As far as 2018 goes, the Canberra Raiders 22-20 loss to the Wests Tigers was practically mundane. The Raiders didn’t throw away a lead in spectacular fashion. They didn’t even lead in the match! They still only played sixty good minutes, but at least this time they weren’t run down like a patsy in a horror film. Instead, Canberra fans were treated to practically regular loss.
It was a bit novel that the Raiders decided to put their now traditional twenty minutes of incompetence at the beginning rather than the end of the match. Early they played with an abject lack of purpose or pace. Then chasing the game they found no fluency or connection in attack, and only went as far as individuals would take them. It seems fitting that was to the brink but not to victory.
It’s possible the lethargic start was caused by the late withdrawal of Aidan Sezer. We noted last week that he looked like he wasn’t fit. The Raiders don’t have many healthy backs at the moment, and so every single one of them is important. His absence forced Whitehead to centre, drawing their best defender away from the middle.
Whitehead’s move wider contributed to the depressing ease with which the Tigers’ forwards rolled up the guts of the Raiders, and not just early. For a side that was technically playing for its season they lacked any pace off the line in defence. On the first two sets of the second half, when the Raiders were theoretically desperate to get back into the game, the Tigers took 100m back to back sets with a minimum of risk. It was disheartening to watch.
Early on though it combined with the Tigers’ completion rate – they managed 11 sets before an error – for a poor start for the men in
green white. After Joey Leilua was sin-binned in the 9th minute, the Raiders needed to up the defensive pressure in the middle to stop the Tigers from being able to utilise their numerical advantage. Instead the line speed remained sanguine, and allowed the Tigers time to identify and exploit the hole left by BJ’s departure for the first try. A hit-up up the middle, a spread to the edge and the numbers simply didn’t add up for the Green Machine.
Two more tries came with Leilua on the bench. On the post-try set, first Shannon Boyd, then Josh Papalii, were unable to bring down Moses Mbye running off an inside-pass up the middle. When Nic Cotric fell for Mbye’s dummy, it was a reminder that he’s not yet the defensive presence of Jack Wighton. A third try in the 10 minutes was almost a facsimile of the first. The Tigers’ fourth and final try was a mirror image, scoring in the opposite corner after the Raiders middle sat on its line again.
With the ball the Raiders’ middle were a mixed bag. Josh Papalii (18 for 172m) was the most consistent performer, and Siliva Havili (10 for 104m) was excellent in limited opportunities. Shannon Boyd (6 for 63m), particularly in his first stint, was disappointing. He is in the team to put movement into sets. He didn’t do this, and his defence was a liability. Sia Soliola (7 for 36m) did so much work in defence (including an incredible legs tackle close to the line late to stop an almost certain Ben Matulino try) that he barely had the legs to take a carry.
This battered middle didn’t help the makeshift halves combination create. There was no fluency in attack. The Raiders barely ran anything deliberate or designed. Sam Williams had a quiet game, and Blake Austin (14 for 141m), though effective running the ball, didn’t have the creativity or ability to set anything up for his outside men.
Sidebar: Austin was good in this game, but he was asked to do too much. Outside of Hodgson, much of the ball-play responsibility fell into Austin’s hands, a task that doesn’t suit his skill base. He performed admirably considering. He did his best to create by breaking the line with his run, and showed some good innovation, such as his kick for Brad Abbey in the 74th minute. But his game is running, not creating. It’s annoyingly that four years into his time we still can’t recognise this.
This put a lot of pressure on a few Raiders to create points from individual brilliance rather than anything structured. The attack became ‘siloed’, reliant on the output of the few rather than the efforts of many.
Unequivocally the Raiders’ best in this game was Joe Tapine (15 for 152m, 2 tries). The halves only needed to get him early ball and get out of the way. He tore the Tigers’ left edge apart with 10 tackle busts, 3 line breaks and 3 offloads. It’s exciting to see him grow into his potential, and he will be a big part of any success the Raiders will have in 2019. BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana were effective sources of yardage and threatened the Tigers’ line every time they had the ball.
The only effective ball-play the Raiders had came from Josh Hodgson. In fact he was the only Raider to assist on a line break – a fact that better than any other demonstrated the Raiders’ ‘siloed’ attack. He combined with Josh Papalii late in the first half with an excellent second-man play close to the line for the Raiders’ second try. Then in the second half he identified Luke Brooks on the weak-side, and sent BJ Leilua right at him for the Raiders’ third. He was not perfect, and over-handled on occasion in a desperate attempt to create late in the game. He desperately needed another player to offer something that may confuse the defence, or earn a quick play the ball. Instead he was too often forced to create from scratch.
It meant that the Raiders pushed passes and made errors at the most inopportune times. Even the Raiders’ best were guilty of overplaying their hands in a desperate attempt to find points in the last twenty. Austin chipped for no one. Hodgson too often jumped out of dummy-half with no plan. Jordan Rapana and BJ Leilua too often tried to do it all themselves. The lack of a fluent and directed attack was never so clear as the last twenty minutes of the game.
It was clear the Raiders missed their litany of injured players. Aidan Sezer and Jack Wighton have been critical parts of the fluency in the Raiders attack that has made it one of the most feared in the competition. Without them the Green Machine is a series of isolated pistons, each punching into the line oblivious to the men around them. Jarrod Croker’s importance is underrated on the left edge, which has become a vast wasteland, a place where the ball barely reaches. Brad Abbey barely touched the ball, a fact that probably contributed to his brief but unsuccessful foray into trying to create at first receiver in the second half.
The fact that the Raiders couldn’t find any fluency and didn’t aim up in defence in a critical game reflects poorly on Coach Stuart. Other sides have lost players and handled themselves better than the Raiders did today. Shit the Panthers have had a injury list equal to Canberra, will play finals, and still sacked their coach.
It’s not like Austin and Williams have never shared the field. They should be able to corral a backline with this level of talent regardless of injuries. And sure Whitehead hasn’t played centre this year, but that makes the decision to shift Soliola there a few weeks ago even odder. Whomever is backup centre out of Sia and Elliot should always be back up. Neither is so good (or bad) at the position that it should chop and change in two weeks. Stuart likely gets a mulligan (again) for 2018 because of the injury to Josh Hodgson and the suspension of Jack Wighton. But anyone who think his clock isn’t ticking in 2019 is more optimistic than me.
It was fitting that the Raiders officially ended their finals chances for 2018 with another close loss. They chased the Tigers down but unlike so many sides have done to Canberra this year, the Raiders couldn’t close the deal.
When it got tight, the Tigers displayed the defensive tenacity, the intelligent kicking and the error free play that has deserted the Raiders at crucial times this year. If the Raiders were capable of mending their ways, maybe they could start with learning the lesson the Tigers taught them in the game.
Instead they again found a way to lose a close one. At least this time they never lead.