The Canberra Raiders 42-22 loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs was a harbinger of a difficult season to come. The green machine was thumped through the middle and destroyed on the edge. In response they couldn’t muster anything that seriously threatened their opposition. They will face many worse sides this season, but this game showed significant improvement is needed to be a serious force in 2018.
It’s tempting to blame the Raiders’ edges for their destruction today. The efforts of Blake Austin in defence early in the game certainly aid that discussion. He was clearly targeted in the South Sydney game-plan, and the first two tries came from sweeping movements that took advantage of Austin’s decision-making in the backline. On the first try Austin turned his body ever so slightly towards the decoy run of John Sutton and was unable to bring down Alex Johnston close to the line.
Mere minutes later Cody Walker ran straight at him, and Austin, still effectively on his line was poorly placed and unable to bring him down close to the line.
Austin is often portrayed as a physical defender who can occasionally make poor decisions. In this case he was simply outmuscled. The Raiders were already down 10 points and they’d only touched the ball once.
In the 13th minute a further try worked down that edge meant that the Raiders were in a very deep hole and the Bunnies had barely broken a sweat.
This try came from a line that sat back and gave the Rabbitohs the space to run their set play. The result was a beautifully orchestrated try unencumbered by a defensive line that failed to close on them.
Austin’s defence is a problem because the Bunnies refused to send attack almost anywhere else for the first 60 minutes. They would take metres in the middle, and then work at his edge almost exclusively. It is unlikely this is the last time this season that the Raiders will face such an attack. It seems trite to say Ricky Stuart should fix this. If he could he would have by now.
But to be fair to Blake, he was just the fall guy for a group of middle men that were summarily dominated. The enthusiasm of recent weeks was unable to compete with a side that simply shrugged off initial contact or offloaded to extend second-phase play. At half time, despite the possession stats being almost equal, the Bunnies had accrued almost 400 more metres than the Raiders. By the end of the game it was more than 600. Damien Cook organised a forward pack that found metres at will in the middle. Sam Burgess had 203 metres for the game. Thomas Burgess also took 153. Cook himself had 115 metres that were almost too easy to come by.
Poor Ata Hingano was singled out by the Bunnies on several occasions and it is unfair to him to keep playing him in the middle. Much like Aidan Sezer before him, he is a willing defender but simply not capable of defending major minutes in the middle of the park. Jason Clarke’s try in the 61st minute came by running over Hingano, and it wasn’t the first time he was exploited in the middle. Also like Sezer his slow and obvious dummy-half play is problematic for the Raiders in attack. If only they had an in-form backup hooker capable of filling the minutes that Havili spends on the bench (which were too long today and I suspect not through Havili’s choice).
This dominance laid the platform that allowed Adam Reynolds to either pin the Raiders in their corners or face difficult high kick opportunities. Even when this didn’t result in tries (such as Robert Jennings’ in the 54th minute, they stuck the Raiders near their own goal-line, placing the Raiders at a disadvantage as their opposition mauled them. Even the Raiders backs, so often capable of turning a dead-set around, were kept in check by a Souths line.
Never before had they so badly needed someone like Shannon Boyd to barge the Raiders into the game, but Coach Stuart inexplicably kept him off the field until after the 50th minute. Junior Paulo spent a lot of time on the field and ended with 144 running metres, and a couple of good runs but he never was able to dominate. He did not look like he was worth $2.8 million today. Josh Papalii, similarly angling for a new contract, took 100 plus metres but also struggled in the face of a dominant opposition.
This disadvantage showed in the play of the Raiders halves. Aidan Sezer had his worst game in the halves this season. The attack he organised can best be described as clunky, and too often he passed when defenders were already in the line – most notably to Greg Inglis who streaked 70 metres to score. He has yet to properly take advantage of Joe Tapine’s brilliant running ability. Sezer should have been willing to take on the line more, or kick early for his wings, if only to keep the speedy Souths defensive line honest.
Austin matched his poor defensive effort with a largely uninvolved role in attack. He barely registered with the ball, save for good run after the game was well settled. It’s not clear what he offers this side outside of a good right foot step. It’s too early to call for sackings in my opinion, but Austin should be well aware that his performance was not sufficient.
Much more was offered by Jack Wighton as the other second receiver used by Sezer. Wighton created 3 of the Raiders tries with his excellent running and ball play. He continues to make excellent decisions about when to pass and when to run.
Each try came from him making split second decisions under pressure, holding the ball just long enough to force the wrong decision from the Souths and finding Nic Cotric open on the wing. Then he shrugged off a tackle in close quarters and offloaded to put Elliot Whitehead over. Then late in the game his brilliant touch pass rewarded Sezer’s vision and Croker scored a consolation try. His combination with Sezer continues to impress and was the lone bright moment in this game.
These problems – a soft middle, weak edge defence and clunky attack – are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. In previous weeks they simply out-enthused these faults, their defence holding because their line was quick, and their effort exemplary. But effort and heart only matters so much when you are playing sides that are well coached and talented (and notice that Blake Austin inexplicably retreats in defence). You would say the Raiders coaches could find a way to improve their edge defence, or their lack of line speed, or their weak middle. But these problems have existed for the entirety of the Stuart reign.
It sounds dark but there’s always a way back. It’s too early in the season and the Raiders are too close to the pack to panic just yet. Minor changes may be enough to bring the Raiders back, but if anything is to be learnt from this game, it’s that it will take more than enthusiasm this time.
 I’m using NRL’s stats here, which are notoriously unreliable.