The Canberra Raiders 20-14 loss to the Melbourne Storm was a search for answers. The game started with line-up changes and ended in all too familiar disappointment. In between the Raiders looked in frustration for the fluency and flair that had characterised their 2016 season. They found no answers in this examination and no solace in its outcome. They can now turn their minds to 2018 because 2017 is all but over.
The decision by Coach Ricky Stuart to start backup hooker Kurt Baptiste stunk of desperation – a last gasp attempt to find a way to turn the season on. Baptiste is an honest toiler who works best when his forwards are rolling. In those situations he loves to jump out from the ruck and run, something that he does as well as any hooker in the competition. But his service from nine is hardly elite, and he has no ability to affect the speed of the ruck with his play. When Baptiste is on the field the momentum of the set is entirely up to the ability of the forward to create quick play-the-balls. Against the Storm that is a tough ask.
Taking your sides’ best player and getting him the ball less is at best a novel idea.
So starting Baptiste at 9 and Hodgson as a third ball-player at lock was always going to be a gamble. Taking your sides best player and getting him the ball less is at best a novel idea. Effectively Coach Stuart was asking his pack – sans season standout Josh Papalii – to dominate its opposition. They could not. Sia Soliola (13 runs for 102m), playing on the left edge, was the best forward. Joe Tapine (8 for 86m) came off the bench to show excellent ball-running, instilling several sets with purpose and direction through his ability to bend the line. Paulo started well, but only had one carry in the second half. The other forwards were ineffective.
The question must be asked as to whether this strategy from Coach Stuart was sound. After Baptiste left the field at the back end of the half Hodgson came back into the ruck. Perhaps imbued with Baptiste’s fancy for the dart, Hodgson’s play, which lately has been far too horizontal, suddenly pivoted. The Hodgson of 2016 briefly emerged, darting out of the ruck, taking the line on and hitting ball-runners in space. On one set in the back-end of the half Hodgson engineered easy metres and for the first time in ages Aidan Sezer was kicking with space. A well-placed bomb and a repeat set resulted. If only this set could have been replicated for the rest of the game.
Playing Baptiste and Hodgson weakened the Raiders not just in their direction around the ruck, but by substitution a forward for a smaller defender, the Raiders were weaker in defence also. It gave two the Storm two smaller defenders to run at in the middle. No better was this demonstrated than in the first try for the Storm, where despite Josh Hodgson stopping Asofa-Solomona, his legs tackle close to the line meant that an offload was possible, and a try to Finucane followed.
The abject lack of line speed also contributed to this problem – making Stuart’s risk even more confusing. Across the line the Raiders moved up slowly – on many occasions they gave even the lumbering Tim Glasby 10 metres before he met contact. On the goal-line this exacerbated the lack of size in the forwards. And when Raiders defenders moved quickly it was always alone, such as when Blake Austin rushed out of the line, leaving Croker to cover both his inside shoulder as well as Chambers on the outside. The commentators blamed Croker. Austin created the problem when he rushed out of the line without Croker following. But the whole mess is the Raiders defensive line which barely moves, even on the goal line.
The halves continued to search for consistency in attack. This could have been any game this season. Blake Austin was at his best and his worst. He ran the ball at the first and last option, only passing after contact. This resulted in a try when after his running ended a left-side movement, only to spin out of a tackle and hit Sezer running a second phase prop line. He hit Sezer on the burst, who somehow spun through three forwards to score the Raiders first try. This is hardly repeatable.
Austin’s ‘rocks or diamonds’ approach was manifest throughout the match. He kicked poorly early, and even failed to find touch on a penalty just when the Raiders desperately needed the ball and a break. When he was involved in last tackle options they were rarely good – but his grubber for Sezer and the Raiders final try was the best-executed grubber by a Raider this season. He ran the ball well but dropped it more than once, one notable occasion turning a potential 3-on-2 into a turnover.
Moving Austin to the left has re-established the right side of the attack. Sezer got Leilua the ball early and often and suddenly the right had a bit more space to operate. On occasion Leilua and Rapana got carried away – in the 18th minute they got stuck in the right corner, repeatedly bringing the ball back to that wing despite a plethora of defenders. They took turns in running out of nine and the set ended with Rapana grubbering from there and into the legs of defenders. It seems they’ve been so starved of ball this season that they’ve decided to make the most use of it when they get it. It speaks to the imbalance in the Raiders attack.
And so the Raiders find themselves all but out of the finals. The Raiders are not going to make the finals and questions will start to be asked. Is this spine capable of providing points? They haven’t exceeded 30 points in over three months and they haven’t exceeded 18 points in the last three games. Are the forwards good enough to dominate an opposition? Outside of Papalii and Paulo the Raiders big men are unable to consistently make metres. Are they able to identify what hasn’t worked this season, and why that has been so dramatically different to 2016?
These questions are hard to ask and answer given the hope this season begun with. But they must be or 2016 could become the outlier, and 2017 could be the new norm. Coach Stuart has some work to do.