The Canberra Raiders threw away another lead. This time it was 14 points, and it resulted in a loss to the Penrith Panthers, the score 40-31. Most neutral fans would describe it as ‘free-flowing’ or ‘fun’. I would describe it as painful. The Green Machine roared, coughed and spluttered, in that order, before succumbing in a way that would be frustrating if it didn’t happen every other week. Earlier in the year we called these heartwrenching losses ‘sisyphean’ in their inevitability. This is no longer punishment. This is cruel, and way too usual.
Looking back on the game the Raiders performance was frustratingly similar to so many losses this year. Errors, penalties and poor reads in defence. At least three tries came on sets directly following Raiders’ errors. When the Panthers got a roll on late in the second half the defence felt helpless. Waves of attack shredded the Raiders’ edges, poor line speed hurt them in the middle, and what should have been a substantial lead felt as robust as a caravan in a hurricane. You’ve heard much of this story before, the only thing that changed was the detail.
Even in earning a significant lead the Raiders felt a little off in this game. There was clunkiness across the park in attack. Aidan Sezer felt like he was still a week away (and the way he pulled up on one of his runs post-intercept indicated as much). Unusually, Josh Hodgson seemed to have problems connecting with his middle forwards – more than once Shannon Boyd overran a pass, and outside of Josh Papalii (12 runs for 104m), none of the middle men looked threatening or cracked 100 on the ground.
But you can’t throw away a big lead without scoring points, so a clunky middle was overcome with dynamic edge attack. Elliot Whitehead scored running a good line off Sam William’s hip and Joe Tapine (10 runs for 126m) feasted on James Maloney. Every time the Green Machine wanted metres they went Maloney’s way. Often Hodgson would skip Sezer or a middle forward to pass straight to Tapine isolated on Maloney, almost tormenting the man.
It resulted in 12 missed tackles for the Panthers’ star and points for the Raiders. BJ Leilua ran right at him for his first try. Sezer, Tapine and Cotric ran a slick set play at him that put Cotric through and resulted in Leilua scoring what would be the Raiders last try. It was a good little outside-inside-outside passing movement, and Cotric’s main involvement in a traditional fullback role. It also highlighted that Tapine has some handy ball skills. In between these tries there could have been another built by Tapine running past Maloney, but Rapana’s last pass to Cotric was forward.
The rest of the Raiders’ points came from opportune defence (such as Rapana’s brilliant interception and sideline dance) or opportune attack (such as Sezer’s odd, but effective kick at Rapana that resulted in BJ’s second try).
Sidebar: Jordan Rapana is incredible. He created two tries by himself, constantly found metres for the Raiders and did everything he could to drag the Raiders to victory.
31 points is normally enough to win a game, but the Raiders defence was far too generous. No section of the park was safe. The Panthers book-ended the game with soft tries in the middle. On the first try of the game Junior Paulo never really got off the goal-line, and Tamou walked over where he should have been between Hodgson and Tapine. The Panthers last try came when Paulo came off the goal-line on an angle and Maloney got to play hero by stepping past him.*
To spark the first stage of their comeback the Panthers focused on the Raiders’ left edge . Blake Austin seems to be defending in a new position each week. This seems unfair for a guy who has copped a lot for his defence (including from us). His communication with Sam Williams was poor, and twice the Panthers scored in the second half running at, or around, him.
Collecting the complete set, the Panthers spent the last twenty minutes of the game rolling down the Raiders right edge. Leilua and Rapana were constantly outnumbered** and Leilua made some genuinely baffling errors. This included sliding before the ball passed him, which meant he couldn’t help on his inside shoulder when Peachey had Tapine for pace and scored the Panthers second try.
Sezer was also constantly backpeddling, and that put huge amounts of pressure on Joe Tapine to cover for everyone’s mistakes.
Spoiler alert. He could not. It’s not a surprise his (and Elliot Whitehead’s) defensive efficiency ratings are so low.
They weren’t helped by the middle, who were so bereft of any ability to slow the Panthers, nor the Raiders attack, which became more conservative the more drastic the situation got. They took a field goal for a 7 point lead with around 14 minutes to go, and then ceased attacking. On a critical 7 tackle set with the game still in the balance the Raiders took mostly one-out hit-ups, and failed to get the ball into the hands of Jo Tapine, destroyer-of-
And so here we are again, trying to explain a disaster. It seems like an odd pastime.
The Raiders have become the sad character in a drama who’s life is falling apart. We keep waiting for them to hit rock bottom and turn their life around. Was rock bottom today? If not, when will it be? When are they going to get themselves together and stop doing the horrible things they do to hurt themselves and the people that love them?
Most importantly, when are we going to start asking questions of Ricky Stuart (also spoiler, we started in April).
Me, I’m not even angry anymore. I”m just sad. I’m listening to Radiohead***, drinking tea and writing bad
poetry analysis. I’m gutted for the 17 people that have to keep going through this. The players deal with the kind of professional misery that would drive most people to other jobs. I’m depressed for every fan that turns the TV on or walks into the ground hoping this week will be different. Is this not the definition of insanity? Have we all gone crazy this season chasing the dream that this team might one day work out? What kind of masochist reads game reviews for these kinds of losses?
Alas, there are still are four games left for the Raiders to struggle through. This side is broken. This season is over. Losses like this only serve to embed the ‘it’s happening’ feeling. If there’s a way out of this mire the Raiders seem unable to find it. Only 2019 can bring change.
* I would note there was more than a hint of an obstruction that isolated Paulo from his inside defenders.
** and at least once outdone by what I would call a ‘flat’ pass.
*** ‘No Surprises’ if you’re wondering.