In the Canberra Raiders 30-18 victory over the Parramatta Eels we got to see why they are premiership contenders this year. Outside of what was an arm-wrestle for 60 minutes, the Raiders and Eels traded periods of domination. In between we learned that the Raiders are more resilient this year, just as dynamic, but still with plenty of work to do between now and September.
The score often doesn’t tell the story, and this was the hard-fought contest many expected it to be. The Raiders put 30 points on Parramatta but they mostly came from some outstanding work in the second twenty minutes of the game.
The three tries the Raiders scored here were their dynamic best. They scored from their own half, Jordan Rapana filling his position on the wing by running from the centre of the park, Semi Radradra not spotting his sweep around the back of BJ Leilua until it was too late.
The Raiders got lucky moments later when Rapana managed to offload a ball to Leilua to score the second try of the match to from an Aidan Sezer kick. You may call this try lucky or opportune but it was built on good work further up the park. Joe Tapine and Sia Soliola both made important hit ups giving the Raiders a bit of space until Sezer put fullback Jack Wighton through a gap. He found Croker who didn’t score but did get close to the line. Sezer then kicked for Rapana and the Raiders had their second try in five minutes.
Minutes later Jarrod Croker was in on the back of Josh Hodgson just being Josh Hodgson. The star dummy-half saw the Eels were short on the blindside, showed the defence he was going to send the ball to the fat side, only the turn the other way, run to the line to force the defences attention, and put a perfectly weighted grubber that only Croker was ever going to get to. Cameron Smith would be proud.
Understated here was the work of the edge forwards. Papalii (19 for 199m) and Soliola (13 for 121) were both excellent. Papalii in particularly will be first picked for Australia and Queensland this year on this form. Tapine and Dave Taylor were both energetic when they were on the field and were able to dominate the opposition in a way the starting middle forwards weren’t. It was no coincidence the Raiders dominated this period before halftime.
The destruction these men wrought on the edge of the attack gave the wider men plenty of space to do their work. Rapana, Wighton and Leilua all did their thing. Nic Cotric was again so exciting to watch. He made a few errors in the game – he let Corey Norman get a 40/20 over his head that nearly swung the match. Early in the game he failed to get to ground on the second tackle when an attacking raid ran out of space.
But what about his try late in the game. Reminiscent of Paul Vaughan’s effort against Melbourne in 2014, Cotric picked the ball up from dummy-half with the game in the balance, stepped around some tired defence from Kaysa Pritchard and went 30 metres to score, breaking Bevan French’s ankles in the meantime. It wasn’t his only good run, and it shouldn’t have been his only try (carn Toots, pass the ball man). The man is a star. The Raiders have found a diamond.
Both Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer were improved this game. Sezer cops a lot but his combination with Croker and Papalii on the left edge is destructive. More than once the Raiders used one of their litany of set plays on that edge to free up Croker and Wighton. They didn’t score from it this week, but they will in the future. Sezer’s timing and weighting on these passes is becoming an asset. Austin was again reliable and his try saving tackle at the end of the game prevented an unnecessarily nervous end for the Raiders.
But it wasn’t all roses for the Raiders. Throughout the game they failed to gain any advantage in the middle of the park. Despite their respectable numbers, the starting middle men could not get the advantage in the middle of the park. In fact for the third straight week the best work done early in Raiders sets was done by Wighton, Rapana and Leilua. We’ve noted in this space that Leilua in particular seems to be playing as a prop early in game. The Raiders have become increasingly reliant on this work to get any momentum in sets.
In defence too this middle can be a problem. The Eels made most of their metres running directly at the Raiders. The ABC defenders were often slow, and Sia Soliola often moved into the middle of the park to cover for their faults. When possession changed early in the second half on the back of Corey Norman’s frankly excellent 40/20, the Eels ended every set in attack because the Raiders couldn’t stop them making 60 metres on each set. The Eels first try of the second half came on the back of unstoppable work by Norman and French. The softness of the Eels second try would be enough to keep Coach Stuart up at night. The Raiders middle men are a long way from their best.
One positive note from this difficult period early in the second half was that the Raiders resilience when the game got tight. They didn’t panic. They got to work, willing to engage in the arm wrestle to get the ball out of their end of the park and hopefully into a position to score. That came earlier than expected when Cotric produced his magic to end the game, but it was hard fought for across the park.
The Raiders now have a change in schedule – a series of ‘winnable’ games. This testing period will be critical for the Raiders success this season. They need to string wins together now to place themselves for the end of the year. If they play like they did in the first half they will be right. If they show the resilience they did when the game turned they will be fine. But fixing the middle of the park. Only time will tell.
You can review the game from a Parramatta Perspective in our Parra Post-Mortem here
 the first had come when Bevan French and Radrara failed to attack a well placed grubber and Sia Solioa fell on it
 One day I’m going to meet him and it’s going to be a like belieber meeting their idol.
 Junior Paulo had 13 carries for 131m, Clay Priest 13 for 136, Shannon Boyd 10 for 89