The tests have been thick and fast for the Raiders recently. After finding themselves in a 0-4 hole, they first had to show they had the ticker for the fight. Last week was more about showing they had the brains to not get in the way of a side capitulating. In the Bunnies the green machine find a worthy adversary, one that will match their strengths and better exploit their weaknesses than either the Bulldogs or the Eels.
The Raiders performance this Saturday will be a litmus test. Outside of the Warriors, the Raiders have lost to a series of sides that will find themselves in the middle (at best) of the table come September. Their two wins have come against sides that won’t escape the bottom four.
The Bunnies though are a good football side. No better was this demonstrated than a week ago when the Pride of the League defeated the Roosters. The Roosters have problems themselves – their middle men have inexplicably chosen right now to all fall off a cliff – but they will feature come September. The Bunnies had no problems with them. A bit further back they handled Manly easily, and competitive losses to genuinely good sides (Dragons, Warriors and Panthers) show a side capable of dancing with the best of the them.
The Raiders better be ready to earn it.
Be honest, at the beginning of 2018 you weren’t that excited about Shannon Boyd. After he and Junior Paulo were chosen over Paul Vaughan at the end of 2016, a quiet 2017 from Boyd had most Raiders fans longingly looking at Vaughan’s scintillating form for the Dragons and wondering “what if”.
This season though Boyd has been better than at any point in his career. His numbers may not be gaudy – 109 metres a game and 20 odd tackles according to Total Footy Stats but their accumulation has been impressive. He seems to always take the dead-tackle hit-ups, muscling momentum into sets by dragging defenders extra metres and landing on his stomach for a quick play-the-ball. In defence he’s been physical, and is by no means the Raiders weakness in the middle.
But the big boys face a massive test in the Burgesses (Burgei?). Tom and George were dominant against the Roosters, and Sam has been resting just for this game (or a suspension, whatever, not important). Angus Crichton and John Sutton are at opposite ends of their careers, but both will present challenges for the Raiders edges.
At their best, both packs can be dominant. At their worst they can look tired and susceptible to giving away easy metres (think the last two sets against the Warriors when the Raiders happily leaked 70+ metres). This is probably one the sternest tests the Raiders will face.
A Mighty Fine Spine
So full confession. I’m feeling a sneaky bit vindicated that the Raiders have been substantially improved in giving the control of the side to Aidan Sezer. I said they should do exactly that last November. I knew it, and so should have Ricky. Just make me coach now.
What was a bit more surprising was how the Raiders are using Blake Austin and Jack Wighton. In attack Austin isn’t really playing five-eighth. More accurately, he’s playing a dedicated second receiver on the right side. Jack Wighton is performing that function on the left. Both have relatively simple decisions to make when they get the ball. Pass or Run. Pretty simple. Both got it right a couple of times last week – Austin most notably when he went in to score inside some porous Corey Norman defence. Both also made a hash of that decision, Austin when he chose to keep running the ball for the rest of the game, Wighton when he pushed a few passes when the Raiders had a man advantage in the second half.
They’ll both have to get those decisions right this weekend.
Souths have the form nine in the competition in Damien Cook. Adam Reynolds is capable until he’s hurt. Unfortunately for the Raiders he is healthy.
You Can Do It (Put Your Backs Into It)
The underrated strength of the Raiders in recent years is in the metres the Raiders’ back five get in sets coming off the Raiders own line. They find quick play-the-balls, easy metres, and occasionally even points through their forceful and fancy running. These metres are critical – they get the Raiders out of trouble and can put them on the front foot, all the while giving the Raiders big men a rest.
Given the size of the brutes our big men will be coming up against this week, these metres are going to be even more important. The extra rest between sets will be critical.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of the array of attacking weapons the Rabbitohs have hanging out in their backline. Johnston, Inglis, Gagai all know how to find the try line.
Off the Pine
Papalii and Boyd form a formidable duo coming off the bench. Boyd is amazing, but Papalii off the bench gives the Raiders a versatility they haven’t had in the past from their bench forwards. Able to play in the middle or on the edge, Papalii’s presence as a rotation forward means that Sticky can effectively ‘ride the hot hand’, and perhaps even leave bigger forwards on for longer stints if they are dominating (seriously Sticky. Just for me. Give Boyd more time).
Another good sign for the Raiders has been the play of Dunamis Lui. I have to admit I was a bit unsure of Lui’s defence in his short stint last year. But with Sia Soliola he has been instrumental in locking up the middle for the Raiders late in games. When Charlie Gubb gets healthy the Raiders have a good type of ‘selection headache’ for the first time in ages.
Where It Can be Won
How you feel about the Raiders this weekend is a reflection of whether you think the enthusiasm of recent weeks will be sufficient to paper over the cracks at the edges of that defence. This will be a much sterner challenge this weekend than in previous. I have to admit I’m worried.
Raiders by 1. For tradition.
 The Bulldogs dominance of the Cowboys last Saturday said more to me about the abject unwillingness of the Cowboys pack than the Dogs capabilities.