The Raiders are a side living on borrowed time. While their finals aspirations are not quite as ludicrous as those of the Knights or Tigers they are starting to run out of opportunities to climb back into form and the top 8.
The Green Machine will have to do it very tough over the next six weekends – they face the Broncos, the Cowboys, the Dragons and the Storm, with the only respite being a bye in round 18 and a match against the struggling Bunnies following the Storm game. One thing trending in the Raiders favour is that all four of those games against top 8 teams are going to be played in Canberra.
Normally the Origin period would have a detrimental effect on the Broncos but with the axing of certain Qld players following Game I the Brisbane team suddenly looks stronger than it has at this stage in years gone by.
The Raiders are fielding possibly their strongest combination of 2017 thus far, with Kurt Baptiste heading up the bench. There is still room for improvement, as Priest and Bateman have somehow managed to worm their way back in there, but we at the Sportress are now resigned to the idea that Ricky does not get any ideas from the Rumble.
We try to avoid the obvious clichés here, but they’re somewhat inevitable, especially when a higher ranked team is on the radar. Only three Broncos will back up from Origin, and if NSW rolls Qld like they did last time players may not actually expend all that much energy. The Raiders need a solid eighty minute performance.
The Panthers showed the Raiders how quickly a game can shift in the dying minutes, and you can bet that Ricky will have spent the past fortnight hammering home some lessons about mental fortitude in the final ten minutes of the game.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
A pack on paper is very different from the one that takes the field. The Storm forwards are for the most part a group of journeyman players, with one or two reps sprinkled through them for good measure. What elevates them as a forwards unit is their adherence to Bellamy’s philosophy around players playing to a role as part of a cohesive unit.
This is something that still eludes the Raiders forward pack as a whole. We get great input from the likes of Papalii, Paulo and Soliola, only to then find other players unable to contribute to that level, or even to a comparative consistency. This in turn is hampered by Stuart’s inability to address the fundamental problems that stem from a three man bench made up of one good player (Tapine!) and two mediocre-to-very-bad players (Priest and Bateman – I was saying Boo-urns).
Any of those above combinations are better than the one where both Priest and Bateman make the cut. In defense of Bateman I must admit he has lifted during some matches this year to a level where you would call him an acceptable forward, but all this good will is undone the moment his partner in dreadfulness shows up.
Priest is probably a very good NSWCup player. He is not a very good 1st grade player.
Against the likes of Blair, Gillett, McGuire, Thaiday and co the Raiders forwards will need to be unrelenting in line speed and defence. I just don’t know if all of them are up to it.
When Bappers comes on, Austin must go off. He is by far and away the weakest link in the spinal chain of command, and his presence when Bappers is on denies the Raiders the option to field the proper number of forwards. If the Raiders are to match their opponents in the final stanza of games then they need to have as many big men in rotation as possible.
Using Hodgson at lock is a sin. As Dan has already established it diminishes his ball playing abilities while exposing him to unnecessary risk of injury.
The Broncos are running a similar bench this week, with Ben Hunt taking up 17. The difference for the Broncos is that their halves stocks will rise when Benji comes off and Hunt goes on, leaving them none the worse.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
Rapana continues to be the standout star in a backline of solid, if somewhat patchy performers. Leilua had much more to contribute against the Panthers, even if he is still being forced to come in to find early carries coming out of the 20.
The backline’s season to date has been hampered by the service from the forwards and the spine, and it’s interesting to see how each player copes with this – Rapana simply makes his own thing happen, while Wighton and Leilua have struggled to cope with the diminished flow of ball. Croker and Cotric continue to conduct themselves at a high level, even if they are left with nothing to do when the ball goes the wrong way to the right. Given Cotric’s strength and Crokers ability to find the smallest gap you’d think Ricky would ensure that the spine are aware about their options to the left.
Boyd, Oates and Roberts are all top flight players, especially Roberts who can prove a handful if he gets into open space. Raiders defenders beware.
I want so badly for the Raiders to destroy my cynicism right now, but it’s going to take a hell of an effort for them to overcome a near full strength Broncos side. If the Green Machine do lose there are going to have to be some difficult conversations about the starting roster moving forward, so for those currently wavering in form I hope they can turn it around.
Raiders by 8!