The Canberra Raiders 46-6 victory over the Wests Tigers was not perfect. In fact the Tigers helped as much as hindered the Raiders march to victory. While the errors of previous weeks remained with the Raiders, the side they faced was unable to capitalise. Instead the Raiders found their groove on the back of a stunning performance by Josh Papalii and the middle forwards. The Raiders needed this victory but greater challenges await. They must continue to improve.
The Tigers edge defence had recognised the importance of the edge runners as the fulcrum of the Raiders attack, and moved up quickly on any lateral movement. They were heavily compressed early in the sets and the Raiders struggled early to find a way around or through. An over-reliance on set plays, a lack of purpose, pace and direction in attack and plain-old fashioned dropped-ball (the Raiders completed only 11 for their 17 first half sets) meant the Raiders were struggling for answers to the Tigers enthusiasm.
Josh Hodgson tried the direct route but couldn’t get his timing right with the big boppers trying to bust through. Aidan Sezer tried lobbing passes over the top of the Tigers wing but couldn’t get the ball flat enough to allow Nic Cotric any space. BJ Leilua was foiled by this, flinging a ball directly to Tigers winger David Nofoaluma who had been standing in the Raiders line for what felt like an eternity. The Raiders took nearly 25 minutes to get on the scoreboard while they desperately searched for a way to combat this quick, compressed defence.
In the 25th minute they found a way through on the right, using the size of BJ Leilua to draw the attention of the Tigers outside defenders and give Jordan Rapana an easy path to the line (which he made harder through an acrobatic, if unnecessary, swan dive. Josh Papalii scored soon after, and by the time the Raiders used early ball to go around the defence that had compressed too much to score their third try on the stroke of half time the Raiders had found a way to attack, and the Tigers were mortally wounded. .
Josh Papalii (22 carries for 225m and 2 line breaks) was instrumental in helping address the Tigers ‘rush’ on the Raiders left edge attack. He had 54 metres after contact and early in the game the Raiders continually made him the lead runner on attacking forays as they sought to barge through on the left. In the 35th minute he benefited from the good work of Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer to score. His rampaging runs drew so much attention that later in the game he would become the fulcrum that Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton operated off.
The forwards had spoken of the need to dominate their opposition this week and Papalii, Clay Priest (18 for 157), Sia Soliola (12 for 114m) and Junior Paulo (12 for 111m) were all excellent, and emphasized the importance of the bench forwards to the Raiders play. Last week the Raiders were broken when their starting props went to the bench. This week they broke the opposition.
These forwards were aided by a patchy, but improved performance from Raiders star Hodgson. He is at his best when he is playing vertically, and too often today he was still moving side-to-side. But as the game wore on he made better decisions, sending the ball against the run of play to the Raiders right for their first try, and brilliantly holding the ball long enough to make the decoy run of Dave Taylor convincing enough, giving Sezer the space to put Papalii in for the second.
There were some other highlights for the Raiders too. Blake Austin’s play both as a ball-player and a kicker has improved markedly this season. Elliot Whitehead’s 66th minute try came from Austin sending a wide running Paulo into the infinitely smaller Luke Brooks. The resulting clash would have made Brooks’ mother wince. Austin’s kicking was almost universally good, and he showed Sezer that the option of chipping to the edge was one solution for the line-speed of the Tigers wide defence for Jordan Rapana’s second.
The Raiders back three showed that they are a force to be reckoned with. Jack Wighton made a few errors, but was excellent in defence as per usual, as well as popping up on the left in set play. He scored a try when Rapana went through the middle of an abhorrent Tigers defensive line and found him backing up. Rapana (15 runs for 211m, 3 line breaks and 2 try assists) himself continues to shows how success is a mixture of luck and opportunity, not only making the right wing his own personal fiefdom but also coming into the centre to make important metres. Nic Cotric has proven an incredibly mature football player so far, handling attention from opposition kickers and ball-players with aplomb, and proving to be an impressively strong ball runner.
On the other side of the ball the Raiders showed that their goal-line defence improvements made last year remain with the side. The Tigers rarely looked like crossing when they got close. The resoluteness of what faced them led them to rely on Moses and Brooks’ kicking game to earn repeat sets, something they did well throughout the game. But the Tigers could not find a way through. Before the ‘redzone’ however, the Raiders often got rolled by the Tigers in the middle of the park due to their poor line speed, and if not for some amateurish handling from the Tigers backs more tries could have resulted from breaks made through the Raiders ruck. This will be worth watching because against better sides it will result in points.
The Raiders first win of the season was important but it was not impressive. Apart from the tries outlined above, the Raiders largely benefitted from some astoundingly poorly-timed or placed Tigers errors that allowed Raiders to stroll in for easy broken-play tries. Their defence was good in places but a better side would have found more ways through. Such a side awaits them on the back of a short turnaround this week. If the Raiders are serious about this season they are going to have improve further.