It’s been a rough start to the year for the Canberra Raiders.
After four weeks from hell to start the season the Raiders put in two solid performances against sides that have struggled this season. Then faced with a premiership contender for the second time this season they were routed. We covered what happened here, but the short version is they were steamrolled in the middle, abused on the edges, and not in a position to win the match after the games opening minutes.
The Raiders learnt just how far they are off the pace. The Bunnies will be a top six side this year. The men from the capital will be looking up at that if they don’t make improvements and quick.
Meanwhile their opposition theoretically righted their highly-favoured ship against a side that beat the Raiders in round one. They were better against the Broncos and lost. Last weekend they were helped by a side that dropped a bunch of ball and were generally incapable of handling the Cows big middle. That win was a rock fight and they came up against someone with very small rocks.
Both sides need a win so throw desperation out as a variable. A loss from either doesn’t rule them out of the finals but it may as well. Neither side has displayed sustained periods where they showed they deserved to be in that conversation anyway. But a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step, and so Saturday is the best place to start.
The Raiders middle men would be smarting after what the Burgess boys did to them last week. The real story about this game was that Coach Stuart watched his men get trampled and kept his own rhinoceros on the bench until the game was pretty much over.
They’ve tried to remedy this by adding Josh Papalii to the starting lineup at lock for this week, a position that seems to fit his more ‘robust’ frame of recent seasons. He’s struggled there for the Raiders in the past but thrived internationally there. Boyd remains on the bench and I hope he gets more minutes.
After the Aidan Sezer experiment at hooker failed, we all learnt two lessons. Siliva Havili is good enough to play major minutes, and don’t shoe-horn people into hooker who don’t play there. It weakens both sides of the ball. What happened to poor Ata Hingano on the weekend was not a reflection on his talent. Stuart has persisted with that model for reasons that are beyond me.
Across the park they’ll find a forward pack that should be better than their production. Forget Sam Burgess, Jason Taumalolo is the actual best forward in football. Coen Hess is a beast, and will play Origin this season. But the Cowboys middle men have been awful this year. In defence they’ve lacked line speed and enthusiasm, and have inexplicably been physically dominated on multiple occasions. However, Shaun Fensom returns for the Cowboys. He is exactly the kind of forward that the Cowboys are desperately missing right now – mobile and hardworking. He’ll do a big job keeping the middle much tighter than it has been for the Cowboys this season.
I miss you Shaun.
A Mighty Fine Spine
As we pointed out in our review (and by others like Bourkie’s Top 10), Aidan Sezer didn’t take on the line much on the weekend and his play, and the space around him suffered for it. An easy thing to fix though. Similarly, it’s easy to fix the Raiders substandard dummy-half play by ensuring Siliva Havili plays as many minutes as possible. Jack Wighton continues to thrive as the Raiders fullback/chief creator on the left edge. He set up three of the four tries the men in lime green scored. Many have called for him to be shifted to centres, but he needs the ball in his hands for the Raiders to benefit.
The left-out man here is Blake Austin. I’ve mentioned that the Raiders are playing ‘split five-eighths’ in which Wighton and Austin play as split second-receivers. But last week Austin was often playing outside Wighton even on Austin’s ‘side’. He barely breathed a word in anger in attack, and had a day to forget in defence.
Jonathon Thurston’s return has pushed Michael Morgan wide of the ruck and the Cowboys have suffered. Thurston is moving slower than in recent years and is almost no threat to run the ball. This is putting a huge amount of pressure on Morgan to create with very little space. Sides with good line speed and rock solid edge defences can easily handle this. Sigh.
You Can Do It (Put Your Backs Into It)
The Raiders have not been let down by their back five this year but they were constrained by Souths equally talented (and sized) group – mostly due to the fact they rarely got the ball other than to bring it off their own line. When they did get a chance they did their jobs.
They face a group that has had a patchy season because, like the Raiders, the Cowboys have been dominated so often in the middle of the park.
From a talent perspective this is the Raiders biggest advantage. But that advantage is easily taken away if the Raiders aren’t competitive in the middle.
Where It Can be Won
The forwards have to lift dramatically from last week. The Cowboys middle is exploitable, and if the Raiders edges can tighten up and be more aggressive they can cut down the space available to Michael Morgan. Find a way to do that and the Raiders are in with a shot. I’d start with playing Havili 60 plus minutes and Boyd 40 plus.
But maybe the sweet taste of victory was all the Cowboys needed to get going again this season. If the Cowboys find the form that their list should produce, then the Raiders are in for a night of trouble.
Look we always pick the Raiders. So let’s say the Cowboys malaise continues, the pack (with Boyd and Havili) dominates and the Raiders’ backs run free.
Raiders by 8
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