Origin period is a time when certain forces in the NRL premiership shift, opening up new avenues for some teams whilst throwing up obstacles for others. Traditionally the Storm and the Broncos are the two teams most affected at this time of year, as they both offer up Origin stalwarts. Some years they manage to weather the lean winter months, other years they falter.
At the beginning of the season it was possible to see at least more than one Raider (Papalii) donning an Origin jersey – now you’d be hard pressed to see how any of the Green Machine could earn a call up barring some freak injury list from Game 1. Leilua is currently in indifferent form, and has slid down the Blues already tall ladder of ranking centres. Shannon Boyd can secure a Kangaroos jersey (when not injured) but not a sky blue one.
While some may see this as a bad thing it is in fact (a) an honest interpretation of the Raiders season to date, and (b) a very good thing for the Raiders over the next month and a bit. Over the next five rounds they play the Roosters, Cowboys and Broncos, all of whom have a significant contribution to the inter-state series.
The Raiders rediscovered some of their mojo last round, and a slightly under-staffed roosters side makes a good stepping stone in the Green Machines return to form. The Roosters are without halfback Pearce, and are also missing three key forwards in Napa, Guerra and Cordner along with centre Ferguson. Which all in all means a slightly more level playing field that is slightly in the Raiders advantage when they return home this Sunday afternoon.
That’s not to say that this will be a relatively easy gig for the Raiders. For the middle forty minutes of round 11 the Eels were well in control of the match, and it shows that the Raiders are still yet to produce a solid 60-70 minute performance (I don’t think any team can really turn a full 80)
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
The Raiders are without Papalii again, which means it’s an opportune time for the rest of the forward pack to roll up their sleeves and show what they can do. Paulo was tremendous against his former club, especially when being directed by a much straighter-playing Hodgson. On several occasions last week Hodgson had him running back into the void between markers and defensive line, which quickly took its toll on the Eels.
Boyd also contributed, although not as much as Paulo or Papalii. The rest of the forwards were quiet, with Tapine, Soliola and Whitehead all having restrained games in terms of metres. This is not to say they had bad performances, as Sia in particular was talismanic in his running and defence.
The same cannot be said of Priest. Even without his partner in mediocrity (Bateman) he was deadset awful. One must wonder if the two of them just go home and sit there staring at the wall until Ricky rings up to tell them to get to training. In his 24 minutes of game time Priest managed to serve up a dour 28 metres off 3 runs, truly inspiring stuff.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect off the bench debacle is how Dave Taylor just vanishes come game day. On several weekends he has played for neither Mounties nor Raiders, although this may be due to a leg injury that the club failed to disclose for a few weeks.
Our ideal forwards rotation (sans Papa) would see Turner starting at 2nd row, with Tapine moving back to head up a bench of himself, Taylor and Dunamis Lui (Lui wasn’t superb but he’s still way better and more determined than either Priest or Bateman)
The Roosters meanwhile find themselves fielding a mixed bag of back-up forwards, led by the ever consistent Jared Waerea-Hargeaves. It’s up to the Raiders big boys and vets to meet them in the middle and turn them back.
Raiders fans breathed a sigh of relief as the Green Machine attack suddenly straightened, and once again began to do what it does best – go forward and then sweep. With a somewhat more comfortable Hodgson pulling the strings the forwards were able to build a platform, which in turn meant that Sezer and Austin had room to move. There’s still a way to go within this trinity, but it does seem that things are slowly moving back towards the 2016 format that really delivered.
If there’s one thing these three need to avoid like traffic out of Gungahlin the morning it’s the early kick option. There are really only two times you should ever kick early – if you’ve identified a possible 40/20 or if you’ve suddenly found yourself in field goal range earlier than expected. Kicking early for touch may seem strategic, but it alleviates pressure on the defence after three or four tackles, and it negates any possible build-up of forward momentum.
With his halves partner Pearce away a lot falls on Luke Keary to steer the Roosters, and he’s partnered by another youngster in the form of Connor Watson. They’ll have to be quick and communicative, as veteran hooker Friend will have his hands full matching Hodgson.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
I’m going to say something that may upset some of you – Rapana needs a week off. While he is still scoring the most incredulous tries on the wing and doing his all in terms of early count hit-ups I’m becoming increasingly worried that his shoulder niggle isn’t being given time to recover. Resting Rapana may also help ease some of the pressure on Leipana, and give both players time to reboot.
At the back the exciting news is that custodian Jack Wighton has signed on as a Raider until the end of 2020, which must delight most Raiders fans.
The biggest praise has to be for the pairing of Croker and Cotric, who have provided a consistency beyond most wing formations all year. Croker remains an uselfish player, happy to turn the ball back in for support players to score, whilst Cotric continues to shine with his attacking prowess and defensive nous.
The Roosters have Gordon, Aubusson, Mitchell and Tupou at their disposal, all of whom are easily capable of causing headaches for the Raiders fringe defence. Gordon in particular is an exemplary journeyman fullback and should be monitored closely.
A tough game entering the Origin period, and it could help revive the Raiders juggernaut if they can manage a solid win. The worst thing they can do is make light of an under-cooked chook outfit.
Raiders by 6!