The Canberra Raiders 36-16 victory over the New Zealand Warriors was exactly what you would expect of a markedly superior side. Despite facing a surprisingly disciplined Warriors side, the Raiders scored points at regular intervals, and handled the Warriors attack with relative ease, even given periods of substantial shortfall in possession. The Raiders didn’t ever have to slide into the high gears. A victory such as this can only leave Raiders fans wondering why it took so long to find this groove.
The Warriors discipline with the ball was surprising, particularly in what seemed to be pretty consistent rain at Mt Smart Stadium. They played a relatively risk-free game, their forwards competing with the more talented Raiders pack between the 20 metre lines, their halves working to earn extra sets as much as possible, but rarely providing anything more creative than well-weighted grubbers. This method saw them dominate possession for two very specific periods of time – the first six minutes of the game and the first fifteen minutes of the second half. The Raiders ability to hold them scoreless in this period was instrumental in their victory.
Raiders of the recent past have usually reacted to gluts of defence by helpfully escorting their opposition to the goal line. It was warming then to see the Raiders hold the Warriors in these two separate periods.
To be fair it must be noted that this wasn’t all the Raiders doing. The Warriors had two opportunities to score in the first six minutes, once failing to take advantage of a massive overlap, and then failing to ground a grubber with no green jersey in sight. In the former example Nic Cotric filled the passing lane well and Blake Austin covered well on the inside, but it should have been points. The second opportunity was just a cold drop.
In the second half in which they dominated possession, the Warriors overly conservative style played into the Raiders hands. While the intensity was notably down on last weeks grudge match with the Sharks, the Raiders effort couldn’t be questioned. They handled a period of nearly 15 minutes where they only had one completed set with aplomb. The Warriors had 80 per cent of the ball over that period. It was almost a surprise in the 56th minute when Roger Tuivasa-Shek slipped through BJ Leilua’s arm tackle several sets after the Raiders had ground their way back into some possession.
Outside of these periods the Raiders largely found the going easy. For the second week in a row Junior Paulo (12 runs for 126m) and Shannon Boyd (13 for 128m) were instrumental in the Raiders efforts. They both did the hard yards, often taking early set hit ups and giving sets momentum. Sometimes the other forwards rolled off the back of these sets, but more often than not the Raiders went wide.
The Raiders attack was aimed squarely at the Warriors edges. Hooker Josh Hodgson barely took a step in anger out of dummy-half. He settled instead for spreading the ball to wide-set halves for all attacking opportunities. Even when he played a role in setting up points, it was because he found a ball-player wide of the ruck.
Often this was Blake Austin, who continued his excellent play of late. Much has been made of his move to the left hand side, but as we have said in recent reviews his good play has more resulted from his positioning as a second receiver rather than being responsible for organising a side. Halves partner Aidan Sezer seems to have taken over all the ‘boring’ stuff halves need to do, and sent sets into areas where he could kick to corners, grinding the Warriors into the ground over the second half.
For his part Austin was the crux through which the Raiders created points. The Raiders first try started in his hands, a ball to Jack Wighton as the second-man early in what the Warriors thought was an ‘establishing’ set – they were more focused on Josh Papalii running an outside-in line on the face ball. The ball itself wasn’t excellent – it was well read by the Warriors winger but the response from Wighton was – he tapped the ball on to Croker, who took off, drew the fullback and put Cotric over.
Austin did most of this work operating at second receiver. The Raiders second try was almost a replication of the first, except that Austin started at second receiver. On this occasion it was Croker running the face ball and Austin filling in as the second man outside of Sezer. Austin drew the winger to put Cotric into space, Cotric drew the fullback and Croker had a try. In the 65th minute Austin again jumped outside a Sezer run-around on the right, and then sent a brilliant cut-out ball to Jordan Rapana on the wing for an easy score. It wasn’t just Austin doing damage to the Warriors edge. Hodgson’s trust of Whitehead to make the right decision close to the line on the last was rewarded when Whitehead’s brilliant ball allowed BJ Leilua to crash through the Warriors left edge.
If there was one criticism to be made of this fascination with the Warriors edges, it was that too often the Raiders moved the ball wide instead of playing straighter. Hodgson was too content to pass to the halves, and the halves were too often running at 45 degrees rather than straight. When they did straighten the play, often the Raiders would poke through. Austin scored an easy try when a good Hodgson ball caught the inside defence napping, with Austin taking advantage of the resulting over-compensation from the defence.
That try seemed as easy as the game ultimately was for the Raiders. Despite the Warriors surprising commitment in attack, the Raiders found it easy to handle their lacklustre approach to defence. They found points at will, and even when presented with an overwhelming disparity in possession the Raiders weren’t troubled.
Such an easy win is only overshadowed by the pall that remains over the Raiders season. If onlys abound. If only Austin had spent more time playing wider throughout the season. If only Shannon Boyd had turned up for the 2017 season before round 22. If only Coach Stuart had worked out that finding a way to play his best 13 players for as much of the 80 minutes as possible was a good idea. The Raiders can still make the finals, but it’s only a mathematical possibility.