Raiders Review: A Vast Improvement

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 21-0 victory over the Gold Coast Titans was hard-earned and heartening. The Green Machine just might have learnt the lessons of 2018. Not everything was perfect – this is round one after all – but this performance is a marked step up from the standard of 2018. Just how far up is yet to be seen.

Courtesy of AAP: Dave Hunt

The most pleasing aspect of this victory was not so much that the Raiders blanked the Titans, but the manner in which they did it. This was always going to be a litmus test for the more ‘mobile’ Raiders pack. Gold Coast has so many big men they had to squeeze nearly-Origin prop Ryan James out to an edge. Add this to the fact that the weather meant this game would largely be played in the middle. But after struggling to control the monster Gold Coast pack in the early stages, Canberra slowly gained control over their counterparts.

The Raiders line speed was improved. There was impressive contact across the defensive line. Even smaller players like Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer were physical. The presence of Elliot Whitehead and John Bateman in and around the middle and left thirds of the defence provided consistent contact. Their presence and solidity was instrumental in holding the Titans to nothing, and could be a real boon for the Canberra defence.

The goal line defence was most impressive. From the 12th minute of the game, the Titans camped on the Raiders line for three sets in a row. Canberra handled it when their opposition put sweeping set plays out to the wings. They absorbed it when Gold Coast sent their massive pack at the posts. The line didn’t look like bending. In the end a Titans error off a drop-out ended the pressure, and the Titans barely threatened again.

Jack Wighton was also a weapon in defence. I use that word deliberately. For so long Canberra’s edge defence has been a liability. In this game Jack Wighton (and others) were a genuine physical threat to the Titan’s wide men. It was a salve to my broken soul. In the 25th minute this threat manifested in Kevin Proctor’s face, forcing him into an error with a crunching tackle. This is not something you expect from a regular six. After that the Titans were always wary of Jack.

With the ball, the Green Machine played intelligently for the most part. Hodgson was as advertised – in control, assertive and brilliant. He directed the attack in the middle third with aplomb, creating threats to the line, either with the ball or through his run, and earning easy metres for his big men by always finding space for them.

Around him the big men prospered. John Bateman got through a load of work, carrying 19 times for 154m. He isn’t a finished product at NRL level, – in direct one-on-one he was occasionally out-muscled. His best work was coming back across the ruck, which allowed his quicker feet to threaten to break the line against slower middle-men. Josh Papalii’s numbers (12 for 114m) understate his impact. More often than not he took the dirty work hitups – this is a role he’ll have to play for much of the season. Sia Soliola (13 for 121m) was also excellent off the bench. The only player we wish we’d seen more off was Joseph Tapine, who only had 4 runs for 34m.

Partly this was because of Sezer’s less than stellar first night controlling the right. With Wighton playing exclusively as second receiver on the left, Sezer has the responsiblity of getting the ball to Tapine and BJ Leilua. Both barely saw the ball in space (although Leilua got through plenty of yardage work). We noted in the season preview and after the first trial that we had high hopes for the Sezer-Tapine connection. It didn’t materialise in this game.

Jack Wighton’s performance with ball in hand was encouraging. The question all summer was whether he’d be able to make the right decisions in the pressure cooker that is frontline ball-play. In this game he made the right decision when to pass and when to run for the most part, and the Raiders always looked threatening when he had the ball.

Sezer, Wighton and Hodgson all contributed to a kicking game that was a crucial part of the victory. Canberra made a strategy of kicking early in tackle counts, and while they never earned a 40/20, these kicks (and the chase that almost always followed) pinned the Titans in their own area. These early kicks to corners were particularly prominent in the last twenty minutes, suggesting this will be a big part of the Raiders approach to not fucking choking away leads in 2019.

The Raiders short kicking game was also sublime. They earned four repeat sets (two by Hodgson, and one each from Sezer and Wighton), which may be more than they managed in 2018. They scored tries. Sezer’s chip for Bailey Simonsson for his first try in the NRL was perfectly weighted and ended the game. Hodgson’s grubber for Sia Soliola in the dying light of the first half got the Raiders their first try and put a gap on the scoreboard that for a normal team would feel insurmountable in the circumstances. Wighton’s kicking was a pleasant surprise. While he faltered early on one grubber, for the most part he kicked intelligently late behind the line and almost always led the chase to keep the Titans close to (or behind) their line.

Not everything went according to plan and plenty remains for the Raiders to work on before people start booking finals tickets. As we mentioned Sezer’s connection with his right edge needs work. Tapine, BJ and Cotric didn’t see nearly enough ball. No better was this displayed when Cotric and BJ conspired to run over two-thirds of the Titans team to combine for Canberra’s second try. Sezer also needs to straighten up and take the line on, or at least threaten to, more than he did in this game. His willingness to prop and pass to his outside men made it too easy for the defence to pressure the edges. Wighton, possibly as a result, also pushed some passes he didn’t need to, and the Raiders rarely found much space to operate in on the edges.

And the Raiders still managed to keep the Titans in the game well beyond what they deserved through a period of truly heinous ball-handling. By my count they dropped the ball on four consecutive sets from the 54th to the 64th minute. At 14-0 in the 63rd minute the Titans shouldn’t have been in the game, but the Raiders ball-handling was inviting them in. A proper side would have taken advantage.

Finally, it’s also hard to tell how much the Canberra defence has improved given the Titans were missing their two best play-makers for the bulk of the match. The Titans also dropped a heap of ball, completing only 63 per cent of their sets. Better sides won’t be so friendly.

While these weaknesses must be worked on, this game was unequivocally a resounding improvement on 2019. The Raiders defended stoutly, played smartly with the ball, and unleashed their talented backs when they could. Just how much of an improvement is yet to be seen. The real work begins against the Storm.

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