When the Canberra Raiders register with the national footy media things are either going well or very bad. Unfortunately the Raiders’ edge defence has been so bad this season that it’s drawn the attention of the national media. FoxSports Nathan Ryan came to the party this week, identifying the plethora of tries scored because of defensive errors from Sam Williams and Blake Austin.
We’ve been pointing out problems with the Raiders edge defence since we started this blog (check it out. This is March 2015. This is March 2016. This is March 2017). It’s been a feature of the Stuart regime. So far be it from me to complain that it only took the Sydney media four years to notice.
Our only criticism is that Ryan’s article oversimplifies this problem, portraying it as one of individual ability solved by individual improvement. To be fair this is a large part of the problem. As the article points out the winning try from the Knights came from Blake Austin being hilariously out of position.
We’ve also harped on these poor decisions, not only in our review of Sunday’s game, but throughout the years.
But this approach oversimplifies and individualises a problem that is collective and strategic. While exacerbated by the (lack of) size or defensive ability of their edge defenders, the Raiders issues don’t start there.
Rather, the Raiders have a problem of collective structure rather than individual ability. And it’s an issue that has existed for the entirety of Stuart’s time as coach of them.
Compared to other sides, the Raiders’ defensive line is not aggressive. Most sides play some version of ‘up-and-in’. This is where defenders keep their men on their inside shoulder and jam in on them when they get the ball. The defensive line keeps pushing up to restrict the amount of time and space players have.
In contrast, the Raiders play a ‘hold-and-slide’ defensive line. Rather than pushing up, the Raiders reach a point and then ‘hold’ (or even retreat sometimes, though I’m sure that’s not the desired approach). As the ball goes wider than each defender they begin to slide. The idea is to push the attack wider and wider, eventually running themselves out of space. You can see the idea in this early foray from the Knights below. You can see Luke Batman is sliding, and Elliot Whitehead has ceased moving. Outside them Williams is waiting and unpictured is BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana, both equal with Williams and not moving.
On this occasion this approach worked as the Knights attack veered towards the sideline and the Raiders stopped the ball in the corner.
But ‘hold-and-slide’ is not without its problems. In this game Pearce and Ponga both had time and space to threaten the line and isolate defenders. Minutes later Ponga does exactly that to Williams for the Knights’ first try.
The extra space and time ‘hold-and-slide’ gives ball-players makes it easier for oppositions to target the weak points in the Raiders defensive line. Whether it is Austin, Sezer, Williams, Leilua or Croker, they are routinely asked to make the hardest decisions in order for the Raiders line to hold.
On the goal line, this ‘hold-and-slide’ strategy is even more problematic. It allows good halves to line up a forward or big back against the Raiders smaller defenders, or a quicker person against a big forward.
Look at the Kevin Proctor try against the Titans. In the first picture the Raiders defensive line has stopped a good 6-8 metres from the ball-runner. It is already clear that Josh Papalii is going to have to bring down Ash Taylor.
In the next shot, we can see just how isolated Papalii is against Taylor. If the defensive line had moved up rather than held it’s position, he may have had a chance. As it was, he was helpless.
When Austin turns his body to help inside, the ball is popped to Proctor. From a play that starts a solid 15 metres from the line, first contact is made on the goal line and Proctor falls over.
When the Raiders turn their bodies side-on to slide on the line, a simply run-straight line is almost impossible to stop. Contact made by the outside defenders is almost never front-on and is thus less forceful. Hips facing the sideline are much harder to ‘flip’ when attacking lines change, making the Raiders susceptible to inside balls.
This is not a new issue. This has been a hallmark of Stuart’s time at the Raiders. He has stuck with this structure and this approach despite the defence being in the bottom half of the competition in 2014, 2015 and 2017. If attempts have been made to fix it they have not been successful.
In the offseason Dean Pay, often cast as the mastermind behind the Raiders defence left for the Bulldogs. It does not appear that Stuart has attempted to change his approach, and now the national media are noticing it is an issue. But as most Raiders fans know this has been an issue for years.
So why has it not been fixed? This seems like a easy question to ask the coach. But in the post-match interview the journalists simply asked Stuart if he thought their were things to work on. I have no idea what that room is like, and how hard it must be to manage a relationship with Stuart. But a fair question Stuart needed to be asked was ‘why is this still a problem?’
It’s a good point that I know less about football than Stuart coughs out of his lungs on a cold, Canberra morning. Stuart may be using this strategy as the ‘least worst’. Maybe it allows the most opportunity for better defenders to cover for weaker or smaller defenders.
But ‘why’ Stuart has kept this approach or why he hasn’t fixed the edge defence is a question that journalists should ask, no matter how uncomfortable the answer is. Because if it’s not fixed soon, the Raiders aren’t going to be able to hold a side below 30 points this season. And that won’t mean a whole lot of wins, and that will just lead to more questions.