Sometimes it’s nice to win the close ones. It’d be nicer if it ‘mattered’, but the Canberra Raiders’ 22-20 victory of the Parramatta Eels was a solid outing to start their 2019 campaign, mixed with a spectacular end.
Let’s start with the obvious. Results of trials don’t matter. So many people took the field in this game it was hard to follow who was on and when changes happened. The format of four quarters always feels weird. Like a public holiday on a Tuesday, it messes with how the time feels. The stakes are low, and the combinations are inconsistent, so there’s no fluidity in attack.
Within the game the Eels dominated early, before their first string players tired and the Raiders begun to overwhelm them. The third quarter, where the Raiders young forwards began to roll over the Eels first string pack was a pleasing sight. The Eels first string were mostly subbed out for the last quarter, which is probably important context for the Raiders late comeback.
That’s all a long way of saying there’s no point getting carried away with how a team performs. It is however, a chance to start building towards something significant in 2019, and worth noting the performances of a few individuals.
The Canberra conversation this offseason has revolved around the makeup of the back three after the injury to Jordan Rapana, and Jack Wighton’s move to five-eighth. Of the three potential custodians in this performance, only Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad showed what he can offer. He started on the wing, making several good reads in the face of overwhelming numbers. The one try that got past him required an excellent cut-out ball.
When he moved to fullback he looked safer than the others, and provided good runs based off his pace and dexterous footwork. Nicoll-Klokstad isn’t as strong as Wighton, but he uses his quick feet close to the line to gain the advantage in the tackle. He’s a different kind of fullback to what Raiders’ fans are used to, but he showed he could be a capable replacement.
The other contenders for the number one were less stellar. Bailey Simonsson had a horror night. His first touch of the game saw him taken into touch. One Eels try came directly from his error (though the unfriendly bounce was probably more to blame). Another came from a kick that he was beaten to. He barely had a penetrative run. The man clearly has talent, but he’ll need more time. For his part Brad Abbey was also surprisingly quiet, and only really chipped in when given an opportunity to ball-play.
The depth of the Raiders’ forwards was also a noteworthy part of this game. I was most impressed with Jack Murchie, Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh. Guler showed that 2018’s beginning can be built on this year. His footwork into the line remains a strength, making him hard to bring down, and meaning he often gets to his belly for a quick play-the-ball. He needs to get better impact on his first hit in defence. I thought a similar thing of Murchie in his appearances in the top grade in 2018, and in this game he showed that he has improved in that area. He got through plenty of work.
Corey Horsburgh stood out for me as an exciting prospect. I have to admit I had raised a sceptical eyebrow this summer when a few senior Raiders mentioned he could be a player of the future. In this game he did not disappoint, showing incredible horizontal agility, as well as running some good lines off five-eighth Dean Matterson, particularly early in the game. The Raiders second try went nominally to JJ Collins, but the lead up work from Horsburgh was determinative.
There were some areas the Raiders will have to improve before the season starts proper. The rhetoric around an more mobile, improved defence was not necessary obvious in this game. The Raiders got eaten up through the middle and edges by the Eels forward pack early in the game. Turns out Junior Paulo is good. It didn’t help that errors from Simonsson, Hudson Young and Sebastian Kris kept the Eels in good field position, but the big men really found themselves outmatched for much of the first half.
The line speed was relatively good all game, but it’s hard to know how much of that was to do with the litany of bench players getting time. The Eels only scored one try in the first quarter, but their dominance in the middle dragged defenders in and put pressure on the outside defenders to makeup for the weakness far too often (which, as noted, Nicoll-Klokstad did on a few occasions). As the game wore on the Eels tired and the Raiders defence became more robust. These things are probably linked.
In attack the Raiders looked best around the ruck. All their tries (bar the match-winning near full-field effort) came around the posts, barely more than a pass off the ruck. Building off the good work of the forwards allowed their rakes time and space to take advantage of. Siliva Havili showed that 2018 was no fluke (although if he never kicks the ball again it will be a win for the Raiders). He picked the right times to run, and the right times to pass, and showed a bit more deception than 2018. He set up JJ Collins try after Horsburgh’s work by going right and sending the ball back across the ruck – it was a great piece of creative work. Tom Starling was also good when he took over from Havili, scoring a try and generally threatening the line at every opportunity.
It was disappointing, though not unexpected, that Canberra was largely unable to muster anything threatening outside the middle third. Sam Williams was solid as always, and showed his class in scoring late in the game. He’ll be an important part of the squad this year. But on his outside there was little penetration without the first string side. There seems little to worry about there – no doubt adding Wighton, Leilua, Cotric et al will change that.
It was a solid start to 2019. Winning is always better than losing, and if nothing else it was pleasing to see how excited the young group was to take the W. There’s plenty to look forward to this season, and plenty of work to do. This game showed that the promises of the off-season, though not yet fulfilled, are not empty.
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