The Canberra Raiders 42-16 loss to the Cronulla Sharks was largely of their own making. Their most reliable players dropped the ball. Their most experienced players gave away needless penalties. Their most creative players failed to play direct. And in between their forwards were monstered by one of the best packs in the competition. At zero wins from two games it’s not panic stations yet, but these errors must be removed from their game. Quickly.
Coming off a golden point game in the heat and humidity of North Queensland was always going to make backing up difficult. Against what is one of the best packs in the competition the Raiders could ill afford a possession-share in the low 40s like they gave up last week. But again the Raiders gave away the ball and penalties, relying on their defence to make up the difference.
They made 12 handling errors in total, but that obscures their profligacy with the ball. They only had 43 per cent of possession. They completed only 6 of their first 11 sets, sandwiching 3 errors around an early try to Jack Wighton. By the 57th minute, when Wade Graham scored his second try to put the Sharks up 20 and effectively end the game, the Raiders had only completed 11 sets.
More shocking was that the errors came from experienced and normally exemplary players. Three of these drops came from Elliot Whitehead, not directly due to him playing out of position, but rather simply errors made in tackles. On three separate occasions Sia Soliola, one of the Raiders most experienced and reliable players, gave away penalties on either the last or second last tackle, needlessly giving the Sharks extra attacking sets.
Early in the game the defence was able to make up for these errors. The Raiders starting forwards were quick off the line in defence, a welcome improvement this year. Despite the lopsided possession count the Raiders managed to stay in the game until half time. But when the starting middle forwards came off around the 30th minute, the bench forwards were unable to match the line speed, and the Sharks began to roll through the middle. Cap constraints or poor roster management – depending on your view of the Stuart administration – combined with some untimely injuries and suspensions has tested the Raiders squad depth early. These players could not match their opposites.
On the odd occasions that they had the ball the Raiders attack was unusually disjointed in the middle of the park. In commentary Michael Ennis argued that Josh Hodgson was trying to do too much – the symptom of this was him holding the ball much longer than normal, and tending to drift sideways rather than direct the forwards through the middle of the ruck. The forwards never really got on a roll as a consequence. This was highly unusual for Hodgson, and by the last 15 minutes of the game it had been rectified but by then it was too late.
Despite the manhandling the side received, the performance of the halves did provide some glimpses of light. Blake Austin’s defence has improved markedly. He made several excellent reads that shut down attacking raids, particularly in the first half. With the ball he showed his running game has returned to its 2015 levels, a brilliant run late in the first half setting up a try for Jordan Rapana that brought the Raiders temporarily within striking distance. He also has improved his kicking game dramatically, something he demonstrated early in the game with a towering bomb and a well-placed chip that earned the Raiders two extra sets.
But Austin still hasn’t found a way to link with the men outside him. The shift of Whitehead from right to left in attack, combined with more attention from defences, has all but removed BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana from the Raiders attack. The only way BJ could get his hands on the ball was to take hit ups like a prop (something he did excellently). Rapana did most of his work from darts out of dummy-half.
There are many that say Aidan Sezer’s ability to control the game is hampered by Hodgson’s effectiveness. But on both the Raiders first and last tries we got to see them work in tandem on the same side of the attack – firstly in simple side-to-side movement, then later in the well-executed short-side movement that the Raiders perfected last year.
The other highlight for the Raiders was yet another solid game from Nic Cotric. As a ball-runner he’s almost wasted on the wing – the Raiders need to find a way to get him (and well, the rest of the backline) the ball in space more often. He has proved safe under the high ball. Jack Wighton had good touches (most notably in his two tries) and was a welcome reinforcement of the defence, filling in as an extra defender in the line to save many tries.
Frankly though the Raiders were outplayed. Any claims of complacency should be well and truly dispensed of now. They may have their depth tested even further, depending on how BJ Leilua, Josh Hodgson and Shannon Boyd feel this morning. They have a week to remove the errors from their game and return to the direct play of 2016. The signs are there that it is lurking beneath. But time is running out to reveal it.
 Unless you’re the Cowboys
 Hate that guy
 Although it must be noted that another ultra-aggressive read he made resulted in the Sharks second try.
 Please note bombs can either be towering or spiralling. There are no other adjectives.
 You know the one – bodies in movement, ball goes Hodgson-Sezer-Papalii or Croker then sends the ball outside to Croker or the winger, or inside to Wighton. Last night Wighton took it on the inside and scored.