The Canberra Raiders 14-12 victory over the Sydney Roosters was just fucking tremendous. It was courageous. It was the kind of gutsy performance against a quality side that fans have been praying for all season. Sure it’s too little too late, but after everything the Raiders have gone through in 2018, it’s a worthy salve. The Raiders held on. Victory is sweet. Breathe it in.
It’s hard to beat the Roosters by trying to outpoint them. They have the best defence in the competition, and that’s not a fluke. They rarely make defensive errors and even the best attack in the competition (by total points) will find it hard to penetrate the brick wall in front of them. So you have to win the middle, be patient, and trust your defence.
If the Raiders didn’t win the middle they went damn close. Josh Papalii was a beast (15 runs for 156m). One (rare) highlight of 2018 is that he and Josh Hodgson have developed a symbiotic relationship in the middle – every time they combine it results in a good hit up and a clean ruck. This game was no exception. Close to the line the scariest play the Raiders run at the moment is simply Hodgson finding Big Papa. While they can go to that well too often on occasion, it always take some stopping.
Shannon Boyd (12 for 125m and 64 pcm) and Junior Paulo (10 for 109m) had their best performances since returning from injury. Sia Soliola (14 for 147m and 57 pcm) got through an incredible amount of work, as did debutant Emre Guler (10 for 93m)*. And while Joe Tapine (9 for 103m) didn’t get to run over little people – he was standing opposite makeshift five-eighth (and actual second-rower) Ryan Matterson all day – he still went and found metres almost at will.
A platform like that will normally result in points for a side as talented in attack as Canberra. But the Roosters don’t have a weak point you can take advantage of. The Raiders instead were patient. You don’t complete 95 percent of your sets by pushing and hoping. Williams and Austin did their best to keep the Raiders in good field position through kicking smartly for *most* of the game. Austin’s first tackle grubber/chip thing in the 54th minute was a rare misstep. His 76th minute long kick into the corner was clutch moment that went a long way to sealing the game.
That’s not to say they were perfect with the ball. With Aidan Sezer out the Raiders have found no fluidity in the connection between their halves and the outside attackers. On more than one occasion Austin was unable to find unmarked attackers outside him, and Williams spent more time sending runners back into the middle than trying to take the outside.
The notable exception was the Raiders’ only try. Both Hodgson and Williams dug into the line well, stopping defenders cheating towards the outside attackers. Brad Abbey, back in his more familiar role at fullback, took the ball out the back from Williams and made a pass to Jordan Rapana on the wing that would make Jack Wighton proud. It was an excellent decision and execution from Abbey that should give him more confidence going forward.
Sidebar: Boyd Cordner’s 38th minute spear tackle of Luke Bateman was dangerous and should have been given more attention by the referees. It should net him several weeks on the sideline, but given it didn’t even seem to be put on report I doubt it will.
As the Raiders couldn’t find a way through after the 10th minute, they had to rely on their defence to get the job done. In 2018 good defensive performances from the men in green have been rare. In this game though they showed an enthusiasm for the task that was downright inspiring. Throughout the game they were consistent in their line-speed, physical and disciplined in their decision making. When players jumped out of the line they stuck tackles and dominated rucks. In general they moved quickly off the line and handled the Roosters’ sweeps with ease. That they did this despite at one stage having to play Sia Soliola and Elliot Whitehead in the backs is incredible.
Whitehead and Soliola were standouts in a team defence that was impressive. They both defended in a range of positions. Soliola’s brilliant legs tackle close to the line in the 73rd minute saved a try and forced a turnover. Then he took the very next carry because he is a gift to us. For his part Whitehead made several critical tackles, particularly as the time dwindled and the game got close.
The most interesting part of this defensive effort was the strategy to do anything it took to stop Latrell Mitchell. The Raiders’ right edge had clearly been told to almost sell-out every other option in order to stop him getting easy ball. It rendered Mitchell almost quiet for much of the game and forced the Roosters to look elsewhere.
This strategy wasn’t without problems. More than once Leilua turned his ‘eyes on Mitchell’ approach into ‘eyes only on Mitchell’. It cost the Raiders when Cordner slipped in between him and Sam Williams for the Roosters first try. Leilua had already gone past the ball when Tedesco passed to Cordner. He was too focused on his task. It hurt the Raiders again when both Boyd and Siliva Havili, so eager to push right to help the edge defence contain Mitchell, failed to account for Victor Radley coming back against the grain.
It was a smart strategy by the coaching staff. In recent weeks the Roosters points have come from a similar method to the Raiders – using the physical dominance and individual brilliance of its star backs like Mitchell and Tedesco to manufacture points. The Raiders made a calculated gamble to force the Roosters to create points through sweeping to the other edge, where Ryan Matterson, though capable, is a less effective creative option than a full-time half would present. This strategy was supported by a defensive effort that ensured there was plenty of line speed to create pressure on the Roosters lesser-lights.
And so for once the Raiders lead, held on and triumphed. Nothing is more 2018 than finally getting the job done against arguably the best team in the competition. Forget ‘where was that earlier this year’. I’m more interested in how the Green Machine can bottle this performance and trot it out on a consistent basis in 2019. A defensive effort like that is how the Raiders could win more close games next season and may well save Ricky Stuart’s job if it can be displayed with more frequency.
But in the meantime it’s more important to celebrate the victories. 2018 has had too many dark moments. Embrace the light and enjoy the day because the Raiders finally held on.
* though Guler did have one particularly bad effort in defence that should have resulted in a try to Ryan Matterson.