The Canberra Raiders 30-14 victory over the Cronulla Sharks revealed a side that is more than promise. For the first time all season, the Raiders came up against a quality opponent and put together 80 minutes of high-level football. If they can replicate this performance against other top sides, they could give this competition a real shock in September.
The victory itself was built on the back of the otherworldly play of Josh Hodgson. The Sharks defence is fast and physical, and early in the game they dominated the Raiders forwards, rushing up to prevent yardage gain. Hodgson quickly recognised this and begun darting out of nine, taking advantage of the gaps around the ruck left by the over-excited defence. In the 15th minute he made his first break up the middle of the park, stopping and sending Austin into some space. The set ended on an unglamorous note, but it unleashed an idea in his head. He made several breaks in this fashion, and in the first half alone he had over 100 metres on the ground through this method.
But his dominance wasn’t restricted to running the ball. Not content to simply drive the Raiders down the park, he also set up two tries, turning a precarious early Raiders lead into a dominant half-time position. He found full-back Jack Wighton close to the line, isolating him on the much smaller Ben Barba for the Raiders second try in the 23rd minute. Then on the post-try set, he made another break out of dummy-half, sprinted 60 metres downfield, avoiding the Sharks defenders and grubbering for Jordan Rapana to put down his second try of the match. A penalty goal followed shortly after and suddenly the Raiders had turned an 8-6 deficit into a 20-8 lead.
These weren’t isolated incidents. Hodgson repeatedly found space out of nine and this made the job of the forwards easier. Now the Sharks defence was focused on him, and suddenly there was oodles of space for the Raiders forwards and big backs to bring the ball off the Raiders line. They carried this into the second half, where they found the metres easier, particularly in the first twenty minutes before an injury to Blake Austin dragged Hodgson into the halves and left the less threatening Adam Clydesdale with the ball around the ruck.
And it was notable that Hodgson’s dominance didn’t take away from the impact of the rest of the spine. Aidan Sezer organised several set plays, one with a brilliant touch-pass from Wighton that would have resulted in a try to Croker against a lesser side. And with the boot he was excellent, setting up the Raiders first try with a well placed bomb. He also took the line on more this week – this is an underrated part of his game and an important threat to sides that rush up on the outside of the Raiders sweeping movements. Austin did no harm throughout the game, and his try in the 58th minute was vintage, taking advantage of a defensive line in disarray to throw in his patented right-foot step.
But perhaps even more impressive than the play of the ball-players was the defence of all players across the park. The Sharks are on top of the ladder because they are good. They rampage through the middle of sides, obliterate their defensive structures and then send their impressive fringe runners (Luke Lewis and Wade Graham) at the edges, before allowing the astounding athleticism of Bird/Holmes/Barba to make a mockery of their opponents.
Against the Raiders, they tried this formula. Sometimes it succeeded – they still managed to make huge metres up the middle against the Raiders. In fact all five starting forwards (outside the hooker) made over 100 metres on the ground, whereas none of the Raiders starting forwards (outside of the hooker!) did. Yes the Raiders bent in the face of this onslaught. But they didn’t break. The goal-line defence in particularly was robust, shutting down almost every raid on their line. Hodgson, Croker, Papali and Whitehead routinely rushed up at the line to shut down the Sharks outside ball-runners.
A special mention here must go to Jack Wighton. As we pointed out last week, he routinely crashses in out of nowhere to stop forwards barging over close to the line. He did that again in this game. But even more spectacularly he twice made out-and-out try-saving tackles, both on the same set. Firstly he rounded up a Ben Barba break when Barba tried to beat him for pace on the outside. Then later in the set the Sharks put together one of the great set plays, an outside-in play that saw Sosaia Feki running for the corner. Somehow, Wighton managed to scream across the field and pull Feki into touch before he got the ball down. It was a breathtaking set piece that should have resulted in points. And Jack Wighton was the reason it didn’t.
The Raiders didn’t leave the game without worries. The injury to Austin when he scored was to his rotator-cuff. The Raiders are more dangerous when he is in the side, regardless of his efficacy as a ball-player. And the Sharks were missing Michael Ennis and backing up from a debilitating extra-time draw just five days ago. But this is one more piece of information in understanding the Green Machine in 2016. Tonight we learnt what a full 80 minutes of excellent play can look like. And I bet the rest of the competition noticed.