The destruction of the Wests Tigers by the Canberra Raiders 60-6 was thorough, profound and exact. The Raiders turned a two-week long nightmare into 80 minutes of dreamlike play against a side that initially tried to fight back, but eventually capitulated wholeheartedly in the face of a rampaging horde. These are the days where the potential of the Canberra Raiders is clear.
The rampaging horde in green was directed, conducted and manipulated by one of the great displays of rugby league dummy-half play. Take a bow Josh Hodgson. The numbers on their own are gaudy – 3 try assists (according to NRL.com), 100 plus metres on the ground, 22 tackles in just 56 minutes of flawless football. He set up the first Raiders score with a brilliant ball to Elliot Whitehead running an excellent line to the outside shoulder of Wests’ half Luke Brooks. The second try came after he repeated the same play, only to put lock Shaun Fensom into a half-gap, and when the defence over-compensated to bring him down, found prop Shannon Boyd one-on-one with a helpless Tigers defender for a second easy score.
Hodgson finalised his trilogy of assists by faking a grubber on the blind side, drawing help defence towards him, trusting that much improved winger Jordan Rapana would be able to score from two metres out in a one-on-one scenario. He dutifully did. That wasn’t the end of Hodgson’s work. As time dwindled in the first half, Hodgson took control of the ruck in mid-field, ducked between the markers, found a trailing BJ Leilua who drew the attention of James Tedesco long enough to allow Rapana to streak away for his second. He would later also put Vaughan over, but this was more a result of a broken Tigers defensive line than any elaborate deception on Hodgson’s part.
But to focus only on Hodgson’s try assists almost cheapens his impact. He continually kicked the Raiders into space, on several occasions putting the ball into touch just metres out from the Tigers’ line, even when sets had stalled. On other kicks he made sure he was the first person downfield on the chase, and on one Tiger’s break was the man who, with Jack Wighton, put James Tedesco to the ground after he made a break. And in between putting the Raiders forwards across the try-line, his inspired dummy-half work created all the time and space the forwards needed to gain advantage.
And gain advantage they did. Paul Vaughan (17 runs for 177m), Boyd (13 for 146m) out-and-out crushed the Tigers through the middle – and unlike previous weeks they were supported ably by reserve forwards Luke Bateman (6 for 71) and Clay Priest (7 for 94m). Frank-Paul Nuuausala will find it hard to get much time again.
Whitehead (12 for 118m) routinely threatened the line with his strength and his ball-playing ability . It was his good work that gave Hodgson the space to set up the third Raiders try, and it was his flick pass that put Rapana for his fourth personal. He threw a perfectly timed ball on a sweeping movement that resulted in Rapana’s third. His ball-playing is proving a boon for the Raiders right edge, which with the play of Leilua and Rapana has suddenly and surprisingly become a weapon the Raiders can rely on. Josh Papali (15 for 149m) dominated his edge on the left – if he ever manages to form a connection with Aidan Sezer, Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker this attack could become damaging – well, even moreso.
All this space meant that the backs had the acres in which to make their mark. And unlike previous games this season they didn’t show any reservations about getting involved. Leilua and Rapana were irrepressible, involved in everything. They came from the other side of the field to be on the end of Hodgson’s work to score at the end of the first half, and throughout the game they were always around the play, doing the hard yards bringing the ball out of the Raiders own half.
Leilua plays like Jesse Bromwich and Michael Hancock had a child, rolling over some opponents, and sidestepping others with his inexplicably quick feet. He had two tries, two try assists, not to mention 140 plus metres on the ground. His judgement on when to insert himself is unquestionable at the moment, even if I continue to question it in the heat-of-the-moment. Rapana continues to excel, and his four tries and four line breaks somehow understate his impact. His surprising strength was on display when he gave the big ‘don’t argue’ to two oncoming defenders to amazingly drag the Raiders out of their own in-goal in the first half. Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker and Edrick Lee all got involved, particularly later in the game when Croker and Lee combined skillfully down the left edge to make a mockery of the Tigers defence.
And finally, the Raiders defence did two things that they hadn’t for the last two weeks. Firstly they showed great speed in getting off their own line. They shut-off a good Tigers attack by giving them no space – akin to what Parramatta had done to them not two weeks earlier. Only Chris Lawrence’s lightening quick edge running provided any threat to them – in fact the Tigers only try occurred because Williams was, unlike his brethren, slow off the goal line which gave Lawrence the time, pace, and space he needed to crash over. The second defensive improvement was they stopped that infernal idea of sliding when the ball was still on their inside. Tonight they were direct in their defence, going forward when they needed to and only sideways when they had to.
We may not get many more games like this. But for one night the Raiders showed the unquestionable potential that has lurked beneath the surface recently. Let’s hope we get to see it some more.
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