The Canberra Raiders season came to a fitting end in their 26-22 loss to the Penrith Panthers. Despite showing glimpses of their best throughout the game, they were unable to find a way to finish a close game. Their forwards dominated the ruck and made more metres than their counterparts. The halves were again capable of creating points. They defended admirably for much of the game and missed less tackles than their opposition. But it was standalone moments in defence, and handling errors in attack that subsumed the Raiders on Sunday, much as they have all season.
As Coach D’Amato (Al Pacino) said in Any Given Sunday, it’s the inches that matter. When you add them up at the end of the day, it’s the combination of every small moment that decides if you win or lose. When you take the inches from the loss to Panthers you can see just how the result ended up the way it did.
There were four such moments in defence that very literally resulted in the points that ended the Raiders season. The Panthers did not create points through domination of the ruck. The presence of Matt Moylan in the halves means they run nothing resembling incisive ball-play or structures designed to create doubt in defenders or force them to make tough decisions in defence. They create points by relying on defensive errors and the phenomenal athleticism of their outside backs to beat their opposition one-on-one. In this game they did this four times.
The first try was simply Waqa Blake stepping inside against some over-pursuing defenders. An error of effort from the middle defenders (Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd) meant that Josh Papalii was one-on-one with the much quicker Blake. The second try saw Blake beat Jarrod Croker one-on-one after Blake Austin’s surprise decision to run-out of the line shocked Croker. Croker was beaten easily by the young Panther speedster, something that should have highlighted to Austin one of the reasons you play defence in a line – so it is harder to isolate defenders. The third Panther try came when Josh Mansour jumped out of dummy-half, ran across the field and found Josh Papalii a few steps behind the rest of the defensive line. A moment later Austin was unable to hold him off the line. Then Tyrone May broke green hearts everywhere when he stepped out of dummy-half and scythed between Junior Paulo and Clay Priest to win the game. Paulo and Priest were in good position to handle this. They should have handled him easily. They didn’t.
Four separate moments. Four seemingly small errors. Add them up and that was the 26 points that ultimately counted against the Raiders.
With the ball the Raiders were excellent…when they held on to the ball. They were patient for much of the game, ‘earning’ the right to spread it wide by dominating the middle, particularly after the first 15 minutes. For one of the rare occasions this season the Raiders were getting quick play-the-balls and finding metres despite excellent line-speed from the Panthers throughout the 80 minutes. Josh Papalii (16 runs for 110m), Shannon Boyd (14 for 106m) and Elliot Whitehead did the hard work in the middle, often jump-starting sets with good runs that resulted in quick rucks. Tapine (6 for 85m) was again excellent on the right edge, and simply put, the Raiders will miss Dave Taylor’s brilliant performance as an impact-forward.
As an aside Junior Paulo was strangely absent in the second half after a workmanlike first half. I didn’t record when he came on in the second stanza, but he managed only 1 run for 3 metres and made the aforementioned defensive error. If he is on his way back to Parramatta one thinks Brad Arthur won’t tolerate such a disappearance in the biggest half of the season.
The Raiders managed to create enough points to win the game. Josh Hodgson marshalled the attacked between the hash marks, sending big forwards back against the grain to drag defenders into the middle of the park. He combined with each half to help create points. Twice in the first half he combined with Austin – on the first occasion sending a wide ball to get Austin outside of Harawira-Naera. Austin straightened, flipped an offload to Jack Wighton, who’s excellent ball to Nic Cotric was only upstaged by the brilliant strength of Cotric to resist to oncoming defence and score int eh corner. Later Hodgson faked to the right, giving Austin a ball wide of the ruck. Austin’s face ball to Taylor should have seen the big man fall over, but upon being held briefly he flipped what can only be described as an ‘Osborne-esque’ offload to Papalii who scored. In the second half Hodgson faked left, gave Sezer the ball in space. Sezer’s ball and Tapine’s line were more beautiful together than they were apart, like a football equivalent of macaroni and cheese.
These moments were wonderful and represented the Raiders at their best. But in between this the Raiders found 15 errors and only completed 69 per cent of their sets. Cotric had the most ‘rookie’ game of his season, dropping three bombs. Tapine dropped a ball on the Raiders first set that gave the Panthers the attacking set that resulted in their first points. Papalii and Croker both turned over possession close to the Panthers line. Too often the Raiders halves played parallel instead of perpendicular, failing to head the lesson of how they had succeeded in recent weeks. On their own none of these moments sunk the Raiders. But together they added up.
And there was another error – this time from off the field. After the Panthers scored in the 73rd minute, the Raiders would get a few more opportunities to attack. Josh Hodgson barely touched the ball in these sets as Kurt Baptiste took over at hooker. The Raiders looked desperate and lacking direction. With the Raiders season on the line the Raiders’ best ball player was standing out the back as Kurt Baptiste telegraphed every movement and idea the raiders could muster. Hodgson was not there because he didn’t want to be involved – you could see the frustration in the way he remonstrated with the Panthers players after the game. It wasn’t because he wasn’t capable – he’s played plenty of 80-minute games in recent years. It was because the coach saw his tired forwards and was hamstrung by the only fresh player he had on the bench – a nifty but limited old-fashioned hooker. Baptise is an honest worker. He darts out of the ruck well. But when you need to create something from nothing, putting the season in his hands is a critical error that the coach must be held accountable for. On its own it was hardly even consequential. The Raiders should have and could have won the game before the 75th minute. Just another moment where the men in green missed their opportunity.
The fact remains that the Raiders are now out of the finals. You may have less polite words to describe your frustration but here we’ll stick with ‘profoundly disappointing’. For the vast majority of this game, like many this season, it was clear that they have a talented side that just simply gets in their own way. ‘If onlys’ will abound for the next few months until the Raiders can start adding up a new set of moments 2018. As Coach D’Amato says in Any Given Sunday, you can only climb out of hell one inch at a time.
 None of these resulted in points for the Panthers, and after an error in the 50th minute he almost immediately bounced back with an excellent read to rush in on Waqa Blake, crushing him along with the Panthers attacking movement.