The Canberra Raiders 32-18 victory over the Gold Coast Titans was scrappy in parts and brilliant in others. Far and away the better side, the Raiders careened over their opposition through the dominance of the middle third, but failed to take advantage of that difference due to lack of patience and squandered opportunities. A critical win resulted, continuing the upwards trajectory of the last month. But bigger challenges are waiting around the corner.
The Raiders forwards were dominant through the middle third. Sia Soliola (17 carries for 170m) and Shannon Boyd were exemplary (13 for 142m). Josh Papalii (11 for 112m and 32 tackles) had his best game since returning to first grade on both sides of the ball. Joe Tapine (10 for 111m) continues his upwards trajectory, and was a constant threat on the right edge in attack.
The physical supremacy was no better demonstrated by Boyd’s second half performance. After the Titans had fought back to trail only 20-12 early in the second half, Boyd turned the game on its head. He started by barging over the middle of the Titans defence close to the line to score. Three people tried to tackle him. None of them could. Minutes later he burst onto an Aidan Sezer inside ball (something that Sezer had been working on all game with Papalii and Paulo before Boyd) rampaging around 40 metres (seriously is there anything better than a big prop rumbling in space?) That run put the Raiders in the position to ice the game, which he nearly set up through a good run and pass to Sezer. Moments later the Raiders ended the game. If ever there was an argument to pay ‘overs’ for Boyd it was this period.
The Raiders used these inside balls all game to great effect. Soliola and Papalii were the beneficiaries in the first half, as Sezer worked the Titans inside and out. While no others resulted in big run that Boyd had, they all served the purpose of making the Titans edge defence show it could make tackles, and stopped the inside defenders from cheating outside.
Throughout the game the Titans edges were back-peddling in the face of Raiders movements and the Raiders exploited this weakness mercilessly. Siliva Havili and Sezer continually sent big runners at these edges, and easy metres resulted. The first try came off the back of almost going out of their way to target the Titans right edge, and Soliola strolled through next to the uprights when the Titans defence focused on everyone else but the person who actually received the ball.
Minutes later another relentless attack on the right edge resulted in a try to Joe Tapine. It was a well worked move by Blake Austin, who took the ball to the line and put Tapine through the gap. But it was a victory for the game plan as much as anything, with the identification of Bryce Cartwright as a weakness to be exploited on the Titans’ left edge rewarded when he turned his body inside to take Austin, creating the gap that Tapine strolled through.
The continued at this edge on the set following the try. Two great hits up from Soliola and one from Tapine at the right edge put the Raiders at nearly halfway after just three tackles. This opened up the Raiders to work against the left edge, and a good kick from Sezer resulted in a try to Croker.
Because the defence was so focused on stopping runners at the edges the Raiders’ wide men suddenly had acres of space. BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana were impervious on the right wing, and their good work should have resulted in more points that it did. Leilua constantly attracted the Titans’ eyes (such as on the first try), and by simply dumping the ball over the top he sent Rapana on multiple big runs down the right wing. More than once it should have resulted in points, such as when Rapana made a huge break that started from a Leilua flick, but missed his support inside, kicking instead for Austin who couldn’t grab the difficult bounce. Instead they saved their points for later when BJ’s brilliant ball to Rapana on the back of Boyd’s work iced the game.
The Raiders did allow the game to drift too often. After skipping to 20-0 lead they begun to try and score on every play, and pushed passes hit the ground. Late in the game they went wide without ‘earning’ it by bending the middle. Instead they struggled with a defence that wasn’t required to be honest.
This period coincided with Aidan Sezer taking a backseat to other members of the side. Austin began to slide into first receiver, Havili began to take more chances and the Raiders wasted their dominance. Havili got Wighton caught with the ball on the last, and gave the Titans a seven tackle set after another when he grubbered for no one in particular. Too many sets ended without a kick. For his part Sezer had a very good game, effectively controlling and directing the Raiders attack, particularly early in the game. But he can’t let the other members of the side take the control from him.
Siliva Havili had another effective 50 minutes and the attack suffered noticeably when he left the field. His decision-making in choosing the face-ball to Soliola for the first try was perfect and while they were instances late in the game where he got it wrong, he is always attacking.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Ata Hingano’s service out of acting-half is substandard, and the slowness was part of the reason the Raiders were forced wider late in the game because the there was no space in the middle. Jack Wighton was effective on the left edge when he had opportunities. His ball to Cotric was a perfect piece of fullback play, taking on the line long enough to commit the inside defender, before a great pass to Cotric. But these chances were limited by the weakness of the Titans on the other side of the field.
In terms of their defence it’s a hard game to assess. The Raiders gave away 18 more points that the Titans really deserved. The Raiders rarely seemed stressed by any of the movements they ran, controlling the middle of the park easily. Boyd and Papalii were physical in defence. On the edges Sezer and Whitehead were a brick wall on the Raiders left edge, with Proctor and Taylor unable to find any joy attacking them. But the Titans made so many errors in the Raiders twenty – by my count there was at least six – that it’s hard to assess whether they can sustain well-built pressure.
But the Titans managed to still walk away with 18 points. Two of those tries came from risky kicks – one was a set grubber for a prop, the other required a rubbish bounce and a second rower to catch-and-swivel at full speed. Those points won’t be there in future weeks, but they were there today, and the Raiders can’t afford to be so generous to better sides.
It was a messy victory. The Raiders dominated the game, but the punctuation of that ascendancy with poor ends to sets, penalties and Titans points should be enough to make any Raiders fan wary. More disciplined sides will take advantage of the ‘hand-up’ the Green Machine so often gave the Titans. The Raiders are now within shouting distance of the top 8, which is admirable given where they were a month ago. But in coming weeks the Raiders take on the Sharks and the Dragons, two of the more well-oiled machines in the competition. This performance is enough to suggest that they continue to build, but the real test is coming.