Victories like the Raiders 34-24 victory over the Penrith Panthers tend to bring more relief than exhilaration. The Raiders did enough to win, but showed nothing that would suggest they have altered their existing course for the middle of the table. The positives provided encouragement for the future, but the negatives revelled in the limitations of the Raiders as constructed.
The play of Josh Hodgson was one of these positives that give Raiders fan’s the ability to think about finals football in the future. Hodgson’s ball play around the ruck has been the critical part of the Raider’s offence this season. Today he was only credited with one try assist (according to NRL.com), but he has his hand in everything until he was removed in the 60th minute.
His brilliance is often in his deception and creativity around the ruck. Today he took those skills and aimed them directly at the gaping holes in the Panthers defence. Early on he read the play brilliantly on the right sideline, identifying an overlap and throwing a great ball to cut out Jamie Soward, allowing Leilua to put Rapana over in the 11th minute. Then in the 28th minute he held the ball up beautifully to put Austin through a massive gap in the middle of the ground, resulting in a try for Shaun Fensom. Later he spotted another overlap, finding the equally brilliant Paul Vaughan bursting through for a try like Josh himself burst through the door in New Zealand last year.
Hodgson’s play also means the Raiders can fully utilise their brilliant forward pack. The combination of Hodgson’s service, and the Panther’s acquiescence proved pivotal for the Raiders, Vaughan (16 runs for 160m), Shillington (22 for 187m) and Fensom (17 for 155m) just destroyed some flimsy Panthers defence. Even Frank-Paul Nuuausala emerged from witness protection to rumble for over 100 metres. But it was Vaughan who was particularly impressive. He made substantial yards after contact, and burst through the line on several occasions, ensuring a quick ruck and easier yards for his fellow forwards.
And with all the dominance the Raiders showed in the middle of the park you might wonder why the game was so close. The first reason was that the defence in the first half was pathetic. Poor line speed and poor spacing and structures meant that the Panthers were able to find points almost at will early on. 18 points were put on the Raiders in the first 25 minutes by the second worst attack in the NRL. Gaping holes were found in the middle of the park, particularly around Frank-Paul and Shillington, but no forward was immune from these mistakes. Wighton and Frank-Paul were found flat footed after Taylor picked up some loose work in the ruck to burst at the Raiders line for the Panthers first try. Vaughan’s relative lack of mobility was exploited in the 25th minute after finding himself needing to make a one-on-one tackle with Penrith hooker James Segeyaro for the third.
In the second half the defence improved markedly, and the Raiders held the Panthers to only the one soft try in the 63rd minute. Raiders’ fans may be tempted to blame Edrick Lee for allowing Jennings to get around him, but the real issue occurred further inwards, with inside defenders held up by a single decoy run. Croker and Lee were tremendous in defence as the Panthers probed at the back of the game.
Another limitation was the play of the Raiders halves. Austin probed on occasion but his game is restricted to running at the line at this stage. His choices to involve Papali and Waqa (or Leilua today) are not deceptive, and still mimic McCrone’s ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach. McCrone himself played to his potential today, involving himself well on defence but showing that he remains unable to create anything outside of set plays on the fringes.
Austin and McCrone both generally kicked poorly. By my unscientific count, there was at least seven occasions where they kicked on the full to the wingers and the fullback. Notably these were often meant to be low, positional kicks, designed specifically to find grass. This has tangible effects on the Raiders – for example the first try came after the Panthers started a set just short of the 40 after a poor kick from McCrone.
The arrival of Aidan Sezer, or the return of Sam Williams will go a long way to ameliorate these issues. Williams has shown a great ability to involve his second rowers, as well as Jarrod Croker on the left edge of the Raiders attack. His kicking game means that Austin only kicks occasionally. His organisational skills allow Austin freedom to involve himself around the ruck, which is a great strength of Blake’s.
Ultimately Sunday’s victory allowed the Raiders to dream of finals football a week longer. But even with the brilliance of Hodgson and the strength of the forwards, the problems in the defence and the halves will limit their impact this year.
 Based on total points scored for the season.