For the first time in 2018 the Canberra Raiders played smart and hard for the entirety of the 80 minutes. It was by no means perfect. There were errors, and the game remained tight for 70 minutes. But the Raiders stuck fast. Josh Hodgson and the big men controlled the middle. The outside backs did as much dirty as flashy work. And for the first time all season, the Green Machine got a complete performance out of its halves pairing. The result was a 38-12 thumping of the North Queensland Cowboys.
It’s simultaneously frustrating and heartening to see the Raiders put this performance together. It wasn’t so much that the Raiders beat a good team – the Cowboys are in worse states than the Raiders. It was more that the Green Machine executed the ‘plan’ that every rugby league team tries to implement each game. They won the middle against a big Cowboys pack, kicked to the corners, and defended stoutly. When they got on a roll, they took the chances that were available to them, and rarely pushed a pass. It was smart and it was patient.
Winning the middle was a joint effort of the entire pack. Josh Papalii (19 runs for 182m and 101 post-contact metres) was impossible to bring down all game. But he was ably supported by a host a numerically small but effective contributions across the park. Dunamis Lui (11 for 95m) was excellent early, and brings pace to a pack that had probably veered too far towards size this year. He clearly loves operating off Hodgson, and his keeness to run alongside him allows the rake to threaten to take off if the defence overly commits to Lui. Junior Paulo (7 for 71m) had several excellent carries in his best game since his return from injury, and the bench forwards were all effective.
More significantly than just making metres, the Green Machine’s engine room held iback the ginormous locomotive that steamed into them all game. They held Jason Taumalolo in check – he ‘only’ had 155m. Unlike previous weeks the edges communicated well and largely remained in tact despite being the focus of the Cowboy attack. It was heartening to see the Raiders muscle up so effectively and consistently.
That Hodgson worked wonders around the ruck almost goes without saying these days. He expertly moved the forwards over the advantage line and into space. He made an excellent read to take the short side for the Raiders’ second try, a jump and a step creating doubt, before throwing a brilliant ball to Jarrod Croker to put him outside his defender. The wing helped in on Croker, and the captains’ ball to Oldfield was so fast I missed it in real time. But the decision and the movement was started by the nine, and is a good example of his creative brilliance.
Playing off the back of the forwards good work definitely helped Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams deliver the best performance by a pair of Raiders’ halves in 2018. Both kicked almost perfectly, and with Hodgson contributing the team’s short-kicking was the best its been in 2018. The Raiders scored off kicks by Sezer (Jordan Rapana’s second), Williams (Michael Oldfield’s second, and Jordan Rapana’s first) and Hodgson (Austin’s heads up chase). Those kicks required errors from the Cowboys to end up in green hands, but the Raiders kicking game created a pressure not seen before in 2018. The ball was always in the Cowboys’ in-goal. This pressure resulted in repeat sets, and eventually errors which became points.
The Raiders put attacking pressure on North Queensland through their short kicks, but they set up field position with their long kicking game. All three kickers, in particular Sezer, continuously found grass in the corners of the ground (save for one poor kick from Hodgson), and the kick chase supported them. This gave the Raiders excellent field position, and combined with the more stout defence it made life hard for the Cowboys’ attack. It’s worth noting it took a first-tackle error and a botched kick-off return for the Cowboys to actually get into the position to score in the first half. They required penalties to get close in the second half, and desperate defence meant they couldn’t find their way over.
Sezer and Williams also threatened with the ball in hand. Rather than relying on Hodgson to be the make-or-break of the Raider attack, the two halves worked well together to probe and push on the Cowboys line. Both ran the ball more than they have in recent times. Sezer had 64 metres on the ground and Williams went through the line late in the game to put Sezer in for the Raiders final try.
But more than just running at the line, the Raiders halves set up some nice movements. My favourite was when Jordan Rapana would cross from the right wing to run a straight line inside of the five-eighth. Last week this line had been run by Blake Austin and Brad Abbey. I have to admit it was odd to see the right-winger come all that way to the left to run the line (rather than the fullback slotting in). Regardless, it was a useful movement – Sezer and Williams took turns being first and second receiver in that movement, and each time it was a slick movement that broke the Cowboys defensive line, if not their goal-line.
The backs weren’t left out of this performance. They do so much underappreciated hard yardage work. Each had critical hit-ups coming off the Raiders line, and Oldfield even turned one into a 70 metre try. Austin filled in admirably at centre after Jarrod Croker left the field with a dislocated knee cap after 30 minutes. He took disciplined hit ups and defended impressively.
Cotric wasn’t flashy at fullback. He spent much of the game taking the hardest hit-ups to get the Raiders out of trouble. He also chimed in on set plays twice by my count, and both times looked almost unstoppable close to the line, but did not threaten any ball-play. I would have liked to see him given more opportunities in attack, perhaps even those lines that Rapana came across half a field to run.
So many good things happened in this game that it’s tempting to see the result as inevitable. But as any one who watched the game will tell you, it was hardly a done thing. The Raiders were in a tussle all game, and with Jonathon Thurston playing the best football he’s played all year the struggle was real. The Cowboys seemed to have to upper hand pushing into the last twenty of the game, and spent a huge amount of time attacking the Raiders line with nothing to show for it.
Desperate defence kept the Cowboys out. The edges were as strong as they’ve been all season. But as impressively, the Raiders faced up to the difficult period and stayed patient. They kept working off their line and kicking to the corner. In the 64th minute they got a penalty coming off their own line. Sia Solioa, then Paulo and Siliva Havili took strong hit ups. Close to the line, Sia nearly scored when Rapana threatend the inside run off Sezer and instead the halfback sent it outside. Then Williams’ kick resulted in Oldfield’s second. The Raiders were back ahead by 8 and their hard work was paying off.
The Raiders played intelligently in this game. They worked their asses off and earnt every single point they scored. It wasn’t flashy, and it wasn’t easy. It may be too little too late for 2018, but it was profoundly satisfying that the Raiders are capable of more than just the sizzle to the steak. It provides hope that 2019 might be more that a bunch of cobbled together frustrations masquerading as a season. Much of this side will be there to (hopefully) deliver such a performance next season on a consistent basis.
And maybe, just maybe, it will matter for this year.