The Canberra Raiders did not perform well for much of their 21-20 victory over the Manly Sea-Eagles. At best you could call them inconsistent. They dropped too much ball. Gave away critical penalties. Did the wrong thing at the wrong time for a good proportion of the game. They also fought their way back into a match they seemed out of on multiple occasions. They even dominated for brief periods. And then when the game was in the balance, they did what teams have done to them this year. They stole the match.
It wasn’t that the Raiders didn’t do anything good in this game. More that every good thing they did seemed to be followed by something infuriating. The Sea Eagles first try came after a smart set by the Raiders, in which they took plenty of metres, put in a good kick with an effective chase and pinned Manly in their own line. They then gave away two penalties in a row, followed that with a poor read from probably their best defender, and Daly Cherry-Evans wandered in to score like I walk into pubs (alone).
The Raiders defence alternated between seeming like an impenetrable wall and a sieve. The Sea-Eagles second try came when Blake Austin tackled nothing, and Joel Thompson ambled in. This was mere minutes after Tom Trbojevic had Austin beat only for BJ Leilua to save his bacon with an excellent inside shoulder tackle. It was the bad-old Austin, and such a departure from his impressive effort last week. For his part Leilua was astounding in defence, ending wave after wave of attack aimed at Austin with excellent help defence. And then all of a sudden in the 63rd minute Brian Kelly busted a soft arm-tackle from him and scored. That the defence was often robust in between these failures only served to make them more confounding.
With the ball the Raiders were equally confusing. There were some things they did wonderfully well. Jordan Rapana, Nic Cotric, Jack Wighton and Leilua were again brilliant in yardage. They do much work coming off the Raiders line that they are starting to function like a second forward pack. More than once in this game they created attacking sets from nothing, simply by overpowering the ruck defenders to earn metres and penalties. Havili was often their partner in crime.
The actual forward pack had some moments but hardly put together 80 minutes of work. Josh Papalii (13 runs for 120m) was the only one to crack 100 metres, and it was telling that when the Raiders were setting up the field goal to win the match it was Papa who made the crucial run.
The forward pack’s effectiveness was limited by the amount of ball dropped. The Green Machine made eight errors in the second half including five between the 63rd and the 74th minutes. Even the normally sure-handed Elliot Whitehead had two errors on the stat sheet (and a couple other turnovers that weren’t technically errors). Shannon Boyd (10 for 77m) spent more time rag-dolling Cherry-Evans in the second half than he did running the ball.
The Raiders points came from the vicious play of its left-side attack led by Jack Wighton. Wighton has matured as a ball-player this year. Where he once had plenty of errors in his game, he now makes the right decision on every attacking movement. On the first try he held the ball up wonderfully, drawing Manly winger Akuila Uate infield, and throwing the pass behind him to give Cotric a clean field to the line. Minutes later he repeated the dose, making the right call to put it through the hands. Uate, expecting another cut-out ball, panicked and steamed in. Croker just shuffled the ball into Cotric’s hands for another try. With Josh Hodgson absent, he’s the Raiders most devastating ball-player. Combine that with his yardage work and his brutal defence and you have quite the player.
The final try that helped steal the match wasn’t so much Wighton’s work as Cotric’s brilliance. Wighton created the space, Cotric caught a demanding pass and somehow turned it into a well placed kick. Wighton got the points and the Raiders were incredibly in with a chance to win. Cotric has surely done enough to earn a Blue jersey, though it will be better for the Raiders if he misses out.
Aidan Sezer connected well with Wighton on the left edge, but the rest of his passing game was shaky. More than once he through a pass to a forward who was already in the line. When it was Shannon Boyd he dropped it. When it was Sia Soliola it was a forward pass. One time Charlie Gubb held on. But each time it was telegraphed and unnecessary, barely challenging the defence.
Most of these poor passes come because Sezer is trying to make passes that are well-covered. This could be easily solved if he ran the ball more often. He barely took on the line in this game, much as he failed to last week. So often he is drifting across field or even worse, away from the line. The Raiders attack is easy to predict when he does this. A few attempts at breaking the line would keep defences more honest.
His kicking was better, save for the maddeningly traditional ‘grubber to no one’ on the third tackle. He has done it so often recently that it must be a plan. He should probably tell someone else the plan though. But when the game was on the line it was his perfectly placed long-chip to the corner that put the Raiders in the position for him to slot the winning field-goal.
It was a fun game. It was a loose game. Neither side performed well and the Raiders have as many problems after the game as they had before it. It was hardly the solution to the Green Machine’s season of problems, but it was the salve to stop the hurt that so many moments have provided this season.
Perhaps the nature this win is why this game seems such a study in contrasts. The Raiders were courageous and inept. The victory was dramatic but frustrating. I yelled at my television as much as I have all season, and yet here we are talking about a season still alive because when push came to shove – and not a moment before – the Raiders found a way to put their best foot forward. Instead of being the side being run over, the Green Machine were the side that rolled into contention while the other side played with their food. It was like the rest of their 2018, only the opposite.
This time the Raiders were thieves.