Raiders Review: Nothing Comes Easy

BY DAN

Nothing comes easy to the 2018 Canberra Raiders. Their 18-8 win over the North Queensland Cowboys used a mix of patience and effort to overcome an opposition that dominated possession. This victory keeps the Raiders in the sights of the top 8, but improvement is still required in coming weeks.

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Like the Raiders victories against the Eels and Bulldogs, this game will only be as significant as next week. The Cowboys were not as stale as they have been in recent weeks but nor were they fluent. In attempting to come out of their slumber they tried to be more innovative in attack – even moving Michael Morgan to fullback late in the game in recognition that his permanent tenancy on the Cowboys right is limiting his impact. They sought to expose the discipline of the Raiders middle though an array of inside balls and outside-in lines.

Per NRL.com, the Raiders only had 44 percent of the ball, and were outgained by close to 250 metres. But their defence was able to corral the Cowboys, limiting them to just one try over the 80 minutes. By the 70th minute the Cowboys had been tackled 33 times in the Raiders twenty and had rarely looked like cracking the line. The only real success the Queenslanders had was kicking to the corners, something that could have resulted in more points than it did, save for the bounce of the ball.

Given the weight of possession the Raiders were surprisingly strong through the middle. Jason Taumalolo had the quietest 162 metres you will ever see and Coen Hess was rendered obsolete by Elliot Whitehead (32 tackles, 11 runs for 97m) . The only freedom Hess got was when he ventured away from the Englishman. Joe Tapine, (49 tackles), Siliva Havili (39 tackles), Josh Papalii (37 tackles) were instrumental with Whitehead in keeping the Cowboys out. The only real error the middle made was when Havili pushed up too quickly on Jonathon Thurston, creating the gap that Gavin Cooper strolled through for the Cowboys only try.

On the edges the Raiders were much more resolute than previous weeks. Michael Morgan was well held by Aidan Sezer, who also put a cracker of a goal line hit on Coen Hess in the 71st minute to save a try with the game still in the balance. Sezer (and the rest of the Raiders’ left edge) worked well to remove Morgan’s space. In the preview we noted that Jonathon Thurston’s tendency to overhandle the ball had reduced the amount of space available to Morgan. In this game however, Thurston was much more effective, taking on the line more often. There should not have been a lack of space available to Morgan, safe for the efforts of Sezer and his compatriots on the left. Morgan didn’t make an impact until the last 10 minutes of the game when he moved to fullback, which allowed him to get the ball with more space and running more damaging lines. The Raiders right was not airtight but was improved on last week’s debacle. Blake Austin still had some moments where his decision making was not perfect, but few can question his effort. BJ Leilua and Austin shut down several raids down their side early in the game.

Given they played the game with such little ball, the Raiders did well to find three tries, let alone any metres. They got their rare opportunities through the excellent work of their back five. Jordan Rapana (232m), Nic Cotric (126m) and BJ Leilua (109m) dragged the Raiders out of their own half on multiple occasions. Scoring opportunities came on the back of metres and momentum earned by these backs with their hit ups. They rarely got an opportunity in attack though.

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Cotric (and the rest of the back 5) were excellent (Courtesy AAP: Michael Chambers)

The Raiders clearly gameplanned to take the Cowboys through the middle, and Aidan Sezer routinely sent runners back inside against the middle, or went to the short face ball on the edges. He controlled the game by kicking excellently to the corners, and for once the Raiders kick-chase supported these kicks.

Sezer also took on the line more than last week. This was obviously notable when he barged through the line to score in the 51st minute, but he’d shown it before halftime when he nearly burst through the line but couldn’t hold the ball. It was another good game for Sezer and shows how comfortable he has grown as the dominant voice in the Raiders attack.

Outside him Blake Austin was more involved than last week. He played mostly as first receiver on the right side, a departure from his wider role in past weeks. He mostly played short to Tapine but had a nice connection with BJ Leilua running an outside-in line that I would like to see more of. Combined with his improved defence it was a performance from Austin than will see him hold off any pressure for his position in the short-term.

The increased involvement of Austin in attack seemed to restrict Jack Wighton’s role. Wighton was barely seen with the ball (save for his good work bringing it off our own line and some excellent positioning on kicks). He did chime in late in the first half to create the opportunity that saw Nic Cotric almost score. It was the slickest backline movement the Raiders had all night. Wighton was exemplary (as per usual) in defence, most notably in his try-saving tackle on Michael Morgan late in the game.

The Raiders did most of their damage close to the ruck as per the plan. Siliva Havili was good for the Raiders, and it was good to see him get close to 60 minutes. It is critical he gets this time if Stuart insists on playing poor Ata Hingano as backup nine. He continues to be out of his depth. His service is slow, his decisions are poor and in defence he’s out-muscled and out of position. I think he might be a talented half, but like Aidan Sezer before him he is simply not a hooker.

For his part Havili pushed a pass to Josh Papalii early in the game and jumped out of dummy-half on the last without a real plan once. But apart from those errors, his service and his ability to identify running opportunities continues to impress. His strength to score the match-sealing try by barging over Coen Hess, Scott Bolton, Jake Granville and Matt Scott was incredible. He has yet to quite connect on short passes close to the try-line to big forwards, but his link with Papalii for the Raiders first try suggests that this is improving. A quick mention too for Shannon Boyd (9 for 93m) who was brilliant through the middle 40 minutes of the game, making several barnstorming runs that knocked over tacklers. He twice got off excellent offloads, one that created the momentum for Sezer’s try.

These two points were well earned but it cannot be ignored that the Raiders three victories this season have come against the 14th, 15th and 16th placed sides. The defence has shown it can be resolute in attitude but still faces challenges when it comes to more sophisticated attacks. Improvement is still necessary for the Raiders to find a way into the 8 this year, but this victory means that remains a possibility.

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