It’s hard to not be impressed with the Canberra Raiders 22-8 victory. The Raiders proved the more enterprising with ball and the more resolute in defence. Key positional players shone, and the Raiders pack battled the previously dominant Bulldogs forwards to (at worst) a stalemate. If the Raiders can eliminate crucial errors from their game, there is real promise for this team.
For the first weeks of this season, the excitement of many about the Raiders halves pairing of Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin was based more on promise than action. Both players returned from injury tonight, and provided quick assurance that this return was not a moment too soon. Sezer’s kicking game was outstanding, consistently pinning the Bulldogs in their right corner – the number of times that the Doggies had used up 3 or 4 tackles only to still be in their own twenty was as much a testament to Sezer’s brilliant kicking as it was the Raiders enthusiastic defence. Sezer also showed that he’s not just a boot, setting up the Raiders first try with a lovely ball that put Papali through a gap, and later holding the ball and straightening just enough to give Croker the space to go in for the game winner. Neither try counted as a try assist for Sezer, but make no mistake about it, both tries occurred because of his ball play.
Austin was quieter and still displayed a tendency to throw the obvious pass rather than the correct pass. But he is improving in his ball play, and he played a critical part in the last try of the match, also straightening and holding the ball long enough to force the inside defence to stay honest. The conditions of the match didn’t suit him tonight – his quick feet would have normally found a lot of space around the tired Bulldogs forwards but the rain made that skill redundant. But he found other ways to contribute – his lone kick was excellent, and although he fell off some tackles he was a staunch and willing defender.
Those of you who read our glorified love letter to Josh Hodgson from last week would not have been surprised to see his handy work early on for the Raiders. Not content to just find metres for his forwards, he ran the ball through the middle more often, particularly early. His ruck work was as expected, but we should never take its quality for granted. And I’ve seen him try the short grubber for Jack Wighton before but never with such perfect execution – it resulted in the Raiders second try, giving the Raiders the reward for dominating the game early.
But the real heroes in this game were the Raiders forwards. A dearth of ball in the second half means there statistics only tell part of the story. Paul Vaughan (13 runs for 96 metres), Shannon Boyd (12 for 117), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (14 for 129) and Joseph Tapine (11 for 111) were excellent – they were the reasons that the Raiders gained 355m more metres than the Bulldogs in the first half. Indeed Vaughan and Nuuausala both had more than 70 meters each in the first half. With the ball they were aggressive, finding their way to the line and onto their stomachs for quick play the ball. They tired the normally dominant Bulldogs pack, who were uncharacteristically humbled by the Raiders physicality.
But more importantly, the forwards were rock solid in defence in the second half when the Raiders dropped ball after ball after ball to give the Dogs attacking sets on the Raiders line. When the Belmore boys couldn’t punch their way through the Raiders middle and edges, they looked disjointed and without ideas. Shaun Fensom (51 tackles) and Hodgson (47 tackles) were the standouts but the entire forward pack stood up and impressed with their resilience.
Indeed it was the circumstances that allowed for this noteworthy defence that was the only downside for the Raiders. Under pressure the Raiders would hold out, only to drop the ball coming out of their own area. In consecutive sets Jarrod Croker, Edrick Lee, Jordan Rapana and Elliot Whitehead all dropped the ball on the first tackle. Against sides less battered and more entrepreneurial this simply will not be acceptable. The avalanche of possession for the Bulldogs resulted in a try to Will Hopoate that gave the Bulldogs a sliver of hope that other sides may turn into a bigger piece.
And so the Raiders, faced with a favoured opposition in a hostile environment stood up and were counted. They showed poise with the ball and resilience without it. If they can remove costly errors there is a real top 8 contender building here. Let’s hope they let the competition see it.
 Except for Sia Soliola’s suspected fractured forearm. Get well soon!