After last week’s disappointing win, the Canberra Raiders 26-12 victory over the North Queensland Cowboys was a welcome sight to most supporters. The game saw some of the season’s best performances from some of the Raiders most important players. But some weaknesses remained, and some line-up decisions by coach Stuart continue to confound your humble author.
The forward pack had fun tonight against a defence that lacked any venom without the majority of its forward pack. Shannon Boyd impressed (12 runs for 128m) and Shaun Fensom (11 for 112m) enjoyed the inexplicably limited time he got on the field. Junior Paulo (15 for 124m) and Sia Soliola (13 for 108m) were less efficient, largely because of the amount of time they shared with Kurt Baptiste.
This game was the best performance by Aidan Sezer in a green jersey. He is really relishing the responsibility of being first receiver on both sides of the ruck. His kicking was exemplary, pinning the Cowboys in corners, setting up tries and earning repeat sets. He is willing to take the line on, and scored the final try for the Raiders with his strong running game. The Raiders attack seems slick when running set moves with him at the helm – particularly their sweeping movements to the left edge. He has developed a great rapport with Hodgson on the inside – their outside in combination for fullback Jack Wighton was seen again tonight and nearly worked. And Blake Austin seems so much more comfortable with a bit more width and the ability to step inside tiring forwards covering across. The extra space that playing outside Sezer creates has unlocked his dangerous running game.
Wighton also continues a rich vein of form. Last week he was throwing passes that would please any half in the competition. This week he was showing off his ability to run the ball. The Raiders first try came when he was given early ball by a trusting Sezer, and when the opposition held off (presumably worried about where he might send the ball) he took the line on, stepping over replacement halfback Ray Thompson and inside Ethan Lowe. Later in the game he repeated the dosage for Thompson and centre Patrick Mago on an almost identical play.
Wighton’s defence was not just exemplary but frankly outstanding – more than once he stopped a break with a tackle that resembled the cannonball thudding into Homer’s stomach at Lollapalooza. On another occasion he somehow managed to get outside Edrick Lee on the goal-line to ensure an overlap didn’t result in points. His play seems to improve each week, and with Sezer and Hodgson he forms what could potentially be an elite spine.
To give credit where it’s due, one must acknowledge Coach Ricky Stuart in the development of this spine. On many an occasion he could have buckled to pressure from an impatient public and subbed out Austin for Sam Williams or Wighton for another full-back after the major errors he has made in the past. But Stuart stuck with them because he recognised that this spine is talented enough to drive this side. Wighton and Sezer in particular, but also Austin, have in recent weeks shown that they are up to this task.
However, if we are going to give Stuart credit for his faith in the spine, then we have to acknowledge the absolute mess of the Raiders ruck play he is making. Josh Hodgson is the second best hooker in the game and will likely win hooker of the year at this year’s Dally M awards. He makes the Raiders forwards work easy with his deception in the ruck. His kicking out of dummy-half is the Raiders most likely chance for 40/20s. With Hodgson at the helm the Raiders have scored more points than any other side in the NRL. The only criticism anyone has been able to label him with was his ability to play 80 minutes. And frankly he has done that in more games than he hasn’t this year.
So what on God’s green earth is he doing playing at lock so much in recent weeks? There’s a litany of reasons this is an awful idea. Hodgson currently has the equal third most try-assists for a hooker in the NRL. So taking the ball out of his hands automatically reduces the Raiders potency on every play he’s not dummy-half.
And it puts the ball in the hands of replacement hooker Kurt Baptiste’s hands. Baptiste is a handy backup. His darts around the ruck can be incredibly effective against tiring defence. But his service out dummy-half is slow and puts pressure on the Raiders forwards that simply isn’t there when Hodgson has first hands on the ball. The set plays around the ruck – such as the infernal run-around that the Raiders ran several options off – require speedy and decisive work from the dummy-half, who becomes the prime creative option. His slowness meant these set plays sputtered. The Raiders scored 14 points in 30 minutes with Hodgson at the helm. They only scored 6 more points before Hodgson went off in the 71st minute.
Perhaps Stuart is saving Hodgson for the back end of the season. But this would only make sense if Hodgson wasn’t being required to take hit-ups as a lock. If the Raiders are going to go deep into September, Hodgson is going to have to direct play from the ruck, not Baptiste. Stuart needs to change this immediately.
The Raiders have a real opportunity to position themselves for a proper run at the back end of this season. We learn more and more about this side every week. With their excellent forward pack, with Sezer and Wighton playing like they did last night, and hopefully more involvement from Hodgson, the Raiders can roll-out the best attack in the competition against the best sides. If Stuart can let the best players play, they can do some real damage.