As the light went out on the 2015 playoff hopes in their 20-18 loss to the West Tigers on Monday night the Raiders raged. That the Raiders didn’t go gently into that good night was heartening and reminded fans that the there is a proper contender lurking among the mistakes and brain explosions that mark most Raiders games. We all just have to wait until the future to see if the contender emerges.
The literal rage that saw 200 game veteran David Shillington get sent off for trying to headbutt Aaron Woods had been matched for 79 minutes by the figurative rage of a forward pack tearing the middle of the park set after set. Shillington (17 runs for 177m), Vaughan (17 for 173m) and Boyd (11 for 111m) created havoc throughout the game, yards coming so easily that 60 metre sets were the norm. Boyd was particularly impressive in the first half, scoring two tries before Coach Stuart inexplicably decided to keep him on the bench for the majority of the second half. Barnett (12 for 128m), playing the Soliola role on the left edge showed a willingness to get involved and worked hard off Hodgson’s left shoulder. Papali (7 for 63m) almost always bent and broke the line on the occasions that Austin gave him the ball.
The forwards dominated with a large contribution from the always outstanding work of dummy-half Josh Hodgson. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but Hodgson was astounding tonight. Playing with a high-ankle sprain (and presumably enough cortisone to put Black Caviar to ‘sleep’ coursing through his veins), Hodgson was excellent around the ruck. He put Raiders forwards into gaps, set up tries for Boyd and Croker and generally played amazing for the entire 80 minutes. His only weakness was his usual excellent kicking game was pedestrian (possibly because of only having one functional ankle). He provided the Raiders with their only consistent creator.
And the Raiders outside backs were brilliant. In particular Jack Wighton continued his good form of late, nearly single-handedly winning the game for the Raiders in the space of two runs in the second half. Evoking Brett Mullins at Marathon Stadium in 1994, Wighton wound his way through the Tigers defence. That the Raiders only managed to come up with six points from these two breaks was a shame. Croker was damaging on the left, and Waqa and Rapana routinely did excellent work bringing the ball out of the Raiders own half. This was often the only work the Raiders backs got – more on this later – but they did it willingly and well.
Wighton evoked memories of Brett Mullins circa 1994.
So you might be asking yourself if seemingly 11 of the starting 13 raged so effectively, why is the light now out? Because the Raiders halves basically engaged in a two man game of Roshambo, standing in the middle of the field kicking each other in the nuts, instead of performing their roles even adequately. Williams kicking game was unusually awful tonight, rarely providing any threat in the air or on the ground.
Austin though, was a disaster. He missed tackles that resulted in the first, 3rd and 4th tries scored by the Tigers. The Tigers halves sent rampaging forwards on his inside and he couldn’t hold them out for the first try. On the 3rd try he picked the forward when the ball went out the back. Then the Tigers sent Tedesco on his outside and he couldn’t keep up, being made to look pedestrian in the process.
And with the ball he achieved little. He has had a hard time in the last month as teams have stopped buying his dummy-and-go move. Tonight was no different and he struggled to insert himself into the offence. When he did get involved he dropped the ball with the line in sight and a bit of space at least 3 times, one particularly egregious example when he flashed a boot at the ball instead of picking it up and strolling over for a potentially match winning try.
In the long term his performance isn’t worrying. As a relatively inexperienced half he is still learning what to do now his game requires more subtly than stylish foot work. He may continue to struggle over the last weeks of the season, but Stuart and Raiders’ fans should maintain faith in Austin. He will learn to involve Papali more, organise better, and that he can’t rely on his athleticism so much. But he will need time and patience, something Stuart hasn’t always shown with young halves.
And ultimately, while they raged against the dying season, the Raiders again showed that they have that most dreaded characteristic – potential. A barnstorming forward pack, a crafty and creative dummy half and some excellent outside backs. Add in a more experienced Austin with the more consistent work of Aidan Sezer and the Raiders should be ensconced in the top eight this time next year.
I guess we’ll all just have to wait.
 And you have if you read these pages regularly. My feelings for Hodgson are getting embarrassing. I’m ‘this’ close to calling him up to tell him I miss his musk.
 Seriously Sticky, the first time he plays 80 is with a high ankle sprain?