Make no mistake, the Canberra Raiders were very good in their 30-18 victory over the Manly Sea-Eagles. For about 55 minutes. Then they were very, very bad. The ease of their victory underscores the potential of this side. The last 20 minutes reminds us that there is much work left to be done before this side is a contender.
This was the kind of victory the Raiders seem to have specialised in recently. The pack dominated with the ball, and the backs showed ingenuity, often without the involvement of the halves. The defence was patchy, hidden by the brilliance of the ball playing.
The star of Friday night’s game was Jack Wighton, who, reminded everyone that had been calling for his head of the magnitude of his potential. Wighton displayed every skill you could want from a modern-day fullback. He book-ended the game with two try assists, one coming from a brilliant catch-and-pass to Brenko Lee at the end of a set move for the Raiders first try, the other when he took the ball to the line, faked to the inside man and put Josh Papali through a gap to seal the game in the 55th minute.
These weren’t isolated incidents. He had grubbered brilliantly early on only for Brenko Lee to fumble the try. He repeated the error himself when he beat two defenders with dexterous feet but couldn’t get the ball down. He soared over the defenders to catch an Aidan Sezer bomb for a try in the 50th minute. And around all this he out-and-out saved a try, and helped stop another when he screamed across to help Jordan Rapana and BJ Leilua hold up another.
It’s the sort of game that the Raiders coaching staff had been hoping was lurking inside the man. That it came after a week in which he was (rightly) castigated for his poor hands in the victory over the Bulldogs just speaks to the character of the man.
But Wighton wasn’t the only game-breaker. BJ Leilua may have only been credited with one try assist, but what Wighton didn’t have a hand in, BJ did. He set up tries on either side of halftime – the first, when his strength brought the attention of four defenders, he was still able to make an offload, which Josh Hodgson took through the line to score. After half time, he turned a Hodgson mistake – running the ball on the last – into a try, simply because he is impossible to tackle. He held the ball up in the line, found a rampaging Papali who put Elliot Whitehead through for the Raiders first try of the second stanza. And he was the Raiders most consistent ball-runner. When the Raiders forwards were in trouble, Leilua made yards (166 of them) to get the Raiders out of it.
Papali himself was the most impressive Raiders forward – even moreso given it was his second game in three days. He was impossible to tackle close to the line, showed impressive support around the ruck and clocked up the metres (10 runs for 115m) in just 59 minutes on the field. Junior Paulo also impressed in his debut (11 for 128) and damn near killed Jamie Buhrer, but was rarely involved in defence (15 tackles in 48 minutes). Sia Solioloa was tremendous, particularly in the first half.
As a pack, the Raiders strength is now their depth. That this side had no space for Paul Vaughan – whatever Stuart’s reasoning – demonstrates how many quality forwards the Raiders now have. They were relentless throughout the game. A substitution just brings fresh power – Paulo was replaced by Papali, Boyd by Tapine – and the pack just kept rolling. Elliot Whitehead’s 12 runs for 150+ metres (and 33 tackles) went largely unnoticed, maybe because his skilled and consistent work just isn’t as exciting as all of the Raiders new toys. Questions do still remain on their structure and line-speed in defence; two of Manly’s tries came by cutting back through the ruck. On both occasions their defence there was cursory. Stuart has had ample time to fix these issues.
The importance of Josh Hodgson to this side was clear too. He might be the Raiders best option at first receiver. Both Sezer and Austin were more threatening playing outside Hodgson, and the man himself constantly probed the line with ball in hand. Early in the game he was also his usual effective self out of dummy-half. But when he left the game around the 60th minute, Hodgson watched on as the Raiders turned 30-6 into 30-18 and very nearly 30-22 (if not for Wighton’s aforementioned try-saver).
And this should give Raiders fans pause. Neither Austin or Sezer managed to calm an overexcited Jordan Rapana (who had 200 excellent metres until he started throwing the ball away in the last twenty minutes), and the Raiders attack ground to a halt at the end of the game. Sezer’s strength remains his kicking game (which was excellent tonight), and he is developing a repartee with Wighton and Croker on the left.
But Austin seems to go missing at the moment and is hesitant to utilise his strength in running the ball, preferring to dump the ball to Whitehead and Leilua early (probably not the worst idea right now). Worse, he sometimes runs to the line to throw a face ball so obvious that it threatens ball-security – poor Joe Tapine was subject to what was once called a McCrone special.
At some stage the Raiders aren’t going to be able to rely on Hodgson manufacturing something in the middle, or Leilua and Rapana doing so on the edge. They will need more from their halves to be a true contender.They will need to be able to hold a side out when they are tired, and they will need to be able to dominate an opposition pack without the ball as they do with it. At the moment these parts of the Green machine are still in development.
But for tonight they had all the attack they required. Jack Wighton, BJ Leiulua, a willing forward pack and Josh Hodgson took the Raiders third win in a row. They are now firmly ensconced in the top 8. The sky remains the limit, but the Raiders remain a work in progress.