On the first set of the Canberra Raiders 22-8 victory over the Melbourne Storm, the Raiders displayed all the flair and brilliance that has made them a top four side this year. For the rest of the game however, the Raiders showed they could win another way, playing the kind of desperate, physical and intelligent defence that has characterised every side that has won a premiership (and not many recent Raiders teams). There is no two ways about it: the Raiders are a contender.
The first play was a thing of beauty to Raiders fans anxious that last weeks win against the previous competition leaders was a mirage. In a set it was everything that has characterised the teams success this year.
After the first two tackles, which were bruising hits absorbed by the Raiders big men, Josh Papalii burst on to a good ball, and with a little aid of Josh Hodgson’s always excellent direction around the ruck, found a little space on the left side of the ruck. It was enough to give the Raiders a bit of momentum in the set. Hodgson recognised this and bounced up for a dart out of 9 before spreading it wide. Elliot Whitehead, showing the brilliant ball-playing of the Raiders forwards, slipped an amazing ball to BJ Leilua who found Blake Austin. Austin slipped, but found Leilua now in support, his power and pace proving too much for the multiple defenders that tried to engage him from 10 metres. 5 passes, 70 metres and one try. It was 6-0 and most punters hadn’t even sat down.
But no one thought this was going to be a walkover. Anyone that has sat in the stands at either AAMI Park or GIO Stadium knows that this Storm is like the Terminator – it won’t stop coming until it’s worked out how to kill you. And so the Storm set about finding the Raiders weakness.
With the aid of some enabling penalties, the Storm spent the majority of the half on the Raiders line. By mid way through the half they’d spent some 20+ tackles in the Raiders twenty. The Raiders had spent a solitary tackle in the Storm redzone. The Storm made metres against the Raiders right edge defence, running at Austin early in sets to get quick play the balls – for all his strengths in attack and willingness in defence, big players can get over the top of Austin in sets. They would then sweep to the right and attack the Raiders left edge. In the 12th minute this resulted in a try for Cooper Cronk when he got on the outside of Boyd on that edge.
But after that the Storm couldn’t find a way through. Instead they found with of the most physically confronting defence you will see this year. The Raiders were simply relentless. The A, B and C defenders got off the line quickly, forcing the Storm wider than the edges they wanted to attack. Even when Cronk got the space to try to replicate his try, Papalii twice shut him down before he could get to the line. As the game wore on, the Raiders continued to repel wave after wave of attack, and the Storm became more and more perplexed. They reached for everything they had – Tohu Harris, a second rower, grubbered for Marika Korobeite. Cameron Munster grubbered on a tight blind-side for his winger. Later Smith tried a mid-field chip-kick for Cronk. It all signaled a complete lack of answers to the persistent physicality of the Raiders defence. It was defence that a Raiders side hasn’t played since…well. I don’t know. I can’t think of a defensive performance like this. Players made try-savers – Papalii brought down Cronk close to the line repeatedly. Jarrod Croker smashed Cheyse Blair in a one-on-one special to single-handedly stop another raid. Jack Wighton was there on every raid. Even Brenko Lee made the right decision on multiple occasions.
But the Raiders didn’t just do it with defence. They did it with smart attack. After barely having the ball after their first-set try, they finally got the ball close to the Storm line in the 23rd minute. Hodgson stepped out of dummy-half, switched the play to the blind side. The ball went through the hands, and suddenly Blair was one-on-one with Leilua. He didn’t stand a chance. BJ went past him like a locomotive, with poor Cameron Munster the victim on the track as BJ went over him.
On the replay you can see that halfback Aidan Sezer had a big line set up to the open side and was miffed when the ball didn’t come his way. It’s an ongoing testament to Hodgson’s impeccable ability to identify where weaknesses are and play accordingly.
A special mention should go to the Raiders forwards – not only did they manhandle the Storm when without the ball, they continued to show up with the ball. Papali (16 runs for 150m), Whitehead (13 for 123m) and Batemen (19 for 165m) were inspiring, but Junior Paulo and Joseph Tapine were equally impressive. Clay Priest had his best game for the Raiders, his physicality in defence matching his willingness with the ball. And Shannon Boyd showed his continued worth, not the least when he repaid Hodgson’s faith in his ability close to the line to somehow force his way between three Storm defenders for the Raiders 3rd and final try.
And then the Raiders spent the rest of the game doing what the Storm have done to them so many times. They muscled up in defence. They kicked to corners and the returning men were met by walls of enthusiastic chasers. They found touch when the forwards needed a rest. The halves played smart, even if they never got an opportunity to spread their wings as they may have done against lesser competition.
It was by no means a perfect game though. Hodgson made some poor decisions with the ball. Wighton’s only involvement on offence saw him overplay his hand. Sezer couldn’t find a way to run his pet set plays on the left side of the Raiders attack. Even BJ lost his head in the second half.
But make no mistake. The Raiders have shown in the last two weeks that they are serious contenders this year. We have to admit that we did not see this coming. This side has been a frustrating side to watch as it work its way towards the realisation of its potential. But they have shown in recent weeks that they are a genuine top four side. If they can keep playing like this in the coming weeks and the playoffs, they will be a genuine premiership contender.
 I’ve done both and can remember very clearly the few times the Raiders have won these games.