The Canberra Raiders ran roughshod over the Newcastle Knights 46-28 on Friday night. The ease with which they dispatched the Knights was at time cathartic – the Knights seemed flummoxed in the face of Raiders attack both in the middle and on the fringes. But in their weaker moments the Raiders belied a lack of defensive discipline that has held them back this season. While many were still fantasising about making the finals, the Raiders were busy showing they had much to learn.
The Raiders have had a rough time with the Knights in recent years, borne mostly from the Knights ability to matchup in the middle with the Raiders. The Knights do have some handy big men – Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Jamie Buhrer, Josh King and former Raider Mitch Barnett are their best. But from the first hit up tonight the Raiders middle-men were dominant. They took 50 easy metres from the first set, manhandled the Knights well in return and didn’t look back from there.
Junior Paulo (16 for 152m) was exceptional, and Shannon Boyd (13 for 121m) continued his just-a-smidge-too-late good form of recent times. Paulo gets all the plaudits, and well he should. The Raiders will dearly miss him if he returns to Sydney as is rumoured. But Boyd’s defence is underrated – he can physically dominate without the ball in a way that Paulo and the other props often do not. It’s an important part of the Raiders approach in the middle. Jo Tapine and Josh Papalii had less numbers but were equally impressive.
One benefit of the Raiders’ struggles is that the revamped forward pack now has a backrow that will play 80 minutes a game. The Raiders do not have much forward depth. But if Tapine, Papalii and Whitehead can play 80 minutes, Sia Soliola and Luke Bateman will provide all the cover the Raiders need for their big men. This obviously changes if Junior Paulo departs, and if Coach Stuart continues his fascination with using Kurt Baptiste to spell Josh Hodgson.
For the first time this season I was watching in person, and with the wider view you get a much better idea of how important Hodgson is to this side. On the second set of the game he put several forwards into advantageous hit-ups, and jumped out the back of a good Jack Wighton run and took metres. Closer to the line he spotted Knights fullback Nathan Ross in the defensive line, showed the defence left and sent Paulo right over Ross for a try. On a post-try set he ‘told a little lie’, sending the defence the wrong way, put BJ Leilua into a gap and Aidan Sezer’s kick resulted in another try for the Raiders. For all intents and purposes the game was over at this point. The Knights had barely touched the ball but they knew they wouldn’t be able to hold the Raiders that night.
Hodgson’s effectiveness and organisational ability has been matched in recent weeks by the work of halfback Aidan Sezer. The spine’s combination has found its groove in recent weeks. Much was made of their shift in sides, but as we have repeatedly said that is frankly hogwash. Sezer’s early play last night was almost exclusively on the left, with Austin playing outside as a second receiver. Sezer organised the Raiders backline, and kicked well, particularly towards the wing of Shaun Kenny-Dowell.
The importance of Sezer to the Raiders was underscored by how the wheels fell off for the brief period that Sezer went off for a HIA in the 15th minute. After dominating the game for the opening stanza, Fitzgibbon cleaned up Sezer after he brilliantly kicked the Raiders out of their own area. Without Sezer, Kurt Baptise went into 9, Hodgson into 7, and the Raiders lost their direction for the next 15 minutes. The Knights scored twice in this period.
When Sezer came back the Raiders again began to dominate. Sezer and Austin seemed to have found a détente if not a combination. Using Austin as the second receiver more often is better for him. It allows him to have the option to use his running game while still remaining a threat to pass. However, this works best when he is playing straight. Too often lately he has been running at 45 degree angles looking for a hole. This means he reduces the space available to his outside men, and the impact of his step as sliding defenders can come across to help on the inside. Jack Wighton’s first try came when Austin’s run was direct for long enough to hold the defence inside. It gave Wighton the space to run straight himself, bowling over Ross at the back to score easily.
The points came easy against the Knights. The Raiders ran training drills out to the right wing, simple sweeping movements that the Knights simply had no ability to stop. Winger Jordan Rapana scored three times from simple shifts, one on the stroke of halftime that came from Jack Wighton throwing one of the most beautiful balls as the second-man I have seen in person. It was clinical execution two plays in a row. If only hey?
The 28 points the Raiders allowed were maddening. Their five tries came in three periods: while Sezer was off in the first half, just after the Raiders had settled the game early in the second half, and twice in the last five minutes of the game. They couldn’t cover broken play for the first try. Buhrer slipped between a miscommunication between Leilua and Wighton in which Wighton played outside in but Leilua didn’t. Daniel Safiti went through some soft defence close to the line and Mitch Barnett scored easily when neither Tapine on the inside nor Leilua from the outside decided the guy with the ball needed to be tackled.
The game represents yet another microcosm of this season. Brilliant play that always felt just a good set away was perhaps more accessible, no doubt helped by the friendly Knights defence. The execution from Hodgson, Sezer and Wighton was at time incredible. But the poor defence, and the periods where the Knights dominated the Raiders hinted that the problems that put the Raiders out of the finals race haven’t been fixed yet. At least Ricky will have a long off-season to work them out.
 Mark Gasnier’s words on the telecast
 Note – it shouldn’t have been a penalty. It was a hard shot but it wasn’t late.