The Canberra Raiders lost 28-24 to the Cronulla Sharks on Friday night. In all probability the loss ended their marginal mathematical chances of playing in September. A devastating Sharks attack combined with some poor defence and handling errors to put the Raiders in a hole early on. They dragged themselves out of it, only to be pushed back down by awful refereeing. The Raiders were courageous, the referees infuriating, and the result less than the Green Machine deserved.
We have a rule in these reviews that we generally don’t talk about what the officials do. We take the philosophy that these things tend to even out in the end, and rarely determine the outcome. There’s nothing I hate more than people complaining that the only reason their team lost was the officials. So I apologise for the following.
In this game the refereeing performance had such a clear impact on the result that to not address it is to bury one’s head in the sand. This game had its usual array of ’50-50′ calls. On any other night these could be dismissed as simply part of the cut and thrust of the game. But two moments that the referees got spectacularly wrong played a very real role in the outcome of this game.
Sione Katoa’s 57th minute try, in which the touch-judge raised his flag to signal a knock-on was an abominable error by the linesman. It looked like a knock-on. The linesman raised his flag to signal as much and then put it down again. The players stopped. The referee called a no try and then suggested it was knocked on. On the Fox call, Brenton Speed was adamant it had been touched by Jesse Ramien. The video referee called try. I will trust he saw a better angle than the inconclusive one that was provided on the broadcast, because otherwise the on-field decision should have stood.
There are those that would say ‘play to the whistle’. This is a flippant way to respond and renders the linesman obsolete. The players were looking at the linesman. The linesman raised his flag. This must be respected. To suggest teams must seek ratification of every linesmen’s decision by the referee is high farce. This try put the Sharks up by 10, and was the only points the Sharks would score in the second half.
As if trying to prove that the linesman was obsolete, the pocket referee decided to overrule the touchie on a BJ Leilua pass in the 68th minute. This pass would have resulted in a Raiders try and no-one outside the pocket referee thought the pass was forward. What was worse was the touch-judge was in perfect position to do his job.
This was effectively a 10 point turnaround. Yes the Raiders could have overcome these errors, but they shouldn’t have to. They had done enough to win that game. They had done so without five regular starters against a Sharks team that was in red-hot form. They had come back from 22-6 at halftime, keeping their slim finals chances alive. It would have been a famous Raiders victory. Instead the result was delivered by the referees as much as their own performance.
These refereeing errors overshadowed an otherwise fun game. The Sharks had the run of the game early but the Raiders played intelligently in response. Given all that happened the Green Machine’s temperament was admirable. Despite the 16 poor deficit they didn’t panic. They kept pushing up the middle. They probed and pushed around the ruck. And they troubled a Sharks side that thought the game was over at halftime.
That’s not to say the Raiders were perfect. You don’t get in a 22-6 hole by being brilliant. In the first half they were simply overrun in the middle. Too many penalties and too much dropped ball combined with some scintillating play from the Sharks to put the Raiders in a whole. The Raiders only had 33 per cent of the ball in the first half, and were outgained by 500 metres in that stanza alone (according to NRLcom).
When you’re getting dominated by the refs and the opposition you can’t afford to make errors, but the Raiders did exactly that too often, particularly in the first half. Brad Abbey Michael Oldfield, Dunamis Lui and Luke Bateman all had handling errors early. It’s no surprise the Raiders didn’t have a set between the 8th and the 20th minute. When they didn’t have the ball, they missed too many tackles (34 in the first half).
This all contributed to the stomping the Sharks pack put on the Raiders in the first half. The green defence simply couldn’t physically match-up to Andrew Fifita (146m, including 101 in the first half). No better was this displayed than his soft 9th minute try, in which he steamrolled Josh Hodgson, and pushed off Lui too easily, to score. This dominance in the middle dragged defenders attention in, and gave the Sharks space on the edges.
Valentine Holmes and Wade Graham would wish they could play the Raiders every week, such was the field-day they had In the first half against the Raiders’ right edge. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily the fault of any single player – individual players (notably Leilua and Austin) made excellent efforts to shut-down movements. The Sharks were simply electric, putting together brilliant passages of play. Ricky Leutele’s try in the 15th minute was probably unstoppable, but Graham’s 39th minute try resulted from tired defence (or worse, lazy). Holmes’ 34th minute try aimed right at Michael Oldfield and Sam Williams, and both made errors that allowed Holmes to amble in. While the Raiders’ scrambling defence was high-effort all night (notably holding up two would-be tries in the second half), the execution was often less than ideal.
So far out of the game, the Raiders found the best way back in was the direct route. Without their usual spine connection to push to the edges, they instead went directly up the middle. Josh Hodgson was excellent, confusing the Sharks’ ruck defence just long enough to get the forwards space. He led an attack that was more north-south than it was east-west. Every player looked their best taking on the line, and what sweeping movements the Raiders did run were less effective than direct running. Hodgson set up a try, nearly scored one himself, and was the only threatening in-play kicker. His 50 tackles also lead the game, and its bizarre to think that well through the most of 2017 Coach Stuart was often subbing him off at the end of games.
In a game where the Raiders relied on ‘eyes up’ footy and improvisational play, it’s no surprise that ‘Leipana’ were also dynamic. BJ Leilua continued his good, and largely unheralded, form this season with 2 tries, a try-assist, 9 tackle breaks and 155m on 14 runs, doing the dirty work in yardage as well as threatening in attack. It was his brilliant hit-up and quick play-the-ball that gave Rapana the bit of momentum to get between backpeddling defenders, find BJ in support before he hit Abbey for the Raiders’ first try. He was in support again when Blake Austin smartly quick-tapped and offloaded for the Raiders’ second. He was there again when Hodgson probed around the ruck close to the line, an inside line up the guts of the defence enough for the Raiders’ third. It was a tremendous offensive display by the oft-maligned centre, only besmirched by an errant pass that could have set Rapana free down the right late in the game. Leipana was alongside him in everything he did, and his 7 tackle breaks showed just how hard the Sharks found dealing with him.
These performances were wasted though. Yes, some of it was the Raiders’ own fault. But this cannot obscure the fact that this result was unduly effected by the performance of the officials. There is no conspiracy. It is not the reason that the Raiders aren’t playing finals. I can think of four or five games this year that are better determinants of that. It is nothing but singular, isolated incompetence. You cannot escape though that the referees were a substantial part of the reason they lost this game.
The Raiders, backs against the wall, striving against the odds, dragged themselves back into this match. Given all they’ve suffered (mostly at their own hands) this year it was almost inspiring. This time though they were bested not by their opposition or themselves but by the incompetence of the officials. It leaves a poor taste in the mouth and ruined an otherwise entertaining spectacle. The NRL will likely acknowledge the errors, (Ed note: They already have) but that is cold comfort to a side and a fanbase that has seen pretty much everything this year.
Well, now they’ve seen everything.