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Friday’s 20-18 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles was a microcosm of the Canberra Raiders 2017 season. Despite there being plenty to like – the play of Josh Papalii, the goal-line defence, the kicking game and the god-like existence of Jordan Rapana – the Raiders continue to exist at a not-quite-hitting-their-straps level. The flaws – the bend-but-don’t-break defence in the middle of the park, the sometimes brittle edges, the inexplicably ill-directed offence – present many opportunities to improve. Luckily for the Raiders there is plenty of time.
The Raiders spent the majority of this game chasing their tail. The fact that the Raiders were in this game is a testament to the revitalisation they have undergone over recent years. The Silvertails had 55 per cent of the ball. They outgained the Raiders by nearly 500 metres and completed 92 per cent of their sets. Only a side with both an excellent defence and an opportune offence could manage to hang on in such a situation.
To be honest the Raiders defence between the two red-zones was inconsistent, as it has been for much of this season. Much like previous weeks they have let inferior forward packs make metres too easily, yielding sets of over 70 metres on a regular basis. Against the less steller attacks of the Eels, Titans and Warriors this was containable. But against more skilled sides this is not a sustainably strategy.
The Sea-Eagles, like most sides facing the Raiders this year, found it much harder closer to the line. This should hearten the Green Machine. Their goal line defence, which suddenly stiffened during the Raiders run last year, has carried over to this year. Manly had 28 tackles within the Raiders 20 metre zone in the first half alone and came away with two points. Their only major from a redzone attack came from a lucky (or unlucky) ricochet that could have ended up anywhere other than the hands of Jake Trbojevic . What was once an abject disaster is now a strength of the Raiders side, one that will be critical come finals time.
Unfortunately the Sea-Eagles were able to make up for this inability to score close to the line by taking advantage of some truly poor reads in defence from the Raiders edges. Manly evened the game up when neither Jarrod Croker or Aidan Sezer spotted Dylan Walker’s admittedly very good line. The game-winning try came from a similar error, this time Blake Austin going ‘up and in’ on defence while BJ Leilua stayed back, still sliding outwards before the ball had passed him. The resulting gap was as large as it was depressing, and it should have won the game for the Sea-Eagles. These were isolated errors and are unlikely to be repeated but they are the kind of errors in defensive reads that will give Laurie Daley a reason to keep Raiders out of blue jerseys.
The defensive flaws were matched by a puzzling lack of direction from the Raiders spine. The Raiders, in the rare opportunities they had with the ball, seemed unable to connect on either edge. The normal array of set plays that operate on the left were nowhere to be seen. Indeed it took Josh Hodgson expertly isolating Josh Papalii on Daly Cherry-Evans early in the second for the Raiders to find anything close to their usual connection on the left. On that occasion Papalii rampaged over the try-line for the Raiders second try. But it was odd that it took Hodgson effectively leaving his halfback out of the play in order for the Raiders to connect with the edge.
Admittedly Sezer did kick excellently for Jarrod Croker and the game’s first try. But that felt like it was Sezers only real interaction with the men outside him. It was not aided by the fact that on the few times that Sezer did send it wider the ball sailed from the fullback Jack Wighton’s hands towards the sideline rather than the outside men.
On the right the Raiders failed to expertly attack the Sea-Eagles weak edge defence. Only once did Austin seek to send Leilua at Blake Green, and too often Leilua and Rapana had to continue to modus operandi this season and go inside in search of the ball. More than once Austin kicked towards outside men who weren’t in position because on the previous tackle they had been in the middle of the field getting the ball.
Frankly that Jordan Rapana has to go looking for the ball is confounding. The man is in rare form. His try was freakish, dragging a ball from hades back into heaven. The man had over 100 metres despite barely getting the ball in space. We are all witness to something very special with this man and that should be appreciated.
The left-right bifurication of the offence itself is puzzling. The Raiders really took off last year when Sezer and Austin started to spend more time on the same side of the park. It gave Austin more time with the ball before the line, and it gave Sezer more of a role in the organisation of the side. This season they seem to have reverted to split sides – the more conventional approach among modern halves – and it does not appear to have resulted in a more dynamic or precise Raiders attack. The fits and starts in which the Raiders have scored their points this year could be the result.
A second contribution to this inconsistent attack could be the play of Josh Hodgson. He has been merely mortal this year, likely due to carrying a sternum and ankle injury. He seems to have been rounding into form in recent weeks, better directing attack, more capable deceiving ruck markers with both his eyes and his ball play. In this game he showed moments of his best – the isolation of DCE for Papalii, an excellent grubber a few minutes later to earn a repeat set, and improved darting from dummy-half – but he is still not consistent. It seems likely that he will benefit from the break the representative round brings.
The fix for all these things are straightforward in concept if not practice. The Raiders attack will gel – a fully fit Hodgson, more utilisation of same-side halves, and more organised play on the edges to involve the dynamic outside backs will all help this. The defence is merely a function of more effort from the ABC defenders in the middle of the park, and smarter decisions from the men on the edges.
These are all markedly fixable issues. In the meantime the Raiders are well-placed sitting in the middle of the ladder with plenty of time to address these issues. Now it’s time to go to start fixing them.
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