The Canberra Raiders 40-16 defeat to the Cronulla Sharks was their second ignominious defeat in a row. After a promising start to the season only a brave person would think they could rectify their problems to make the finals this year.
Last week the Raiders right edge was such a debacle that we wondered if it was fixable. This week it proved less obviously distressing. Indeed most of the tries came against the Raiders left edge defence instead, as Aidan Sezer and Jarrod Croker were often isolated. Ben Barba got around Sezer easily in the second half; Croker was run over by Jack Bird for the Sharks’ second. In both cases the line-speed on the goal-line was non-existent, resulting in Croker and Sezer trying to make ball-and-all tackles and halt the momentum of a player moving forward while they were flat-footed. Unfortunately physics intervened and the Sharks found the try-line.
But the structural issues down the right remained. After the first try of the match, the Sharks made 74 metres on their next set, winding their way down the field and nearly scoring off an attacking kick. They exclusively attacked that edge to do so. It was a common refrain throughout the game – attack the Raiders right edge to move the ball, and run big sweeping movements to Bird, Barba and Valentine Holmes on the other side of the field.
With this defensive deficit, the Raiders needed to be perfect with the ball. Unfortunately they were far from that. Josh Hodgson didn’t have a bad game, but it was clear he was less than 100 per cent. He was slower with the ball than normal, and showed next to no inclination to run the ball when the opportunities presented. The fact that replacement dummy-half Kurt Baptiste was so effective in the second half was a product of the directness of his play.
That straightforwardness of play was uncharacteristically lacking from Hodgson today and one can’t help but wonder if his various injuries played a role. The forwards didn’t necessarily suffer from this. Shannon Boyd (10 runs for 109m), Paul Vaughan (12 for 111m), Josh Papali (14 for 125m) and Joseph Tarpine (10 for 105m) were all impressive with the ball. But there work was always difficult today because of Hodgson’s less excellent play.
The Raiders halves had their moments. Sezer is beginning to run some excellent outside-inside sets with Papali and Wighton. None of them came off today, but on several occasions they threatened the line. Sezer proved generally impressive with his long kicks today but did find the in-goal on too many occasions. His partner in the halves Sam Williams most notable contribution was a good grubber that resulted in a Sezer try well after the game was settled.
Apart from that kick however, Williams had a return to the first grade side that he would prefer we all forget. On two occasions his passes managed to find the arms of Sharks players, resulting in tries that snuffed out the dying light of hope for the Raiders. On both occasions he made the wrong decision, his play so easily read that it ended up in the oppositions hands.
The only notable highlight was the ingenuity throughout the game of BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana. They have developed a strong relationship as the Raiders pairing on the right: Leilua proving a strong ball-runner and a capable play-maker; Rapana a clean pair of heels when given space. Today there work resulted in two tries for the Raiders. The first when Leilua and Whitehead both threw excellent short-balls on the blind side to put Rapana into space – Whitehead’s quick hands were more impressive, but it was BJ who spotted the opportunity. The second try occurred when Leilua started a quick return of a kick gone dead in-goal, and put Rapana into a big gap. Rapana’s pace shouldn’t surprise people who have watched his development over the last two years, but it still impressed on this 70 metre burst, running away from the Sharks speedy outside backs.
After last week we had hoped the Raiders would improve their effort and execution this week. It has not proved the case. Line speed, poor defensive structures and lack of north-south direction in attack again remained absent. The Raiders have an opportunity to solve this problem against the Wests Tigers next week. Only the optimistic will think they will.