The Canberra Raiders 20-16 loss to the New Zealand Warriors was a mercifully undramatic ending to 2018. Despite the meaninglessness of the event for them, they competed admirably. They played some smart football and some brilliant football. They also committed too many errors for their fragile defence to keep out. And like almost any other game of the Stuart regime, it amounted to a close loss. At least this time the Raiders never lead late.
If ever there was a chance to have a bit of a working holiday this game was it. The Raiders were playing for nothing but pride. They were in the time-slot which is hard for many fans to catch. They were playing in a packed house of Kiwis ready for a celebration of Simon Mannering’s 300th and the Warriors’ return to the playoffs. The Raiders could have clocked off. They could have gone gently into that good night. But even my man Dylan Thomas would have been pleased that they raged in the dying light of 2018.
Sidebar: No better was the Raiders’ effort demonstrated than by Shannon Boyd’s defensive effort to chase Roger Tuivasa-Sheck across the field and drag him down two defensive positions across. Just pure effort from the giant to bring down the faster, more agile Tuivasa-Sheck.
But effort alone can’t win you games. Execution is important, and for periods of this game the Raiders went missing with their ball-control. There was one 10 minute period where they only had 17 per cent of possession. And those errors led directly to points. An incorrect play the ball from Josh Papalii and a Blake Austin kicking error gave the Warriors the field position for their first two tries.
The Raiders’ defence simply isn’t robust enough to give oppositions’ good field position. The Warriors first try came when BJ Leilua’s aggressive read left Jordan Rapana stranded trying to cover his man and Solomone Kata. The second try came when Nic Cotric had to help in on poor initial contact from Austin, and an exceptional flick pass later the Warriors had another try. Ball-handling errors and a flimsy defence are uneasy bedfellows.
A third try followed early in the second half when good defence earned the Kiwis an attacking set. Michael Oldfield, like Cotric in the first half, helped in on Austin’s man only to see his man stroll in outside him. It was Oldfield’s error, but speaks to the insecurity that he (and Cotric) felt with Austin defending inside them.
When the Raiders did complete their sets they looked dangerous. They largely focused their attack around the middle third, and to the surprise of no-one Josh Hodgson was again excellent. He’s had 12 try assists in his limited appearances this year. Against an enthusiastic Warriors pack keen on imparting their defensive presence on the opposition, Hodgson was still able to go generate go-forward for the middle forwards, and was consistently the Raiders best attacking option in close range. He positioned himself brilliantly, faking the defense to the right before hitting Papalii close to the line for the now patented crash play. His enterprising blind-side kick stuck around just long enough for Rapana’s brilliance to turn it into points.
Papalii (12 for 145m) was the standout forward. He took metres in the middle and on the right edge, the latter particularly as the game wore on. After a season in which he was dropped, recalled and then extended, it’s been heartening for him to take ownership of leading of the pack. This is even more important with the impending departures of Shannon Boyd (9 for 100m) and Junior Paulo (8 for 95m). Emre Guler (6 for 56m) impressed again in another short stint.
When the Raiders tried to move wider of the middle though they struggled. They haven’t found fluidity wide of the ruck in recent times. Sam Williams had one incredibly impressive 40/20 that led to points, and ran the ball well (including his infuriatingly correctly denied try that would have won the game for the Raiders). He was unable to create much else. It felt like Austin threw more forward passes than legitimate ones, and his kicking game was the worst it’s been in weeks.
The Raiders’ best wide movements were when they simply got early ball to Leilua and Rapana. This has always been effective, but the absence of Wighton and Croker has increased their reliance on it. That Rapana nearly created a try for Austin with his brilliant run and kick is a testament to the Kiwi’s incredible ability.
On the few sweeping movements the Raiders ran, Brad Abbey was the extra man. He is a good passer and seems to make intelligent decisions with the ball. But the weakness of the ball-running makes it easy for teams to account for him when he slips into the attacking line.
Sidebar: I can promise you that Rob and I will be at this again in 2019 to chronicle the Raiders through the Rumble and Review. As Rob said earlier in the week, if you didn’t read it we wouldn’t write it, and you have no idea how much the kind words that we’ve received this season and this week mean to us.
We’ll be back shortly to review the season and start thinking about a bunch of other things Raiders (amongst others).
It’s almost a relief that 2018 is over. The Raiders have found so many incredible ways to lose this year that it was hard to even be upset for this game. The Green Machine tried hard. They did some pretty good things, and some genuinely amazing stuff. They were undone by inconsistency and poor defence. It could have been any game this season.
On 2018’s standards it was a quiet curtain drop. A merciful cessation of a season that tested our patience and our willingness to watch the horror that so often unfolded in front of us. It was heartening to see that despite the sheer pain they must have gone through in 2018 that the Green Machine didn’t give up, capitulate, or take the easy way out against the Warriors. It’s not a high bar but it’s a sign that this side is capable of more than they delivered this year.