The Canberra Raiders 26-10 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs was one of courage in the face of adversity. Down men and possession, the Raiders played intelligent football and showed guts, determination and pure grit to earn a desperately needed victory. There is long way to march before the Green Machine is a threat in this competition, but this was the first step. And one that they should be proud of.
It’s impossible to talk about this game without considering its context. The Raiders had lost 4 on the trot, 3 in the most soul-destroying fashion. They were called ‘soft’ by their own coach. On a short turnaround, they lost their starting fullback in the moments leading up to the match, despite all week having to deal with the turmoil his preseason actions had created. During the match they lost their replacement winger, their bench utility and their starting half. By the end of the game Elliot Whitehead was playing five-eighth, and Sia Soliola had moved from prop, to second-row, to centre. At 12-6 in the second half, they were down to 14 healthy players and used their last interchange with more than 15 minutes to go. And yet through all that they somehow managed to hold on.
It was frantic. It was courageous. It was epic.
Amongst this maelstrom of activity the Raiders were gritty across the park. In defence their line-speed was much improved on recent weeks. Early in the game they ravaged the Bulldog forwards, and routinely kept them around 40 metres on each set. When the Doggies sat on the goal line, as they did for 4 sets in a row early, the Raiders scrambling defence showed the hot blood and courage that had been missing recently (and then turned it into a length of the field try). Even as the game wore on, the line speed largely and goal line desperation remained. At critical points in the game the Raiders defence faced the opposite and stood proud. Even a late stay on the Raiders’ line to end the first half was repelled, something that felt foreign given their recent tendency to capitulate at inopportune times.The Bulldogs’ predictability in attack helped, but often sheer determination and desperation by men in green kept them from scoring.
The middle-men proved resolute after last weeks debacle. As he so often does, Sia Soliola led the defensive line, and as he and Elliot Whitehead moved wider they dealt with quicker men impressively. Dunamis Lui and Siliva Havili, in effectively double the minutes they are used to, were impressive in holding the middle. Havili showed he can handle the longer stay, and Lui was excellent, making several desperate tackles to hold out players close to the line. None was more impressive than late in the first half when he stopped Dogs half Keiran Foran from scoring in a one-on-one.
And for the first time this season the edges were up to the fight as well. Joe Tapine, Aidan Sezer and BJ Leilua have impressed as a group on the Raiders right edge. They repelled several movements from the Bulldogs. Tapine and Leilua routinely manhandled Canterbury’s ball-runners, and Sezer capably dealt with the traffic sent his way. More than once he made good tackles on wide-running forwards close to the line.
With the ball the Raiders were effective if not polished. Aidan Sezer had his best game since he moved to Canberra. His kicking game was simply astounding, even moreso given departure meant he was a clear target for the Canterbury defenders. His kicks led to three tries – 2 for Croker and 1 for Leilua. When he wasn’t kicking for tries, he was weighting them perfectly to sit the doggies in the corner. As the game wore on each kick seemed smarter than the last.
We’ve said for some time that the attack should be centred around Sezer in the absence of Hodgson, and this game was a perfect demonstration of why. As important as his kicking was that he drove the side around the park in the second half in the manner people had been hoping he would for over two years now. He handled the ball multiple times on sets, sent runners where they needed to go, and managed to create points where there didn’t seem to be any. It was the kind of performance the Raiders missed in recent weeks, and in many of their close losses.
In particular Sezer showed a good connection with Tapine. They both probed on the right, Tapine nearly always bending the line or taking 3 or 4 tacklers to get him down. Obscured by the drama surrounding the side is that Tapine is in the middle of a breakout year. His metres (88) were not massive, but every one of them was felt by the Bulldogs.
BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana were creative and brilliant early, and then became rampaging ball-runners in the second half to give the forwards a rest. Leiliua in particular has been excellent for several weeks now. He still has brain-fades, but one can’t question the importance of his ability to turn a dead set around by busting through tackles. At their best, his combination with Rapana is as good as any in the competition.
The Raiders forwards were impressive give the amount of defence they did. While no one picked up massive metres (Lui’s impressive off-the-bench effort of 134 all-run metres was the most) each forward made a critical impact. Shannon Boyd had 104 metres, but every single one of them was earth shattering. Junior Paulo (12 runs for 131m) came out of his shell in the second half, and Soliola (8 for 89m), Whitehead (8 for 67m) seemed to turn the hardest runs into metres and momentum.
Despite the victory, there is plenty of room for improvement. The Raiders bombed 4 tries by my count. Rapana and Oldfield both couldn’t finish great kicks by their halves. Leilua got over the line and couldn’t get the ball down. And Whitehead put down a Cotric pass when he was in the clear.
The connections across the back weren’t perfect either. Cotric was not seamless at the back – the Raiders sweep movements were clunkier than recent weeks. His pass to Whitehead was enough behind the big man to make it somewhat his responsibility when the ball hit the ground. It’s a reminder that regardless of the kid’s talent, playing fullback is tough gig. Despite not getting any preparation, he was still quality, and his decision-making and ball-playing will improve with time.
There’s real questions asked by the likely prolonged absence of Hingano and Williams. Austin will likely come back in to first grade, and one hopes he plays second fiddle to Sezer in terms of organisation. His defence will need to improve, particularly if he is slotted in between Tapine and Leilua. Hingano’s absence hopefully means Craig Garvey gets a call up, but Stuart has done weird things this year (hello Aidan Sezer, hooker extraordinaire).
Defensively there is still work to do. In the past we’ve talked about the systematic problems the Raiders have with their line speed and their approach to edge defence. This game proved that better effort can help. But there was more than one occasion where the outside defence was retreating in the face of the attack. A better side could have taken advantage of that. It’s hard to simply out-enthuse your problems each week. Aiding Blake Austin to that mix will require work.
The men from the capital also gave away too many penalties, often helping the Dogs from their own end. It was frustrating because too often a good defensive set was rendered moot by the whistle.
The Raiders got the victory they so desperately needed. They faced all manner of difficulties to take it, using heart as much as skill. There are sterner tests coming down the pipeline – one week does not a season make. All their problems weren’t solved last night and won’t be solved by enthusiasm alone. But for one week at least, the Raiders can rest in the knowledge that in the face of outrageous fortune they stood tall.
And I couldn’t be prouder.