The Canberra Raiders lost 31-18 on Saturday. On this occasion it was to the North Queensland Cowboys. But from the way they were beaten – by a forward pack they couldn’t contain, repeat sets they couldn’t prevent, and points they couldn’t find a way to score – it could have been any of moment in the last month. For the fourth week in a row the men in Green talked about desperation of their situation. For the fourth week in a row their desperation wasn’t matched by execution.
Any reminiscence to the side of last year is so fleeting that it barely lasts entire sets. A good run, a half break, a well-worked move are so rarely capitalised on that these moments feel like déjà vu – a brief reminder of what worked once. They are often followed by an error, a penalty or something equally frustrating. The Raiders seem to be operating as three distinct organisations – the starting forwards, the bench forwards and the backs. These three groups don’t seem to connect at any point.
For the second week in a row the Raiders were simply dismantled in the middle of the park. A strength last year, the Raiders forward pack is increasingly finding it difficult to make an impact on either side of the ball. There are of course notable exceptions. Junior Paulo (10 runs for 114m) is always excellent when the ball is in his left hand, and Josh Papalii (10 for 104m) was effective of the left edge. Sia Soliola had 39 tackles and nearly 100 metres running. However the rest of the pack failed to make a serious impact – although that the Raiders managed only 40 per cent of the ball for the game (and only 30 per cent in the first half) can barely have helped. Nor would have Elliot Whitehead’s shift to the left centres from the right edge to cover for injured Jarrod Croker helped.
The real problem with the forwards was in defence as the very good pack opposite them simply ran over them. Jason Taumalolo, Scott Bolton and last year’s forgotten man Shaun Fensom piled up metres against a defence unable to gain advantage on initial contact. Fensom had 165 meters in the first half. The entire Raiders starting pack had 199. This meant that the Cowboys were always rolling and the Raiders goal-line was often under pressure. Good kicking from Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote gave the visitors repeat sets seemingly at will.
No doubt line speed again was the culprit here, not just in the number of metres the Cowboys’ ball-runners gained before contact, but also in their ability to take defenders for a stunning amount of yards-after-contact. On the goal line the Raiders were far too often standing still or even back-peddling. A Morgan try came after a Taumalolo run required five defenders to repel, and the remaining defenders were too slow off the line to stop Morgan from falling over after an offload.
Without their star hooker Josh Hodgson the pressure went on to the halves to be more involved in creating and controlling the game. Much had been spoken of Blake Austin’s performance of last week – many were hoping that he would reinsert himself in a more effective way this week. The Raiders sought to get him more space (either to pass to Leilua and Rapana, or to run the ball) by setting him up as second receiver outside halfback Aidan Sezer. This was the recipe for the success last year and early in the game it did give Austin more space, but he still unable to find early ball for his outside men.
In the second half both BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana simply bypassed him, moving inside him to get the ball directly from the ruck, off the hips of forwards, or from halfback Aidan Sezer. The Raiders played straighter, bending the oppositions line, creating momentum in sets. In short they were competitive and looked to be dominating. It’s quite a statement that the Raiders’ offence looked at its best when Austin was simply not involved.
No better was this better displayed than the Raiders first two tries. When a quick defensive line separated Austin from his outside men he stepped inside. On this occasion he was able to stop and pass to prop Junior Paulo. Sweeping the ball to Sezer, an excellent grubber, a supportive bunker decision and the Raiders had scored. But a functioning offence would have found their outside men without two in-the-tackle offloads. Then early in the second half Leilua got the ball in broken play, searched across the field for a hole, found Whitehead in one, and a good ball to Joe Tapine and the Raiders were almost level. It was not to last.
Austin’s disappearing act and Hodgson’s absence meant that halfback Sezer tried to orchestrate the entire offence himself. For about sixty minutes he did a decent job, playing straight particularly with Papalii on the left. When the halves straighten their run they remain a triple threat, capable of passing either side – only Sezer did this tonight. His kicking was more often good than it was poor and the grubber that ended in the Raiders first try is exactly the kind of thing that can create hesitation, and space, for outside backs. As the game wore on though mistakes crept in to his game and helped condemn the Raiders to their loss.
The Raiders managed to stay competitive up to this point because of the stellar play of Nic Cotric. As this season goes from debacle to debacle it increasingly feels like the Raiders don’t deserve something so pure as this young man’s football ability. Tonight he turned nothing into competitiveness, running through the middle of the Cowboys to turn an average set start into an 70 metre try. This wasn’t the only time he did this. Almost any time he got the ball he turned sets to the Raiders advantage. The man is special and if all the Raiders get from this season is him then it was worth it.
But no matter what Cotric did it couldn’t be enough, and frankly if you were hoping for the winger to turn the game you were looking in the wrong direction. The Raiders lost again because their forwards couldn’t match up and because their halves couldn’t get the job done. It’s a familiar story – all that changes is the opposition.