The Canberra Raiders were never really in their 32-16 loss to the Manly Sea-Eagles. Poor defence in all the usual places (and some new ones) was on full display as Manly ran riot early. The Green Machine have real problems that need to be fixed if they are going to get in the winners circle this season.
It was a reversal of form of recent weeks. Rather than throwing away the game in the last twenty, the Raiders threw it away early. In hindsight it’s understandable the Raiders struggled so much in the early phases. After three heart-wrenching losses on the buzzer, it’s hard to imagine the idea of turning up to play football again was very appealing. For Raiders fans it was nice this loss was merely disappointing.
Coach Stuart called his chargers soft. Effort was an issue but there is more here. The Raiders were plagued by the same structural issues that saw them lose their last three matches. These issues are endemic, revealing themselves each week in similar fashion. For the only person capable of fixing these structural issues to instead be focusing on ‘softness’ or ‘effort’ suggest he is either missing the point or trying to cover for his sides’ weaknesses.
On their first set of the match the Sea-Eagles rolled 75 metres, and then put a bomb into the corner. The Raiders found themselves starting their first set in the corner of their goal-line. It was a set that displayed so many of the issues of the back-ends of recent games. On this set Tom Trbojevic ran almost 15 metres without meeting contact. It was on the back of good work from the Manly forwards, aided by what can only be described as friendly defence from the Raiders middle. It seems the Raiders were starting round four where they had finished round three.
The second set they similarly took 60 plus metres, and would have taken more had there been more to take. A good kick from Daly Cherry Evans should have resulted in a try to the Silvertails, but Nic Cotric is a large adult and frankly we should all be grateful for his existence. His try saver here was astounding.
The Raiders scored first, and for a moment there was hope. It’s tempting to point to Josh Papalii’s dropped kickoff here as the harbinger of doom. But the Raiders showed impressive line defence in the following set, getting off their line and holding out. In the next set coming off their line, Sam Williams sent a long kick dead and Manly had a seven tackle set.
They scored on their next three sets, took points on five sets in six and the Raiders night was effectively over.
The first try came because the Raiders defensive line was slow and not straight. Sam Williams and Jarrod Croker gave Tom Trbojevic simply too much space, putting the pressure on Williams to bring down the Manly custodian one-on-one, a task that proved too hard. This task would have been much easier with a more line-speed and less space for the attacker.
The second and third tries came through the middle. This was a new problem for the Raiders. Normally its on the edges they get eaten up. But tonight they threw in more centralised destruction for good measure.
This season sides have tried to take apart our large forward pack by forcing them to make second efforts in defence. Teams will try to offload in the middle of the park to make forwards hoping to retreat to the line have to step up and tackle. Or you will see ball-players drifting around the ruck, trying to get the big men out to tackle them. In this game Lachlan Croker sidled horizontally in front a timid middle defence. Curtis Sironen cut back against the grain similarly. By the time he offloaded to Korisau the Raiders forwards were struggling to cover across, and Tom Trbojevic scored easily. You can see Havili well behind the defensive line and Soliola, Whitehead and Boyd in an uneven line, sliding instead of coming forward, allowing Korisau the space to put Trbojevic in.
The third try came when a quick play the ball and out-of-position markers required the middle defence to collapse in on the ball. Joe Tapine managed to do so, but Elliot Whitehead was late and it was all the space Tom Trbojevic needed to go through.
The Raiders also helped Manly down the field by giving away penalties after the first and third tries – the former resulting in the field position that would allow the second try of the night, the latter resulting in two more points to Manly. Before the fourth try the Raiders gave away another penalty, piggy-backing Manly into the attacking zone. Some good work from the Manly forwards caused a numbers shortage of the Raiders right edge, and despite neither Leilua or Rapana making an error the Sea Eagles scored again. Moments later Parker should have scored again for the Sea-Eagles but couldn’t get the ball down.
It was a thorough dismantling of all aspects of the Raiders defence. The middle was exploited for metres as they have been so far this season. I can’t think of a good way to spin this. This is not an Achilles Heel – that gives the impression a side has to work hard to exploit it. This is a basic issue that can be attacked by all rugby league sides. The edges were damaged again today, but only as a last resort. When the edges held it was through remarkable individual efforts (like from Cotric) rather than any structural support.
With the ball it was hardly happier times. Sam Williams was not at his best, and after the first game he has offered little in ball-play or threatening the line. His defence is sub-par at best. Aidan Sezer was not good, but at least when his hands were on the ball the Raiders looked coordinated and dangerous. The brief second half comeback came from the connections between him and Jack Wighton. Sezer has the ability to straighten and pass, something that Williams hasn’t shown since round one and Austin hasn’t shown since round 21 last year. There’s no easy solution here. For mine I think Sezer is the best option. After that you could convince me of any partner. It seems clear that Stuart needs to pick a partner for Sezer and just stick with that.
The only bright spot from this game is the ongoing development of Wighton. He was the Raiders best by some way, threatening the line whenever he had the ball and making the pass/run choice with great ease. Both second half tries came from his ability to straighten and pressure edge defenders. He’s often the Raiders best defender and on several occasions made efforts on the goal line that could have been critical if the Raiders were better placed in the match.
For the rest Siliva Havili showed again he belongs in first grade, and his connection with Sia Soliola close to the line is becoming a more consistent threat. Ata Hingano was better than Sezer in dummy-half, but it seems that Craig Garvey would be a better option if the utility is going to play exclusively as a nine. With the ball Josh Papalii (13 runs for 136m) made good metres, and Shannon Boyd (7 for 73m) was excellent when he had the opportunity. He needs more minutes though.
But it’s clear the Raiders have real problems. A short turnaround means that their defensive issues are unlikely to go away before Thursday’s matchup with the Bulldogs. They’re not technically out of the finals at this stage but their weaknesses suggest that finding a way to win is a better focus than worrying about table positioning.