The Canberra Raiders year of inconsistency rolled on against the Brisbane Broncos in their 30-20 loss. For periods they looked better than they had in months, but disconnects and poor strategy across the spine, some disastrous decisions in defence, and poor line speed meant the Raiders found yet another way to lose. The pathway to the finals is beyond perilous now. A foot wrong and the Raiders are done for the season.
Like most weeks they showed periods of brilliance matched equally with moments of insanity and ineptitude. The up-and-downs within games can turn a non-believer into a Stan within moments, only to reverse the process within seconds. This inconsistency is why the Raiders are staring up at the rest of the competition.
Against Brisbane it manifested in a period in the first half where the Raiders generally looked back to their best. After the Broncos scored early the Raiders switched on the jets in attack and began rolling down the field. Josh Papalii (11 runs for 107m), Junior Paulo (12 for 116m) and Shannon Boyd (9 for 100m) all did their best work in this period, and with Luke Bateman were making more than 10 metres each carry in the first half.
As per usual the best of this occurred at the behest of Josh Hodgson, who seemed back to his best after the break seemed to bring a spring in his step – or more accurately a step of pace. Hodgson’s play was everything that is great about the Raiders when they are rolling. It was direct, taking advantage of space around the ruck to make metres and set up attacking raids. On more than two occasions he found himself in space, an ankle tap all that stood between him and setting up a try for BJ Leilua or Jordan Rapana. He did contribute to the Raiders second try – a brilliant first step out of dummy-half sold the fat-side to the defence, only to send the ball to the blind. An excellent ball outside of James Roberts to Papalii, good hands to Jarrod Croker and the Raiders had a 12-6 lead. At this point the Raiders had taken this try, and another which had come on the back of a good first step from Blake Austin, an offload and Jack Wighton stepping through some poor defence.
The Raiders had looked particularly sharp down the left edge. Aidan Sezer has formed an excellent combination with Croker and Papalii. A range of movements at pace at this edge, including my personal favourite, the outside-inside from Sezer to Papalii to Wighton, all moving straight, continually threatened the right edge of the Broncos defence. These movements were the best the Raiders had looked since the beginning of the season.
This was the best work, and primarily driven by the spine. But mixed amongst this encouraging play were an ongoing series of errors. Hodgson and Austin both made errors at moments that should have resulted in tries. Austin’s was more egregious, a forward pass that should have been points for winger Jordan Rapana. Throughout this game he found it nigh on impossible to pass to the right. This was most notable when he produced a break but blew a try by refusing to pass it to an unmarked BJ Leilua on this right. BJ somehow turned it into points later in the set when he managed to find a space outside the three defenders waiting for him on the blind side.
It was hardly an isolated incident – Austin marginalised his dynamic edge to a worrying extent. Despite the precision the left-side of the offence offers Leilua and Rapana remain the Raiders most talented attackers. This Zoolander-esque inability to turn (the ball) to the right has siloed the attack to one side of the field, putting pressure on the precision of the Sezer/Papa/Croker combo to produce points and allowing the left edge defence to corral the Raiders most potent attackers. BJ and Rapana have been limited this season to produce spectacular plays because they do not get regular ball in the normal function of the offence. By mid-way through the second half BJ had only embarked on 4 runs for the game.
Possession and position turned against the Raiders as the game wore on. Completion rates didn’t help, but more problematic was the Raiders ongoing poor line-speed in defence. Throughout the season the Raiders have shown either excellent goal-line defence or willing defence in the middle of the park, but rarely both. Against Brisbane they failed spectacularly to do either.
The Broncos made plenty of metres exclusively attacking the Raiders ruck and left edge to make their way up the park. Again the Raiders ruck was increasingly worn-down as the game wore on, and Brisbane continually ended sets bombing for the Raiders back three, or earning repeat sets through well-placed kicks almost exclusively from Ben Hunt.
When they did get close to the line, the poor line-speed made Benji Marshall look much better than he was. It was stunning to see commentators fall over themselves to praise Benji. Much more time should have been dedicated to worrying about the amount of space he was granted due to the glacial pace at which the Raiders defence approached him. Hunt was superior in every facet of the game but hey, it makes an easier story to talk about Benji.
The Raiders made a series of individual errors in defence and paid the price. Austin often ran out of the line, and early in the first it was an atrocious read by him that created the gap for the Broncos second. This was after he had failed to help Jack Wighton bring down Corey Oates before the line for the opening try of the match. Austin personifies the Raiders inconsistency right now – in this game he set up two tries, bombed two and let in two more. Austin was not alone with these poor decisions. The Broncos took the lead on a similar error from Hodgson, and Sezer was found out when isolated with Matt Gillet for the try on full time.
It was a depressing loss. The Raiders showed tonight that in between the errors a good football team lurks. They seem helpless in their efforts to coax that side out of them on a regular basis. Finals football is still a possibility, and if you take the brief periods that the Raiders looked good you would think that is a possibility. But the inconsistency abounds, and the Green Machine has sputtered.