The Raiders 34-28 victory over the Knights showed everything the Canberra men can offer this year – both the exceptional and the awful. The potential top six side was evident in the first, rampaging through a confused Knights defence. But the second half saw the return of the 2015 Raiders.
The first half demonstrated everything positive the Raiders have to offer. Out of the ruck, hooker Josh Hodgson started where he left off last season, orchestrating the entirety of the attack from the centre of the field.
As Raiders’ fans have quickly become accustomed to, Hodgson’s ability to create doubt in the mind of defenders allowed the forwards an appreciable amount of space in which to work. This meant that the Raiders’ first string forward pack – Boyd, Vaughan, Lima, Nuuausala, Soliola, Papali and Whitehead – all made major metres through the middle of the park.
Boyd was the pick of the bunch in the first half but tired in the second. Soliola filled the middle with the absent Fensom and looked comfortable – although it did limit the space with which he could utilise his considerable ball-playing skills.
Hodgson also demonstrated his exceptional decision-making. Close to the line, he routinely threw the right ball that allowed the Raiders big edge runners one-on-one opportunities against the Knights diminutive halves. The first try of the game came when Hodgson took the blind side, putting BJ Leilua in an advantageous position against a Newcastle half, which he embraced to put Jordan Rapana in to score out wide. The next trip into that area of the ground, Hodgson isolated Shannon Boyd against the half on the opposite side, his bulk proving too much to handle as the Raiders went 10-0 up early. It was a carbon copy of the Raiders most successful play of last year, when Hodgson would send two big forwards at the edge of the defence, hoping to pick the defender too small to stop a forward. That it remains in the arsenal is a good sign.
The contrast between the new and old was clear and present in the halves. Sezer and Williams both had their moments, but the former was more penetrative with ball in hand, and showed far more consistency off the boot. Sezer put Croker into space early with a delightful ball that forced Croker into space outside his man. Later, he put Papali into score after taking the ball to the line brilliantly, which left the score 28-0 and the game seemed over. Leilua rounded off a dominant first 35 minutes, leaving the score 34-0 when he showed surprisingly good pace from dummy-half to run through some shoddy defence and go all the way from 40 metres out.
But once Hodgson and his ‘first-string’ friends were removed from the game we saw the bad old days of the Raiders return. For all his effort, Baptiste was unable to confuse the defence in the same way that Hodgson did, and consequently the replacement forwards – Bateman, Barnett, Rhys and Jarryd Kennedy, Clydesdale – all found the metres much more difficult to come by. Rhys Kennedy is confusingly large.
He looks like the one massive kid in every kid’s football side. He matches that size with effort. It’s not clear from tonight if he has talent, but consistent first grade minutes will provide further evidence. Barnett looks the most likely of the ‘B team’ forwards to have an impact this season; his strong running and willing defence remains an asset the Raiders should be happy they held onto this off-season.
Williams showed his skills and limitations, kicking excellently early to ensure a repeat set, but as the game tailed on he fell back to the same unimaginative kicking that plagued the Raiders mid-field play – the ‘mid-field bomb and hope’ plays far too great a part in his repertoire. Despite his organisational work, the Raiders lacked any creativity in offence in the second half once Hodgson and Sezer left the park. Williams remains a valuable member of the squad – but he’s merely there for depth, and nothing else.
The second half also displayed the ongoing worry that is the Raiders defence. Sure it was the back-ups, but the Raiders routinely found themselves slow off the line, falling off tackles and making poor reads; even Sisa Waqa was made to look silly. No such problems were evident for the first half, but Newcastle barely had the ball. 24 second half points may be evidence that Coach Stuart is yet to fix the porous defence that plagued the Raiders last year.
And so we get a glimpse of what might be this season. Here’s hoping the first half is what we see more often than not, and that second half remains like last season – confined to the depressing darkness of the corners of my memory.