There is no doubt that hope have risen across the nations’ capital after the Canberra Raiders 32-18 victory over the south Sydney Rabbitohs. A bit of possession and dominance from the forward pack allowed the halves the most space they’ve had in weeks, and they took advantage. They put 30 points on the scoreboard for the first time since April, and for a brief moment the men in green looked like an elite football side again. It was the first enjoyable Raiders performance in months. Only time will tell if it’s the start of something more substantial.
The Raiders have passed the easiest test on their last gasp attempt to make the finals. If there was anything that should temper any expectations of Raiders somewhat traditional late-run for the finals it’s that their opposition was abjectly poor. Souths couldn’t help but get in their own way. They coughed up six errors in the first twenty minutes and when they did get into attacking range without dropping the ball, the service from replacement hooker Damien Cook was off the mark at the worst times. More than once an attacking raid fizzled when he threw a pass into the ground. Adam Reynolds boot was their only solace.
But you can only beat what is in front of you and the the undermanned Raiders forward pack were dominant. Junior Paulo (15 runs for 139m) was excellent. He took two hit ups on the Raiders first set, and had 99 metres in the first half. Dave Taylor’s (10 for 109m) performance was tinged with the sadness that he is leaving at the end of the season. His impact in short minutes in the second half was brilliant, bending the line with his powerful running style, and making a break off a beautiful Hodgson-Austin-Taylor outside-in line.
Joseph Tapine (15 for 166m) was excellent filling in for Josh Papalii on the left edge, and may have done enough to make Coach Stuart think about a permanent move to that position. That would necessitate moving Josh Papalii into the middle, much like his positioning for Queensland. And this may be necessary given the ongoing poor performance of Shannon Boyd (14 for 107m), who was absent early in the match, outside of giving away an early penalty for being inside the 10 on a kick chase.
This dominance from the forwards and the errors from Souths meant the halves found themselves with more space that they were accustomed and they responded. Blake Austin had his best game since 2015. Instead of focusing on playing left or right, Austin instead focused on playing as second receiver, playing outside either halfback Aidan Sezer or makeshift lock Josh Hodgson.
Instead of focusing on playing left or right, Austin instead focused on playing as second receiver, playing outside either halfback Aidan Sezer or makeshift lock Josh Hodgson.
The extra space perhaps simplified the game for him and he consistently made the right choice between running and passing, connecting more effectively with the centres and forwards outside him. All of a sudden the Raiders attack regained some of its fluidity.
Austin set up the Raiders first try on the left, holding the ball perfectly, keeping the defence in two minds. A well-weighted pass to Jack Wighton, a quick ball to Jarrod Croker and the Raiders opened the scoring. In the 18th minute he sat ouside Sezer on the right, gave BJ Leilua early ball and Leilua responded with a rampaging 30 metre run down the right. The Raiders scored their second try on the back of this run when Aidan Sezer’s kick was hashed by the Souths defenders, and Tapine swivelled and spun his way over. Austin repeated this dose around the 23rd metre mark – this time straightening his run before passing to BJ who put debutant Michael Oldfield down the right touchline. Oldfield’s pass inside to BJ would have been a try if it was better directed. Austin’s tremendous half peaked back on the left side, a face-ball to Tapine putting the big man into space, and good work by Croker made sure Cotric had an easy try.
Austin was quieter in the second half, but his halves partner Aidan Sezer took over in this period. Sezer’s kicking was excellent all game (as was Austin’s), finding grass between the Bunnies backs on the regular, even after the momentum of sets had been stymied. This was particularly critical in the post-halftime period in which the Bunnies enjoyed a brief period of dominance. His pass to put Oldfield in for the Raiders final try was a brilliant read as much as a wonderful pass.
The Raiders weren’t perfect though. Playing Hodgson as a ball-playing lock continues to confound. Replacement hooker Kurt Baptiste ran the ball well, and had a good grubber for a repeat set late in the first half, but his service was often abysmal. Hodgson was effective at lock because he dragged the Raiders into playing north-south whenever the halves got too excited and started playing too horizontally. Even at his best Austin occasionally headed towards the corner posts rather than the goal posts.
Hodgson took 9 hit ups for 100 plus metres from that position, and often bent the line. When he came back into hooker for the middle 40 minutes of the match he was superior to Baptiste, and his read that put Bateman in to seal the match was the kind of option close to the ruck the Raiders need to take more often.
The defensive presence of the Raiders was inconsistent, if mightily improved. On the goal-line the defensive line was much more willing to rush up, and there was excellent scrambling defence at the back end of the first half. But too often similar speed in the middle of the park was lacking. They won’t face an attack as insipid as this again and must continue to improve.
Lack of support play was also a concern. More than once Raiders forwards bent the line and looked to offload but there was no one there to take it. Hodgson in particular would take on the line, draw in an extra defender and just need one person running a hard, straight line. He rarely found that support. One wonders where fullback Jack Wighton was for these opportunities.
Wighton had a poor game. His poor field positioning gifted the Bunnies their first two tries. He effectively kept the game competitive when it should have been dead – without those errors the Bunnies didn’t look like scoring. He was also gifted several chances to compete with the Souths back-three for well-placed Austin and Sezer bombs. He blew at least three of these. He shouldn’t be expected to turn every bomb into points but he failed to look like catching any of them.
The Raiders did well enough to pass the first test. Souths were barely professional in the first half, and the Raiders showed that they can still connect when they need to. They played their most complete game in months and the attack actually resembled the talent on the park. Whether or not this was merely a blip of competence or the beginning of something more will be made clear next week, because the Sharks are waiting. But for now the Raiders have a small slice of hope.
 Or best if you’re watching games from our viewpoint.
 Papa could just play in the middle.
 I marked his first hit up at the 10 minute mark.