If you’d asked Raiders fans where they would expect the team to be ladder wise after two rounds only a cynic would have told you 16th. While this is the hard truth of two wildly different games it’s not yet time for fans (and club) to start panicking.
While the Green Machine were the first to acknowledge there could be no excuses for the Sharks game there were clearly some factors weighing on the team, notably in personnel.
Round 3 sees the return of Captain Croker (hopefully with ample strapping) to his rightful spot on the left side, in turn moving Whitehead back to his position inside Leilua. Defensively this is a massive boost for the Raiders, as Toots’ defence gets better every season, while Whitehead is clearly more comfortable as a 2nd rower.
The bench has also been recalibrated after the poor offerings of last week, with Soliola taking up the pine along with the returning Priest and Raiders debutant Dave Taylor. Fans will no doubt be keen to see what Taylor can offer in terms of impact bench support, and hopefully his physical transformation in the off season translates into big metres and solid defence.
The bench move for Soliola is desirable, relieving some of the pressure of his litany of errors last week. The only bench spot that this writer is still dubious on is Clydsdale (especially when 7 forwards are being hammered) but as a colleague has pointed out he’s needed to minimise disruption to Hodgson.
Which brings me to my next point – Kurt Baptiste. Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a fair few comments about how much better things will be when he returns to the side. This I completely agree with, but if you think he’s making a full return in 2017 you may need to read up on severe Achilles injuries. While I’m not going to fully discount his return this year I do feel it remains an outside chance.
So with the starting backline back, and nearly every forward bar Tapine in the right spot, what do the Raiders need to do win this round? They need patience, and to hold onto that ball like it was the holy grail.
We’ve all heard the phrase “the best defence is a good offence”, which means that your opposition can’t do anything if you always have the ball in hand. The Raiders simply need to wear the Tigers down, with controlled, repeat sets.
The attack from the ruck needs to be more direct, and Hodgson, who had a very average game last round, needs to be sending forwards at the little men and turning runners back inside. The Raiders boast a monster pack and there’s simply no excuse for them not forming a beachhead from which the halves can start sweeping runs of attack.
Between a Hard Place and a Pack
The anticipation for Paulo and Taylor taking it turns to rip into the Tigers defensive line is tangible – if these two big bodies can get moving they’ll quickly tire out multiple defenders. Taylor especially needs to prove that he’s worth the faith Stuart and the team have put in him, and this is best demonstrated with hard running and ball security.
Soliola too can be a huge boon for a flagging forward pack, and in past efforts from the bench he’s often been the key to restarting the engine room, with his ability to dictate defensive line speed. If he can finish tackles cleanly he’ll go a long way to inspiring his peers.
Clay Priest is not a superstar forward by any means, but you know he’s earned a spot because you’re glad to see him back. His consistent input is good to keep the motor running.
The Tigers pack is a less star studded affair, but is led by evergreen Aaron Woods, whose workload is always top notch. Two former Raiders line up for the Tigers: Matt McIlwrick at hooker and Joel Edwards on the bench.
The Raiders pack has the firepower to beat the Tigers big men, it just has to prove it has the desire and discipline.
One of the factors of the Raiders downfall against the Sharks (dropped ball and penalties aside) is that forward traffic began to drift sideways at some point. Usually this is a sign of offensive frustration, as playmakers decide they need to devise a new tactic on the fly. As almost anyone can tell you, this is a bad move. You gain only half the metres, and your players get tackled side on, turned on their back and slowed in the wrestle.
Hodgson will have spent the week practising where and when to send his big men – straight, fast and where possible having them turn back into the space behind the markers. It’s this vortex effect that tires defensive lines quickly, as defenders further out continuously scramble to fill the gap that they are being sucked into in.
This was a key element of the Raiders attack in the second half of 2016, and it’s something they need to rediscover as soon as possible.
Austin should be singled out for his mostly positive contributions last week, and it will be interesting to see if the Raiders opt to use his high bombs to flummox some of the younger Tigers backline.
Put Your Back(s) into It
Oh Toots, how we have missed thee. The way you run, tackle, break tackles, kick goals. The way you get outside defenders, despite having had no space to move a second ago. Please don’t ever play All-Stars again.
You can only imagine how excited the furious five are now that all the links in the chain are back in place. With Whitehead where he belongs he can facilitate the movement of ball to his outside, unleashing BJ and Jordy on the Tigers left fringe.
Cotric gets the partner he deserves/needs in the form of Captain Croker, and Wighton gets the chance to inject his soft, quick hands into the attacking line, especially on the left hand sweep.
It’s not crunch time by any means yet, but it is time to address the structural deficiencies of last week. Forwards must go forward, and quickly, in order to clear space around the ruck and get those set plays on, or disrupt the defensive line and enjoy some broken-field escapades.
Raiders by 10!