The Canberra Raiders 24-24 all draw against the Knights tells a complicated tale about the present and future of the men from the capital. The effort and resilience the side displayed was commendable, and again the Raiders showed some impressive play with the ball. But the halves were frazzled, and without the ball they were overrun. And if they don’t fix these problems soon, the hot start that has surprised so many will evaporate within weeks.
As per usual the Raiders showed skills and size through the middle of the park. We usually start these recaps outlining the various ways in which Josh Hodgson impressed us. His day was again filled with highlights. Apart from his usual work finding extra yards for his middle-men through his creative ruck play, he also provided critical plays for all of the Raiders first half tries. The first try came on the back of yet another crucial 40/20. The second was because of his excellent work, darting out of nine, showing the ball just long enough to freeze the ‘B’ defender to create the gap that Whitehead loped through before sending Sia Soliola over the line. The third because, unlike replacement hooker Kurt Baptiste, he quickly identified an overlap on the short side. But Hodgson also made some critical errors in kicking – his grubber into the legs of Newcastle turned a potential scoring chance for the Raiders into a Knights try just before halftime. It would prove instrumental in the passage of the game.
With Hodgson the Raiders’ runners in the middle of the park did impressive work when they had the ball. Shannon Boyd (14 runs for 146m), Soliola (16 for 134) Paul Vaughan (12 for 111) were the most impressive. Jeff Lima continued to show he was a bargain buy, repeatedly taking the hardest hit up of each set. New recruit Joseph Tapine showed some heat in his feet and Elliot Whitehead showed impressive ball skills – his pass to put in Jordan Rapana unveiled another ball playing option on the Raiders’ right edge.
But for all this excellence the Raiders showed two major issues that must be resolved in the short term.
For starters the Raiders cannot win with a single half. Coach Stuart left out rookie half Lachlan Croker, instead opting to play back-rower Whitehead as a makeshift five-eighth. While Whitehead showed good ball skills (seriously, Sam Williams wishes he threw that cut-out pass for Rapana’s try), he has no ability with the boot. This meant that outside of the chances Hodgson could take to kick out of 9 – which he did with mixed success – Williams was the Raiders only real kicking option. This meant that sets routinely ended poor kicks, or even on at least one occasion in the first half, no kick at all. The Raiders missed at least 3 field goal attempts, and only one was a clean shot. Williams had no second option to pass to on any of these shots.
Another problem with this a single half was that the Raiders were unwilling or unable to run any sweeping movements to the open side of the field. This meant all the attack focused around the ruck and the blind side, making life much easier for the Knights defence. Bringing Baptiste on to the field allowed Hodgson to push into the halves. However this turned the Raiders biggest strength (ruck play) into a weakness as Baptiste’s predictable and slow play stalled the Raiders’ middle-men. Coach Stuart said after the game that he’ll “take one point any day when playing with only one half”, indicating that he thinks a second half is crucial to winning. There is a possible solution to this problem, but unfortunately he played in Mounties earlier in the day.
The second major problem the Raiders face is their line-speed between the two 20-metre lines. When the Knights attacked the Raiders line, the defence got out of the blocks routinely, shutting down the raid, and by NRL Stats have 7 separate try-saves compared to the Knights zero. They faced 10 consecutive sets and readily conceded tries through that period. But in the middle the Knights repeatedly rolled over the Raiders and ended the game with pretty much 500 more metres. The Raiders cannot hope to beat sides hemorrhaging metres like that.
Coach Stuart admitted that the Raiders need a second half in order to seriously compete. We’ll consider the selection today an error that is readily amendable. But if the Raiders cannot fix their defence soon, this year’s promise of finals football may prove a mirage.
 The middle of the 3 defenders in the ‘mini-line’ of defence that forwards encounter on each side of the ruck.