To say the Canberra Raiders did just enough in their 24-16 victory over a weakened Sydney Roosters is an understatement. This was heart-in-the-mouth, food-from-the-stomach stuff. While the Raiders showed many positives in the first half, they allowed the Roosters to stay in the match until they almost stole the game. Standing back from the horrible back end of the game reveals that the Raiders were much improved in areas that we have been worried about for weeks. However errors, discipline and defence remain significant issues for these Raiders.
If one is to hope the Raiders are going to use this Origin period to turn their season around they would point to the last thirty minutes of the first half as evidence of this. Josh Hodgson was back to his deceptive best, utilising his eyes and body positioning to misdirect defenders and gain his forwards more space. In the last two weeks he has been decisive around the ruck, identifying weaknesses in defence before he even touches the ball. His improved decision making has been critical in both of the Raiders victories. With his feet he found space around the ruck and on more than one occasion could have set up a try after a short break if support players could be found.
Hodgson’s dominance around the ruck was shared by his men working in this area. Junior Paulo (15 for 128m) was particularly brilliant in the first half, turning several good runs into excellent metres with yards after contact. Sia Soliola showed a willingness with the ball operating on the left edge and Luke Bateman had his best rotation of this year, hitting the line at pace and getting to quick play-the-balls.
Elliot Whitehead had a tremendous first half, effectively operating as the Raiders ball-player on the right edge. Two of the Raiders first half tries came after excellent touches from Whitehead, one turning a nothing ball from BJ Leiulua into space for Jordan Rapana. The second he turned a good ball from half Aidan Sezer into quick ball for Blake Austin. On both occasions Rapana showed brilliant ability to finish.
Aidan Sezer, primarily operating on the left side continued his solid form. He has been unfairly maligned because of the Raiders recent poor performance. He continues to show willingness to run the ball, good combination with his backs, particularly with fullback Jack Wighton. He has the best short-kicking game of the Raiders spine, earning the only repeat set of the game with a good grubber in the first half, not to mention setting up captain Jarrod Croker’s first half try with an excellently weighted ball early in the count.
The Raiders eagerness in defence was also much improved, particularly in the first sixty minutes of the game. Routinely they forced the Roosters to kick from within their own 40 metres, and would have started the majority of their sets close to halfway if not for some excellent kicking from Jake Friend. Even in the second half the Raiders were still forcing the Roosters to take 3 and 4 tackles before getting out of their own twenty, and only on one (non-try-scoring) occasion did they give up more than 70 metres in a set.
These were all positives but to dwell on them fails to underscore the problems that faced the Raiders in the second half. For starters they gave away far too many penalties. On more than one occasion during this game they gave away multiple penalties in sets to not only bring the Roosters out of their own end, but to also escort them into attacking position. At one stage they gave away 7 penalties in a row, culminating in the Roosters try in the 62nd minute. One might be tempted to complain about refereeing but the Raiders find themselves on the wrong side of penalty counts each week. Not every referee is biased against the Raiders.
Critical errors in defence also hurt the Raiders tonight. Each try the Roosters scored came from a truly heinous error in defence from the Raiders. The first try came from a unique display whereby both markers went the wrong way, and then Boyd, defending the ‘A’ spot also went the wrong way. Hodgson, defending in the ‘B’ spot had also gone the wrong way – only this was a different wrong way to the other 3 defenders. Jake Friend stumbled over for a truly ridiculous moment in Raiders defence.
The second try saw a routine misread in a difficult situation by Croker. He was placed in the unenvious position of having to identify which of the multiple defenders he found himself responsible for was going to get the ball. He made the wrong read and the Roosters scored easily.
This series of defensive blunders was capped by Austin’s absolute shocker that created the space that saw Michael Gordon break through the Raiders line and set up Latrell Mitchell for the Roosters third try. Austin, not trusting his inside man failed to identify the oncoming storm as Gordon strolled through a gap the size of my faith in the Raiders.
Austin himself had an absolute shocker of a game. It was Elliot Whitehead who directed most traffic on the right side. Austin barely registered a note in attack, his only involvement was when Hodgson sent him against the grain. Inn that occasion Austin seemed surpsised to see himself in so much space he couldn’t find a way to stay infield on what should have been a routine grounding. Later he danced across field slowly, fell into a tackle and lost the ball. At this point it seems the only value he adds to the Raiders attack is his mid-field bombs. Josh McCrone eat your heart out. Austin will hear questions about his place again this week. If the Raiders had more forwards depth one might suggest bringing Whitehead full-time into six, or having a look at Lachlan Croker in first grade. A more patient man – like Coach Stuart – would hope Austin could rectify these errors and find a way back to his previous form. He may never be 2015 Austin again. But 2016 Austin would be an improvement on this.
And so the Raiders have taken two in a row. Both victories came with caveats due to an inability to find consistent football across the entire squad and the full passage of the game. Normally here is where we issue some ‘if they don’t’ veiled threat about not making it past a cursory showing in the finals. The fuse on that claim is close to explosion.
 Who seemed to be Elliot Whitehead, just to make matters worse.