The Canberra Raiders 30-12 victory over the Cronulla Sharks was as perfect as it was baffling. Where has this been all season? The forwards faced a willing and capable foe and dispatched them with ease. Josh Hodgson took every inch of space offered and turned it into a mile. All this unleashed a back-line that for the first time all season had the space to run straight. And for one game, the Raiders were back.
It all started in the middle. It always should for this side. They are built to utilise their massive size to pound the opposition into submission. Junior Paulo’s 18 runs for 205 metres was just the third time a Raiders forward had passed 200 metres in a game this season. Paulo was tremendous, as was Josh Papalii (14 for 164m). Shannon Boyd (11 for 132m) played his best game this season. He took several difficult hit-ups and changed the momentum of sets with powerful runs.
More interestingly, Elliot Whitehead (17 for 168m), moved into the middle by Coach Stuart, was tremendous in the middle. Running the ball with a renewed vigour not seen this season, he poked through the line on numerous occasions. He added fortitude to the defensive middle. This allowed Joe Tapine free reign on the right edge and even though he didn’t impact the board statistically – he only had 62 metres on 9 carries – the threat of him attracted defenders.
And it wasn’t just in attack. The forwards line-speed, for a rare moment this season was adequate. Not rapid. Not even quicker than most. But it was there, and more often than not the Raiders defenders kept coming forward. They did not allow space to the opposition pack. And without star-half James Maloney the Sharks spine was unable to cope.
It was simultaneously astounding and confusing that the Raiders pack, so quiet this season, chose this moment to compete so heartily with one of the best packs in the competition. What’s more, the opposition pack turned up to play, and for the first ten minutes of the game, and a brief period in the second half, gained ascendancy. Each time the Raiders lifted to meet the challenge.
In the middle of it all was Josh Hodgson. It’s fair to say that his 2017 has not reached the heights of the previous year. He seems to save his best for the Sharks. Like the corresponding fixture in 2016, Hodgson was the tip of the Raiders spear, thrusting deep into the gut of the Sharks.
He created the Raiders first try with a piece of classic deception, pointing the attack to the right, darting out left, dragging the outside defender in, and putting Papalii through the gap that opened. Later in the half he caught a Whitehead offload, and darted left again. Holding the ball in two hands kept Luke Lewis in two minds, a dummy turned Jack Bird’s hips, allowing him just enough space to scoot through to effectively end the game – inasmuch as the Raiders can call a 16 point lead safe. Hmade life easy for his forwards, darting and ducking and creating extra metres for them. When the tide looked to turn in the second half with Papalii sin-binned, he spotted a hole in the middle, darted through, put Austin in space. The result was Sezer nearly scored, the Raiders got a penalty, two minutes came off Papalii’s absence, and the Raiders extended their lead.
It was a rare, mature reaction to adversity by the Raiders. When the Sharks scored and Papalii was sin-binned, they showed intelligence and courage to take the ball and work into position for three penalty goals in 10 minutes, one sandwiched on either side of the aforementioned points created by Hodgson. This Raiders side found momentum turning against them. They did not relent. It proved to be decisive, the score that had reached 30-12 during this period remaining this way for the rest of the game.
This game was not just an exercise in forward dominance. Both halves provided moments. Aidan Sezer wasn’t as dominant as previous weeks but worked some great movements on the right. My favourite is when his halves partner Blake Austin sweeps across to sit outside him on the right. It did not result in points this week but it threatened the line and was crisp. The only criticism to be made of either’s performance was the continued difficulty to find good last tackle options with any consistency.
Austin continues to find himself much happier playing wider. Much was made of him shifting to the left, but his success in recent weeks is more to do with him being placed at second receiver in attacking raids. He gets the ball with more time, the space encouraging him to play straight. He makes better decisions from this north-facing position, and Jarrod Croker continued bending and breaking of right-edge defences is testament to this. Indeed one of the rare errors in attack from the Raiders came when Austin was running at 45 degrees instead of straight.
Croker was not the only back to perform. All the backs made good metres and the defence was excellent. Nic Cotric is a rare blessing this season. In the first half he stopped a Shark 2-on-1 himself, faking the inside attacker into passing, before bundling the receiver out. He continues to do the hard work bringing the ball off the Raiders line, almost always creating a quick play-the-ball with his physical dominance. He is still a teenager. Jordan Rapana and BJ Leilua were excellent, creating a try where there seemed no space to do so late in the first half. Rapana had already found another when the Sharks fumbled a well-placed Austin bomb. These opportunistic points have not been available to the Raiders this season. Maybe it will only for one night, but on this occasion the bounce favoured the Raiders.
It was a bright night and everyone associated with the Raiders should feel appreciative of what the men in green produced. At the beginning of the 2017 season the Canberra Raiders had clearly established a plan for glory. Win the forwards battle. Let Josh Hodgson conduct the middle of the park like that famous symphony conducter neither you or me is cultured enough to know the name of. Roll up the middle and unleash the strong, fast backs at pace against edge defenders back-peddling in horror at the thought of getting in front of BJ Leilua or Jordan Rapana. This was how it was meant to be all season. It only took 22 rounds for the plan to be executed. Breath it in.
 the others were Paulo v Eels in round 11 (X for 20X) and Papalii v Eels in round 5 (20 for 204m