The Canberra Raiders finished the regular season with a 52-10 romp over the Wests Tigers. It was hardly more than a training run. The Raiders showed that when they click into gear they have skilled players at almost every position that can put points up. But as Coach Ricky Stuart said after the game, another competition starts now. The Raiders turn to the finals, hoping a full strength side and a home final can send them deep into September.
The Raiders have point scoring options across the park and they demonstrated it against the lacklustre edges of the Tigers.
Josh Hodgson started with by terrorising the Tigers’ right edge. After the Raiders got caught trying to go around the Tigers on their first few attacking sets, Hodgson straightened the attack with short passes and forwards running at the outside shoulders of inside defenders. He grubbered for Jarrod Croker to score close to the ruck in the 10th minute. He registered his second try-assist when he sent Josh Papalii into the porous region between Kevin Naqaima and Mitch Moses, before darting over out of dummy-half close to the line to basically end the game within the first half hour.
Almost like they were jealous of the destruction that Hodgson was wreaking on the Tigers’ right edge, the men on the other side of the field took over in a manner that became embarrassing for the Tigers very quickly. Elliot Whitehead, BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana each created tries with pieces of sublime skill. Leilua threw a behind-the-back pass that would make Magic Johnson weep in appreciation – Rapana was the beneficiary for the Raiders second try in the 18th minute. Then Leilua benefited from Elliot Whitehead demonstrating his full gamut of skills – backing up a half-break by Joe Tapine, speeding through the line before throwing a pass reminiscent of the great five-eighths of yesteryear to send BJ into open space in the 50th minute. Almost bored of watching his inside mates do everything, Rapana decided to create a try out of nothing, taking a hit up to the line, bouncing inside defenders, running around them, dummying them into idiotic decisions all while streaking 70 metres to score with three Tiger defenders escorting him the duration.
In between the Raiders halves were solid. Sam Williams seems more comfortable on both sides of the ruck, sending Papalii through a gap in the 38th minute, and kicking smartly all game.
Sezer’s short-game kicking was below his best, but with the ball in hand he remains an important threat, running the ball excellently throughout the game and constantly probing on both sides of the ruck. He does seem to miss having Austin play outside him, and it has surprised me that Jack Wighton hasn’t played a bigger role in the games Austin has missed.
This is not to say the Raiders were perfect today – though they were better than they’ve been since the Storm game. Though they only leaked ten points, the defence, particularly around the ruck was weak, the Tigers routinely taking 50 plus metres off the Raiders each set through a combination of quick play-the-balls and darts around the ruck. Both tries the Tigers scored came from going through the middle of the Raiders defenders. Mitchell Moses went between Josh Papali and a sliding-too-early Aidan Sezer in the 22nd minute, and then just after halftime, Clay Priest was unable to cover on the inside when Moses made another break. This weakness in defence didn’t hurt the Raiders this week. But Shane Flanagan would have been pointing out these faults to Ben Barba and James Maloney.
The forwards were inconsistent throughout the game. Paul Vaughan (12 runs for 138m), Sia Soliola (13 for 132m and a try-assist), Papalii and Whitehead were all excellent. But the play of Clay Priest and Luke Bateman was worrying. Both ended too many runs on their backs, slowing down play the balls. In defence, they were the weak link that the opposition aimed at, and while they only let in one try between them, a lot of easy metres were found. The return of Junior Paulo and the form of Paul Vaughan may render this issue moot, but if the Raiders intend to play them in the finals, it will be a weakness in the side.
Hodgson will be critical to the Raiders finals chances. Like the absolute elite of the competition, each step he takes draws defenders into decisions that he takes advantage of. For Papalii’s try, the mere act of him sliding out to receive a run-around saw Naqiama rush up on the outside, creating the gap that Papalii lumbered through. In upcoming games it will be his ability to probe around the ruck – both by running and by sending forwards into gaps – that will keep packs like Cronulla’s honest.
The right edge is the second great strength the Raiders will have against the big names these playoffs. As was pointed out at Sportress HQ today, you cannot coach someone to stop Leilua or Rapana unless you want to send more people in their direction. But doing that just gives Elliot Whitehead more space to use the ball. And as he has shown, he has the capability to take advantage of that space.
And so minds turn to next week and a home final on a Saturday night in Canberra. The Raiders will hope Junior Paulos’ injury and Jack Wighton’s potential visit to the judiciary end with them both playing next week. To say Bruce Stadium will be heaving seems an understatement. Another competition begins. What has occurred for the last ten weeks is irrelevant. We’ll find out if the Raiders are ready.