The Canberra Raiders 20-8 victory over the New Zealand Warriors was not easy. There were none of the cheap metres and points of the last two weeks. Rather the Raiders built a victory on the dominant performance of its forward pack, excellent goal-line defence and occasional backline brilliance. This was the kind of hard-fought game the Raiders will need to be able to win come September. The Raiders showed they are capable of the fight.
This game was defined by the early possession dominance of the Warriors. After a brief foray into attack, the Raiders suddenly found themselves holding on for dear life after the Warriors scored a fortuitous try, and followed that up with a penalty, which saw them ensconced in the Raiders red zone. They spent more 5 separate sets there, repelled by Raiders defence based on superior physicality (such as when Nic Cotric brought down Ken Maumalo in a one-on-one effort close to the line) and sheer desperation (such as later in the game when Jarrod Croker somehow kept Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from scoring with a brilliant try-saving tackle). The Raiders didn’t touch the ball for more than 8 minutes. The Warriors didn’t come away with any more points.
The Raiders showed maturity to drag themselves off their line and back into the game. On the back of – for the most part – mature work by the halves, the Raiders focused smartly on a conservative approach, working the ball around the ruck through the middle forwards, supported by Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin kicking to the corners. The Raiders middle-forwards put together their second dominant game in a row. Junior Paulo (22 runs for 185m) and Shannon Boyd (14 for 127m) combined with Josh Papalii (18 for 171m) and Sia Soliola off the bench (15 for 138m) to control the middle of the park.
Indeed it was a Papalii run right up the middle that finally got the Raiders into field position to attack. He earnt a penalty, and the Raiders set up their sweep to the right edge. Last week this resulted in two tries for Jordan Rapana. Tonight that same movement would result in two tries for BJ Leilua, who used his superior strength to force his way over after receiving early ball from Jack Wighton operating as the second man. It’s a simple movement run by every side in the NRL. But for the Raiders they have the advantage of having two of the best outside backs in the competition at the pointy end of the movement.
The first of these tries brought the Raiders to even footing with the Warriors despite barely touching the ball in the first 20 minutes. It was understandable that for the rest of the half they looked lethargic – the Warriors repeatedly made 70 metres on sets to end sets on the goal line – but the Raiders continued to knuckle down when things got important.
When they occasionally had the ball they too often forced the ball wide rather than attack around the ruck. This was a shame because the Raiders were doing most of their damage in the middle, and not just through the forwards. Cotric continued to do a good Jordan Rapana impression and made several half breaks straight up the middle of the park, and the only line break from a Raider that didn’t result in a try. A team of players that hadn’t spent the good part of the first half defending may have been able to make more of his work.
In the second half the Raiders had a more fair share of the ball, aided by some poor handling by the Warriors, and their defence on the goal line was rarely needed. They had more opportunities in attack but were unable to turn that into points as easily as recent weeks. There was a lack of fluidity in the first part of this period between star hooker Josh Hodgson and his first receivers, be they halves looking to start movements or forwards looking to make metres. On occasion the Raiders all stood around not really going anywhere. But this was a temporary problem – eventually Hodgson found willing comrades in Paulo and Soliola and did a much better job of directing the attack in the last 30 minutes of the game.
The Warriors also ramped up their edge defence to try and reduce the space outside Sezer and Austin on the outside. Both halves made better choices to run the ball towards the end of the game, and Sezer nearly went in on two separate occasions.
But the Raiders found a way to manufacture points despite willing Warriors defence. Leilua went in again for his second try in the 57th minute, and when Hodgson burrowed over from dummy-half in the 66th minute, he effectively ended the game. The Raiders may have only had a ten point lead but given the stoutness of their goal-line defence, it may as well have been a million.
This game was not one that will be remembered for the scintillating attacking league that Raiders fans are familiar with. But it was an important victory – one based on smart, hard-working, conservative rugby league and proper goal-line defence. You can’t always score 40 and come September you need to know how to win low scoring games. Tonight nothing was easy. The Raiders still found a way.
 Anytime you’re bombing for Ryan Hoffman it’s not necessarily a repeatable effort.