The Canberra Raiders hobbled away with a 29-25 golden point victory over the Newcastle Knights on Sunday. After trailing by as much as 22 points in the 24th minute of the game, the Raiders comeback may tempt some to consider it another string in the Raiders bow. And while there were some impressive individual performances combined with some impressive courage, this game should provide plenty of concerns for Coach Stuart.
For the second time in recent weeks, the Raiders forward pack was as a whole dominated by a less fancied opponent. At least the previous time it occurred, there were Origin forwards across from them. Today a glorified NSW cup forward pack owned the middle of the park.
There were contributing factors – the loss of Jordan Rapana and Shannon Boyd meant that the Raiders were required to play bigger minutes that normal, in positions they weren’t used to. But this doesn’t excuse the easy yards the Knights made. Four Newcastle forwards had over 140 metres – including recent Raiders disposal Mitch Barnett – and two others were just short of 100.
Line speed was the prime contribution to this. A perfect example was the tying field goal that sent the game into golden point. The Knights recovered the short kick-off, and then two hit-ups later were able to take an un-pressured shot only 20 metres out from the posts, right in the middle. The Raiders forwards knew exactly where the ball would be going and who would be taking it there. But they were powerless to stop it. This was not a lone example. It was something that had repeated throughout the game.
Then with the ball the forwards largely left the work to Junior Paulo (13 carries for 142m), Josh Papali (20 for 189m) and Josh Hodgson (15 for 127m). And yes you read that right – Josh Hodgson became the most willing ball runner in the second half. The injuries to Rapana and Boyd forced replacement hooker Kurt Baptiste into the dummy-half role, with Hodgson pushed to lock. Hodgson responded by providing the Raiders with multiple critical hit-ups. This is plainly a waste of his talents, an injury risk and speaks to the poor effort of the other forwards. It also meant Baptitse played nearly a full game at hooker, which brought to focus his sluggish service out of dummy-half, no doubt contributing to the Raiders difficult game in the middle of the park.
A positive was Josh Papali, who was simply exemplary in this game, routinely bending the Newcastle line, and recording a line break. Papali is one of the best forwards in the game, something he has displayed in the wide running position for the Raiders, and also in the middle as a representative forward. Paulo’s short time with the Raiders has been impressive when he’s had the ball in his hands. Routinely today when the Raiders needed momentum they turned to him. But it should worry the Raiders that he’s also fallen prey to the poor line-speed that plagues his colleagues.
The backs weren’t as poor as the forward pack, and for the second week Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer continued to show they are settling into their combination. The trend of back to the golden days of halves lining up on the same side that the Raiders unveiled this week was extended today, when BJ Leilua lined up inside of Jarrod Croker for a well-worked move in the first half. They also showed they wouldn’t rely on these ‘gimmicks’ soley, such as when Austin’s stint at first receiver allowed him to dummy-and-go-through the ruck for a try just before halftime.
Perhaps it is the rhythm between these two halves that has allowed Jack Wighton to find his place recently. For the second straight week, he chimed into the backline with critical passes and well-directed runs. In the first half he chimed in to break the line on the back end of an outside-in movement with Hodgson and Sezer. In the second half he jumped into the line on a sweeping movement to the left, putting Brenko Lee into space before backing up to score the try on the end of the break. For the third try, it was his well-delayed ball that gave Jarrod Croker the space to go in.
Ultimately, the Raiders were able to drag themselves back into the game through a mixture of courage, luck and the weakness in their opposition. The Knights took two early in the second half when they again had the Raiders on the run, and the weakness of their right edge defence was profoundly exploited by Papali, Croker and Wighton. The game ended in dramatic fashion, but such an opportunity would not have been offered to the Raiders by any other side.
The Raiders should take this game as a warning – they are not yet a proper contender. They cannot take games off against lacklustre opposition. If they want to win a premiership it will take them finding a way to execute for the entirety of the game. If they are unable to do that not only will a premiership allude them, but so will anything beyond the first week of the finals. This roster is too talented to not be playing deep into September. If they don’t find a way to perform at their best for a full game, then this talent will be wasted.