scoring to go up 12-0, the Sharks rolled 80 metres up the field from the kick off, almost unopposed by the slow line speed of the Raiders.
These gaudy numbers meant the Raiders routinely played the game in their own half, and had to rely on frantic and risky play to get into attacking position. Shillington (18 for 154m), Boyd (11 for 112), Vaughan (11 for 116), Fensom (13 for 101) and Soliola (14 for 139) all proved reliable but because of the poor work in defence their impact was stifled and localised in their own half.
This poor field position was exacerbated by atrociously timed errors, particularly in the first half. Wighton threw an awful ball to Croker to end the Raiders first foray into attack, Waqa did the same to end Canberra’s second. After twenty minutes the Raiders had only completed four sets. After finally getting the Raiders on the board in the 23rd minute, Edrick Lee threw a no-look inside pass that went to ground on the post-try set. Routinely the Raiders gave away penalties on the fourth or fifth tackle of a Sharks set. One might complain about these particular referees, but these are errors that the Raiders have made week-in week-out. They are not the work of a contender.
And finally, when the Raiders did have the ball in good position, they played like a team without a halfback. The decision of Stuart to not play Mitch Cornish or even (gulp) Josh McCrone was a poor piece of strategy. Austin and Wighton already have enough problems fitting into the team together when one plays in the halves and the other at the back. As the directors of the game they had next to no coordination, threatened little and organised nothing.
Austin appeared hamstrung by the responsibility of trying to direct the team around the park and also play his free-running style. Only Papali’s try in the second half came from anything approaching organised play, with Austin holding the ball up well to ensure Papali was isolated on Sharks halfback Jeff Robson. Their kicking game was awful. Wighton’s short game too conservative and predictable, and Austin’s long game inconsistent.
Neither Wighton nor Austin controlled the direction of the side, and the team played rudderless as a consequence, particularly when rake Hodgson was off the field. They panicked with the ball and failed to identify and attack weaknesses in the Sharks defence.
The team over-offloaded, throwing the ball around frantically in lieu of an actual plan. It would be hard for Wighton to come in and dominate the game after playing fullback all season, so more blame should be on Austin in this regard.
The only bright spot remains the brilliant play of Josh Hodgson. Already one of the best rakes in the competition, he again showed his skill yesterday, trying to drag the Raiders out of the darkness of their play. The good work of the forwards was in large part thanks to the brilliant work of Hodgson out of dummy-half. He ran the ball excellently, picking up a line break and often bending the line. An early 40-20, and his short kick for Edrick Lee’s second in the 64th minute showed his kicking game remains the most dangerous in the side (although his misfire late in the game when on the run he tried to kick for the wing displayed why he’s a 9 and not a 7). In the back end of the game he stripped the ball in an one-on-one tackle to give the Raiders a repeat set when they desperately needed it. If the Raiders had won yesterday it would have been largely thanks to him.
But without a halfback to direct them, without the domination of the forwards, and because of the terrible defence and errors, the Raiders lost in the same way they have done nine other times this season. There are plenty of potential to look forward to in this side, and the continued excellence in patches of the side gives the impression that good things are to come.
But this year there will be no premiership, or even finals. Yesterday it had to start. Instead the Green Machine simply sputtered.