The Canberra Raiders threw another game away. This time it was 26-22 to the Brisbane Broncos. They did it in the same way they did every game that they’ve choked the life from this year. Poor edge defence and slowing defensive line speed. Critical errors late in the game. Overrun in the last ten minutes.
It was as sad as it was inevitable.
The stakes were so much higher this week. A loss in this game meant that the finals in 2018 is now only a mathematical possibility. The vague hopes of a finals run that burst out of Josh Hodgson’s return last weekend lasted all of six days.
The Raiders lost because of the problems they have had all year. Game-planning for the Green Machine doesn’t take long. Teams run their attacking formations at the right edge, force Blake Austin to make decisions, and know that more than enough times they’ll be the wrong ones. When the game gets tight, wait for the errors and watch the Raiders’ forwards disappear.
Austin didn’t disappoint the Broncos in this game. In the second half his incorrect decisions led to three of the Broncos four tries. The Broncos’ first points came when Austin unnecessarily pushed in on the ball, forcing BJ Leilua and Michael Oldfield to charge in also, creating the overlap that allowed Corey Oates over the line. Then at 22-12, Austin over-committed on an inside runner, creating the gap that led to another try.
Then to cap the madness, he committed the cardinal sin of sliding before the ball had passed him, failing to take his inside shoulder, and allowing Anthony Milford to stroll past Sia Solioa.
Three decisions to make, and he got everyone wrong.
I may be unfairly pinning the blame solely on Austin. For sure it takes two (or three) to tango and the right edge is doing its best ‘drunk dad on the wedding dance floor’. Soliola was the primary defender responsible for Milford and needed to be quicker off his line. But Austin still has a responsibility to the ball on his inside shoulder.
When Aidan Sezer shifted to that side earlier in the season to accomodate Sam Williams, these issues massively reduced, and he has handled everything thrown at the Raiders’ left in this game and the rest of the season. Oppositions are clear about where they target, and Austin is the common denominator.
What is sure though was that as possession turned against the Raiders in the second stanza, their defensive line speed fell away. Some say this is caused by fitness, others by attitude. But it compounded the pressure on the right edge by giving Milford plenty of space to work in.
Defence wasn’t the only issue. The Raiders‘ error rate increased as the game tightened. Elliot Whitehead, Oldfield, Brad Abbey, Aidan Sezer, Austin and Dunamis Lui all had handling errors at critical times in the game. Austin’s kicking game completely deserted him. He failed to find touch when he should’ve (penalties), did when he shouldn’t (a late short drop-out) and barely had an effective kick in play. Abbey, who for 60 minutes had an admirable debut suddenly became aware of the difficulty of his task and looked petrified under the high ball. Whitehead’s otherwise brilliant work deserted him when he fumbled the ball after impressively defusing an attacking kick. Oldfield’s welcome yardage work coming out of danger was all for nought when his late drop was the possession and position Milford needed to win the game.
For most of the last twenty minutes the Raiders couldn’t get into position to have a shot at winning because they didn’t get out of their own half. Too often the ball found itself in the hand of people not named Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer, who had combined to smartly move the side around the park.
Hodgson continued his form from last week. In the first half he set up the Raiders attack, working the big runners against the grain and destroying the Broncos ruck. A simple game plan that was only executable because of his ability to threaten both sides of the ruck with little more than a look. The Raiders were taking 60 metres each set without a risk. It was pure and enjoyable and Hodgson was in the middle of it all.
When the game was on the line in the second half Hodgson tried to drag the Raiders to the promised land. He kicked to corners. Long kicks that soared like the hopes of the Canberra faithful do each week, crashing into the grass and space to get the Raiders out of trouble. He scored the try that should have put the game on ice, barging over from dummy half. It was a perfect example of his brilliance. The tackle before he isolated Shannon Boyd on a smaller defender. He took the ensuing quick play-the-ball back the other direction, using Josh Papalii as a decoy (remember his first try-assist last week?) to stroll past two-minded defence. The man isn’t flashy, but he is a genius.
Hodgson’s return has had a profound impact on the men around him. Such was the attention that he drew that Aidan Sezer suddenly found himself with acres of room to operate. Sezer ran the ball more than he was in recent weeks (5 for 77m) but it still felt like he missed chances to take the line on. But his kicking was smart all game and he kept pushing the Raiders to the right areas of the ground. Like Hodgson he ably targeted the corners, and even earnt the Raiders a repeat set in the second half. But as the errors (including one of his) piled up it wasn’t enough.
It was a shame because, like most games the Raiders throw away, the first half revealed many positives. The back five was excellent in the most part. Brad Abbey (13 runs for 129m) had a 100 plus running metres before half time and looked capable at first grade. Oldfield (16 for 159m) was solid under both the high ball and in yardage work. Nic Cotric (16 for 146m) was brilliant with limited opportunity. Josh Papalii (11 for 107m) and Sia Soliola (12 for 110m) were both excellent, and Elliot Whitehead’s work down the left edge has been revitalised by the return of Hodgson. Austin, for all his defensive lapses, did have a few bright moments with the ball, such as when he was a perfect facsimile of Jack Wighton on the left edge, chipping in as the second-man, hitting Cotric with a flat ball to the wing for the Raiders’ second try.
But in the end none of this was enough to stop the Raiders sixth loss by six points or less in 2018. It was the 14th such loss in the last two seasons. At some point the errors and the problems that cause these losses in close games have to be addressed. If they aren’t then questions of the coaching hierarchy must be asked.
Some Raiders fans have been reluctant to question Coach Stuart’s approach because of the belief that he has returned them to relevance. But missing the finals in 2018 means they’ve only made it to September once in the five years of the Stuart regime. This ratio is bettered by previous coaches like David Furner (twice in five years), Neil Henry (once in two years) or Matthew Elliot (four times in five years). These were the ‘mediocre’ regimes that Stuart was ‘saving’ the Raiders from. I’m not here for Stuart’s job, but he must be held accountable for why these losses keep happening.
It’s a dark time to be a Raiders fan. It’s not even surprising anymore when the Green Machine throws away a game. Gallows humour, refereeing complaints and alcohol may keep us going week-to-week, but it’s hard, so hard. And we’re weary to our bones. For 2018 the season is now just playing out the string.
I hope there are better times ahead. I genuinely believe this roster is good enough to go deep into September. There is plenty to like about these men and what they are capable of in the coming years.
But in this game, like so many this year, they failed to reach that potential. And it cost them a trip to the finals. It is as sad as it was inevitable.