There may be a temptation from some to view the Canberra Raiders 44-30 victory over the Manly-Sea Eagles as just another cog in an ever-expanding winning streak. But a closer inspection revealed a disjointed, inconsistent display that should give the coaching staff much to address in the period before the finals.
This game does not fit with the Raiders recent canon. Gone was the dominance in the forwards, as was the consistent crispness in the attacking movements to the left. The flawless clean-up of opposition kicks in recent weeks was replaced by multiple errors by the back three. At no point were the Raiders ever able to control the tempo or direction of the game.
This was largely due to inconsistent execution on defence. It was frustrating to watch, not in the least because the Raiders showed excellent line-speed and robustness in the middle in small bursts across the game. Aggressive defence saw the Sea-Eagles kicking from inside their own 30 on several occasions, and even from their own 10 early in the second. Their goal-line defence early in the game made the Sea-Eagles look clueless (to be fair that wasn’t hard). The Raiders clearly had the ability to handle this side defensively.
But outside of these moments the Raiders were incredibly disappointing. Forget that the Raiders leaked 30 points – that was but a symptom of the malaise. Too often Manly found metres through the forwards easy to come by. Martin Tapau destroyed the middle of the park to the tune of 191 metres from just 19 carries. Jamie freaking Buhrer had over 100 metres. Even Nate Myles looked occasionally capable, something he hasn’t managed in years.
And so the Sea-Eagles were able to find field position to attack easily. Compounding that the Raiders made errors recovering kicks to either give away more ground or, on one occasion when Jack Wighton’s normally safe hands dropped an otherwise innocuous bomb, easy points.
The stout early defence gave way to much dicier execution, particularly on the Raiders right edge. BJ Leilua and Sam Williams showed that whatever understanding that Leilua and injured half Blake Austin had forged wasn’t passed on to the new combination. Leilua alternated between rushing up and out of position on Tom Trbojevic’s first try, to hanging back on the outside men, allowing Trbojevic to run around Williams for two tries later in the game.
The Sea Eagles also continued a worrying trend that Parramatta began last week when they used early shifts to the wings to get around the Raiders defence. More than once they found a cheap metres and momentum by shifting the ball. Early in the second half Manly should have scored when they simply went around the Raiders right edge again, only to throw the last pass forward.
And while the Raiders put an easy 44 points on the Sea-Eagles it’s hard to know how much relief to take from this. The Sea Eagles defence was disgraceful – simply not first grade standard and not something that resembled anything the Raiders will see on their way through the finals. Leilua and Jordan Rapana made up for the five tries scored on their edge by picking up five of their own. But this in itself is deceptive. Two of Rapana’s three tries came from picking up loose balls in defence. Both he and BJ scored tries around the ruck by forcing themselves over physically incapable defenders from close out.
But these points are not repeatable against the more stout defence of the Sharks, the Storm or the Cowboys. The Raiders made too many errors, and relied too much on points coming from dominating one-on-one battles rather than smart attacking structures.
In fact, only one try of the five this pair put together actually came from anything resembling a proper movement – a sweep to the right benefited from a brilliant in-and-away from Elliot Whitehead (who had probed and threatened the Manly left all game) to find Leilua, who in full flight was always going to be hard to stop.
The halves kicked smartly all game and occasionally fashioned some smart movement – most notably the sweeping movement to the left in which Wighton ran an outside-in option line off Papali’s shoulder to score in the 63rd minutes. Like the sets in which the Raiders repelled the Sea-Eagles on the goal-line, or trapped them in their corners, it was a reminder that this side can be elite. But it only served to highlight just how far below their best the Raiders were today.
One can’t help but think that this relatively young side has already switched their mind to the trials of September. The issues that were exposed today are hardly terminal. Williams and Leilua will develop a rapport in defence. More intelligent play across the side will avoid the error-ridden effort of the first half here. The Raiders have shown they can play dynamic attack and brute defence against the best sides in the competition. But if they wait for the finals to return to that football, it might prove to be too late.