The Canberra Raiders finally played to their potential, demolishing the Wests Tigers 48-12 with a seven try, second half rampage. It is no coincidence that the return of Josh Hodgson played a huge part in this. Like his 2016 masterpiece against the Tigers, Hodgson mesmerized the Tigers ruck defenders. Mayhem ensued. The only question that remains is was this one sweet day or the start of something beautiful?
The Raiders suddenly find themselves with the very real (if unlikely) possibility of playing finals football. They’re just 4 points out with a chance to cut that to two next week. This is astounding given how many times green hearts have broken this season. Suddenly, the questions about back-up hookers, injured backs and departing forwards don’t seem as important. The Raiders just played some damn rugby league and the Tigers couldn’t handle it. The question is now ‘can they keep this going?’
Despite everyone’s effort this week to temper expectations, Josh Hodgson’s return made this happen. The Raiders outscored the Tigers 32-0 with Hodgson on the field. All of sudden the Raiders looked unpredictable and dangerous. Hodgson didn’t even really have to delve deep into his bag of tricks to make this happen. He simply made some smart decisions, read the play better than most and, as the game wore on, used his trademark deception out of dummy half to create momentum and metres where there was none. He had two try assists according to NRL.com (it was actually 3) but most of the Raiders attack came from his work.
His presence unleashed the forward pack. Josh Papalii (17 for 171) had a huge day, and did the majority of his work when the game was still on the line (he had 100+ metres at half time). He scored the Raiders’ second try when a good Hodgson ball combined with his brilliant line and carry. These pages this week had said Hodgson would bring back better connections around the ruck, and he and Papalii wasted no time proving us right.
It was also present on the edges. Joe Tapine was a menace on the end of Hodgson’s service. A fake left and a step right from Hodgson created all the space Tapine needed close to the line when he crashed over in the 42nd minute. Then in the 58th minute Hodgson repeated the dose, noticing the Tigers were short on the right, and quickly isolating Tapine against diminutive Tigers’ half Luke Brooks and Tapine was over again.
For the first time this season Hodgson also unleashed the brilliant ball-play of Elliot Whitehead (14 runs for 198m). Working down the left edge Hodgson routinely sent the ball to his countryman on the blind and good things resulted. Early on this was just metres but eventually it led to points when a Hodgson/Whitehead production ended in a Nic Cotric try after an impeccable ball from Jarrod Croker.
Whitehead was light on his feet throughout the game and almost impossible to put down, such as when his good take, bullocking run and astounding pass to Jack Wighton was only stopped from being a gorgeous try by the Bunker (probably correctly). Whitehead repeated the dose minutes later, starting a movement that was touched by nearly the whole side and ended with back-up prop throwing a cut-out pass to Michael Oldfield to score. Champagne football.
Such was the impact of Hodgson on the Raiders. All of sudden the free-wheeling football of previous iterations of the Raiders were back. Confidence flowed in their ball play. They looked unstoppable at all times and scoring became inevitable as the second ahlf wore on. Football was fun again.
All this damage Hodgosn wrought in the middle created space for the backs and they cashed in. BJ Leilua (16 runs for 146m) was quietly brilliant. He scored twice and made several critical runs – as a back coming off the Raiders line, as an extra forward in the middle of the park, and as on the end of sweeping movements such as the Raiders first try. On that occasion he simply ran over the defence.
Later it was his excellent dummy-half run that got the Raiders the field position that led to Blake Austin’s try, running a full-back line on the inside of Aidan Sezer. Jack Wighton was also a standout, working outside Austin on the right and as second receiver on the left. He was a crucial link man in several tries, and his grubber for Leilua’s second try was perfectly placed.
The only criticism one can make of the Raiders was the abject incompetence of the right edge defence. The Tigers scored twice in that area, once when Josh Papalii slid before he pushed up and was beaten on the inside by Chris Lawrence, and the other when Austin did similar and Corey Thompson stepped inside him. This edge was vulnerable all game and the only reason it didn’t cause more problems for the Raiders was the impervious nature of their attack. Lawrence in particular was menacing, and it could have been worse if not for some big defensive efforts by Joe Tapine in help. Austin’s recent improvements in one-on-one tackles were let down by his poor positional choices.
It was enough to give even the most optimistic Raiders fan pause on a day that was otherwise a celebration. The Green Machine have a difficult run home and without getting carried away, if they’re serious about playing finals football such a glaring weakness must be rectified or mitigated.
Making the finals will be tough enough. There is a difficult run home for the Raiders, most of it occurring outside of the nations’ capital. ‘If onlys’ will rock around the heads of most observers, making the numerous close losses this season even more frustrating. The Raiders have given the competition a massive head-start, and even if Hodgson’s influence is more than fleeting, September is a big hill to climb.
But for one day at least, the Raiders showed what they’re capable of. Whether it can last remains to be seen.