The Canberra Raiders 24-16 loss to Cronulla was a profoundly disappointing affair. Presented with a chance to ensconce themselves in the top eight for the first time this season, the Green Machine instead offered a disjointed, impatient and ill-disciplined display. When the game was on the line in the second half they hoped the Sharks would present them with the victory. They did not.
This game was a unique measuring point for the Raiders. They had a chance to take a spot in the top eight and separate themselves from the increasingly obvious group of ‘also-rans’ this season. They faced a side that was missing a litany of stars and starters (Gallen, Dugan, Graham, Lewis, Bukuya) but would provide an honest test of the Raiders merit. Put simply if they were serious about challenging for a playoff position this year they would have won this game. Instead they bumbled and bungled the game away.
The Raiders only completed five out of the first nine sets and never really fixed that problem throughout the game. They finished only 67 percent of their sets. Throughout they found the metres to get down the field only to throw away the ball doing foolish things. No one was immune. Aidan Sezer had his worst game as a Raider. Siliva Havili passed the ball into Sia Soliola’s head. Jack Wighton’s impact beyond his yardage work was negligible. Even Elliot Whitehead pushed a pass and created an error. In short it was ill-disciplined and impatient football that was made frustrating because it wasted good work in the middle of the park.
When the Raiders held the ball they found metres that should have resulted in more points than they did. Josh Papalii (18 runs for 213m, 27 tackles and a try-assist) had his best club game since 2016 and with Shannon Boyd (8 for 81m) they routinely jump-started any set they carried in. Charlie Gubb (9 for 104m) and Dunamis Lui (9 for 98) ably supported them, although they were less effective in the second half than they were in the first. Joe Tapine (8 for 103m) was constantly threatening to burst through the Sharks left edge defence, and it seemed late in the game he kept putting the Raiders in the right areas to score.
But all these metres came to nothing because of the disjointed work of the Raiders ballplayers, particularly to end sets. In the aftermath of Austin’s injury, Sezer needed to take control of the side as he had done in every lime green victory this year. But instead he was impatient, harried by a good defence that required more than the usual to break. We’ve often been Sezer’s biggest defenders but this game was one of his worst.
This was compounded by the fact that Sezer rarely had an effective last tackle kick, doing his best to kick to corners but never challenging the back three of the Sharks. None of Blake Austin, Jack Wighton or Ata Hingano could find anything more consistent.
The Raiders kick chase was probably the only thing worse than the actual kicking. It created a try for Valentine Holmes when he caught a bomb and went 80 metres through a broken line. A rare good kick by Hingano later in the game should have resulted in a repeat set but there was no chase to keep the Sharks in their own in-goal. It was telling that the Raiders best kick of the game came from Elliot Whitehead. It resulted in a try to Nic Cotric.
But more than just kicking, the Raiders rarely penetrated out wide. Sezer created nothing but errors (and the final try for the Sharks), and Austin and Hingano offered little but ball-running (though Austin’s running was very effective). On the left Jack Wighton found himself making the decision to run almost every time due to the little space given to him by Cronulla defenders. On the one occasion they found some space on the wing, the last pass from Jarrod Croker was ruled forward and a try went begging.
The Raiders attack had no shortage of variety, if not execution. All the Raiders best movements worked back against the grain towards the middle. Both Blake Austin, and later Hingano ran interesting plays where Jordan Rapana ran outside-in lines that threatened the middle of the park. It was an smart addition to the inside-balls that Sezer has ran with Junior Paulo and Papalii in recent weeks that have sought to put the pressure on middle defenders.
Blake Austin’s try (and injury) came on a play where he effectively ran as a second-rower next to Papalii, working off the big man by running hard and straight up the middle. It wasn’t the first time in recent weeks they’ve used him in this way. Austin has increasingly played more like a big ball-runner than a ball-player. It’s the best use of him but a restriction on BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana.
The limited effectiveness of the attack was a shame because the Raiders didn’t lack for effort in defence. Wighton made multiple try-saving tackles, as did Jarrod Croker. Elliot Whitehead was astounding in turning one-on-one tackles into advantageous rucks. The Raiders scrambled well for the first part of the game but the poor completion rate just put too much pressure on their defence.
As the game wore on the the Sharks started to find gaps in, and around, the ruck. The Raiders held Andrew Fifita to 66 first half metres, but he ended the game with 175. He didn’t get a break but only got stronger as the Raiders’ defence faded. He should have scored late in the game but fumbled over the line. James Segeyaro provided enough poke around the ruck to threaten the Raiders defenders in the middle. He created a try out of nothing, well aided by Wighton’s lack of aggression on the bounce of his grubber. As the Raiders attention became focused in the middle, the wings became frayed, and the Sharks found a way around the Raiders. Sosaia Feki should have scored twice, and the one try he did score put the Sharks in front for good.
This game was a crossroads for the Raiders. Win and get amongst the top end. Instead they sit outside, and face a top-tier Dragons side itching to get back into the winner’s circle. They risk falling further out of contact with even the middle of the competition.
The Raiders are by no means done for the season but it’s hard to ignore that they keep stumbling with the metaphorical tryline wide open. They can ill-afford any more games like that from Sezer et al. They should never waste the work of Papalii, Boyd and Tapine like that. After the start to this season it seemed liked these sorts of games were stricken from their system. Let’s hope this is the last.