The Canberra Raiders 28-22 pre-season victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs revealed plenty about the structure of the Raiders. The defence, although improved in parts, also bore many of the hallmark weaknesses of previous years and remains a work in progress. The trial also provided insight as to how the offence would function. Two wins from two pre-season matches may suggest a good start, but there’s plenty of work that remains.
The most notable weakness, and the one that should worry coach Stuart most was the defence. Much has been made of the focus on defence this offseason, but the results proved patchy. The Green Machine was actually pretty strong in the middle early in the game; more often than not they were winning the field position battle on the back of keeping the Dogs around 40 metres each set. But the edges had two distinct periods that were poor, and it’s when the damage was done on the scoreboard.
In these two separate periods (for about 10 minutes after the Raiders scored their first try, and then for a period later in the first half) Canterbury found metres on the edges easily, and exploited the youth on the right wing. Two tries came from outside defenders rushing up and failing to end a movement despite the opportunity, and the inside defence failed to help. In between these two tries, Canterbury simply waltzed up the right corridor, Aiden Tolman finishing over the top of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad after Foran’s running game created the space. These periods were worrying. Weakness on the edges has been a big part of the Raiders defence for the entire Stuart reign.
Part of this was because of that old chestnut: linespeed. When the Dogs rolled against Canberra’s edges, the middle got tired and didn’t put any pressure on the Canterbury play-makers. Part of it was the new combinations on the outsides, and the inclusion of more seasoned heads, and more time with Wighton and Croker should fix that. The progress that the Raiders showed at other points in this game suggests it’s not impossible to fix but it is clear there is work to do.
On the fun side of the ball, it felt like the Raiders adopted a pretty vanilla game plan to allow the new combinations some time to establish themselves before upping the degree of difficulty. The Bulldogs defence was characteristically obsessed with blanketing the Raiders attack from the outside in. The outside defenders gave the Raiders almost no space early, and Canberra made no attempt at adjusting, or trying anything different to throw them off.
Of course one logical way to address this would have been to focus more attack up the middle. Canberra did this to an extent – I’ve never seen the forwards run so many lines ‘under’ the halves. Hodgson put Royce Hunt over from an easily won one-on-one but after this played within himself – I wonder if this was to allow the halves to establish themselves more. I would have loved to see Hodgson and Papalii bust out their patented two-prop decoy close to the line, but they never went to it. Later in the game Hodgson did start to expand his play a bit as Canberra grew more comfortable with their combinations and played with more freedom and attempted more around the ruck. But this was clearly an afterthought in the early going.
Late in the game Havili and Hodgson showed how the option could work of them playing together. It’s intriguing, allowing the raiders to play an extra half and an extra forward at the same time. If their combined defence is strong enough, it’s something they should explore more, particularly late in games to expand the options in attack.
As Hodgson played within himself early, it gave Aidan Sezer more space to expand his play. Sezer played on both sides of the ruck, directing the attack with mixed results. The most positive part of his play was the connection with Jo Tapine. He hit him on face balls, he hit him behind decoys. Almost always he put Tapine in space and the line was threatened every time. Tapine got over the line once (held up), but on another day he could have had multiple meat pies.
But the big focus for most was how the Raiders did at the fullback and five-eighth positions. For mine Jack Wighton had a positive, if mixed, first foray. Wighton played almost exclusively on the left (though I did notice him on the right in the 58th minute). He was almost always operating on the edge – so much so that when the Raiders started sets on the far right, Wighton was often at third receiver (outside a half and Hodgson) in order to be able to set up the attack on the left edge.
It was funny to see Raiders social media calling for his position at half time. The Dogs defence had barely given him any space, and he’d spent most of the first half either turning forwards inside, or having to run the ball. He made two poor decisions all game, both to pass when under pressure. They resulted in one try for the Dogs, and one hospital pass for Jarrod Croker. It’s the kind of decision making under pressure that takes experience. And this is but the first step of Wighton’s journey.
I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Laurie Daley, but there’s nothing so far that suggests that he can’t be a success at six (nor anything to suggest the certainty of it). In the second half he stood a bit deeper, had a bit more space and showed the skills that are so tantalising. On two occasions in the second half he made the exact kind of brilliant catch/pass decisions we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him make as a second receiver. You can see them here and here, the latter most impressive when he steps through the line and threads a needle to a Cotric on the wing. Throughout the game it was his side of the attack that looked most threatening, and where the Canberra attack returned time and again. Later in the game he kicked well; a bonus talent I wasn’t aware he’d developed.
At the back Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad did enough to lock down the number one decision for the beginning of the season. He was relatively safe under the high ball, and was well positioned on most kicks. He showed quick feet, which he used when doing yardage work to put defenders off balance and make up for his lack of size. He chimed into the line once or twice, but only to minimal effect.
In the forward pack Papalii and Hunt stood out – both made big yards early. I wasn’t sure if Hunt would even be in the top 21 come round one, so it was interesting to not only see him start among the first-string team but succeed. Tapine is so exciting and penetrative on the right edge – I hope he stays there when the English Bateman joins the line up. Emre Guler also showed he should be in the top 17. I was particularly happy to say him show some physicality in defence. His ball-running is always impressive, and to see his game developing so quickly is heartening. Sia Soliola seems to look stronger with shorter hair (reverse Sampson?) and Corey Horsburgh was again impressive, albeit against second string Dogs later in the game. If he’s not on the Raiders’ bench at some point this season I will be shocked.
Like we said last week, the results of trials aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The real points of interest are the hints we can take into how the Green Machine will play, and what might be their strengths and weaknesses. We got some sight of that in this game, but the real story begins in March. All we know now is that this remains a work in progress.
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