Thursday’s 26-18 loss to the Brisbane Broncos provided the Canberra Raiders an opportunity to be measured against one of the best sides in the competition. Success here would mean the Raiders were a genuine force in 2016. Unfortunately, they failed to stand up. Instead the game was a tale of a side unable to consistently fulfil its promise and fix its ongoing issues.
The first twenty-five minutes of the game revealed the potential of the side. Paul Vaughan (12 runs for 149m) and Junior Paulo (12 runs for 117m) competed with the Broncos forwards, ably supported by the always excellent work of Josh Hodgson in the ruck. They both got involved in defence early, Vaughan in particular showing a willingness to get involved. Line speed was up across the park and the Raiders forwards were not just competing, they were controlling the game.
The offense, which in recent times had devolved to ‘give it to BJ and hope for the best’ was far crisper and targeted, aimed squarely at the Broncos right edge. Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer both looked best when they lined up on the same side of the field in traditional half/five-eight role. The set plays they ran in the 6th, 13th, and 22nd minutes were variations on the usual sweeping movement. In the 13th minute Austin got the ball off the back of a sweeping movement and had the defence in two minds, taking on the line and nearly getting through. In the 22nd minute the combination reversed with Austin at first receiver, and Sezer’s willingness to take on the line dragged the inside defender across, succeeding in creating a gap that a lurking fullback should have gone through. In between all this Sezer’s kicking was pinpoint.
But even in this period where the Raiders competed they demonstrated their flimsy foundations. Sets that didn’t end with raking corner kicks from Sezer invariably ended with dropped ball in good position. Austin put down an inside ball from Paulo that he would have scored from. Brenko Lee dropped a ball on the second tackle as Raiders went into the opposition half. BJ Leilua threw a forward pass to Jordan Rapana in the attacking half. On defence Austin and Sezer were constantly back-peddling.
And then Corey Parker went around some atrocious defence from Blake Austin in the 25th minute. Vaughan and Paulo came off after this try, and the Raiders forward pack fell apart. The Broncos went over 80 metres on their post-try set, as the Raiders suddenly became a rabble.
The Broncos were in field position for their next try because Rapana dropped the ball returning a kick. But they scored because the Raiders continue to make the inexcusable error of sliding on their own line. Goal line defence is not rocket science. Get off your line quickly. Don’t slide. The Raiders did neither of these things as Darius Boyd rolled over a clearly sliding-on-his-line Sezer. And then just to prove this whole sequence wasn’t a fluke, it was all repeated again when captain Croker dropped the ball just out from his line. Virtually the same play was run, and yet again Sezer failed to get off his line, and suddenly it was 18-0 and the Raiders were looking very silly.
These tries, as well as the one immediately after half time, were all the result of sloppy handling from the Raiders, and atrocious goal line defence. It was a problem for the Raiders before the Broncos scored. It has been a problem all year. And it is not being fixed. If Coach Stuart is a protected species, at least questions must be asked about what defensive coach Dean Pay is achieving if his charges can’t adhere to the basic tenets of goal line defence.
That period of utter incompetence was amplified by a forward pack unable to compete once Vaughan and Paulo, and later Soliola left the field. The line speed in defence disappeared. Joseph Tapine, Clay Priest and Luke Bateman, who had all impressed in recent weeks were given a proper working over on both sides of the ball. While they got through work in defence, it was always on the back foot, and by the time the first-string forward returned the game was gone. The Raiders much vaunted depth in its forward pack suddenly looks much shallower.
Sezer and Austin, so sharp in the first 25 found life much more difficult behind a struggling pack. Sezer’s kicks, so accurate early, became more and more predictable. Hodgson could be accused of trying to do too much. Austin went missing for almost the entirety of the second half.
Many supporters will take heart from the three tries the Raiders scored at the end of the game but these points should be viewed with scepticism. For starters, the Broncos had clearly put the cue in the rack. Secondly, an injury to Jordan Kahu in the 53rd minute meant that the Broncos had to reshuffle their backline, bringing Corey Oates in off his wing to defend in the centres (where he was promptly made to look silly by Kurt Baptiste’s first try). Finally, the tries the Raiders scored came from dummy-half darts and a lucky (if impressive) kick from Sezer. These are hardly repeatable approaches to scoring.
Other supporters point to Baptiste’s two tries from dummy-half and hope that he may offer some redemption. Again, the tries flatter Baptiste’s ability. He is a willing and solid defender, and a great judge of when to dart from behind the ruck. But his service remains inconsistent – in his short stint in this game he managed to throw passes on two separate occasions that grubbered along the ground, and often the ball was sent behind the first receiver, slowing whatever momentum the Raiders had at that point.
And so the Raiders look to a bye week in which they have some very obvious issues to fix. They had an opportunity to show if they belonged among the NRL’s contenders this year. An optimist hopes the first 25 minutes means that the answer is ‘not yet’. But a realist might have to start considering ‘not at all’.