The Canberra Raiders 17-10 victory over the Newcastle Knights was another victory for the club’s decision to go small. The Green Machine’s forwards faced down a much bigger pack and owned them. They could have won by twenty if they could find a way to connect the success of their forwards to freedom for their backs.
It’s bizarre how solid the Raiders defence has been in all three games this season. It’s such a startling turnaround. The Raiders defensive line has gone from porous to proud, the foundation on which two victories have now been built this season.
Throughout this game the defence saved them when the other phases of play let them down. And there were plenty of opportunities (12 handling errors in total) for the defence to do that. They were aggressive in line speed, they were effective in tackles. They forced errors and dominated the ruck. There was still plenty of mistakes – this is not a league leading outfit yet – but the mere fact I’m making that disclaimer highlights how impressive the effort was.
This improvement has been most startling and obvious on the edges. Where the Raiders were once a laughing stock, they are now routinely shutting down attacking movements. I’m sure this is partly to do with a more robust middle and better line-speed. But the efforts of the edge defenders have also improved.
On the right edge, John Bateman and BJ Leilua were impenetrable. They supported Sam Williams brilliantly, ensuring that he was never isolated by a bigger player. The other edge was less perfect, allowing two more tries to take it’s tally to all five tries scored against Canberra in 2019. But Jarrod Croker in particularly continues to make impressive decisions to shut off attacking raids before they mature. Jack Wighton remains aggressive and effective, although his effort on Jesse Ramien’s try was disappointing.
This defensive effort was matched by an impressive performance by the forwards with the ball. Josh Hodgson’s first twenty minutes were as good as any Raider has played this year. He ensured that Canberra was getting fifty plus metres on every set, both with his feet when needed, or by pushing his forwards over the advantage line. He created what should have been three tries early. Ryan Sutton should have scored when Hodgson got him a one-on-one close to the line. Sam Williams should have scored when Hodgson’s well placed grubber bounced perfectly for him. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad finally took the opportunity when a perfect Hodgson kicked bounced into his arms.
Hodgson’s early performance was built on by a brilliant forward pack. In particular John Bateman (16 for 190m and FORTY-ONE tackles) was incredible on the right edge. Hodgson has such trust of him that he routinely hits him at first receiver in space. He had two line breaks in this game, and threatened the line on more occasions. His quick feet make him a hard grab for big middle forwards, or even quicker backs – he made Kayln Ponga look stupid in the first half with some quick feet to step inside him. I have no particular view at this stage if he should stay on the edge or head back to the middle when Tapine returns, but hot damn I’m grateful he’s on the field in a green jersey.
Bateman was ably supported by Josh Papalii (13 for 122m) who again succeeded on some of the hardest, dirtiest hit-ups a forward can take. Sia Soliola (14 for 144m) was excellent off the bench, and has provided the second unit punch lacking in recent years. Ryan Sutton (11 for 93m) didn’t look out of place playing major minutes and made 34 tackles to boot. Siliva Havili was great again, and Corey Horsburgh (13 for 115m) had his best game as a Raider. Even Hudson Young had a good carry.
This performance should have been enough for the Raiders to win by plenty. But again the Raiders attack was disjointed, particularly in the connection from the halves to the backs. While Hodgson dominated early it seemed like there was no end to the possibilities. As the game wore on he seemed happier to let Williams and Wighton drive the game. It was less successful.
Outside of Hodgson’s work with the forwards, the Raiders made their most penetrative raids outside the opposition twenty. BJ Leilua had a good run when Williams found him lonely out wide. Bateman hurt defenders both through the middle and on the edge – that run back into the ruck has now created a break or half break in every game this season. But rarely could they find space when they got close to the Newcastle line.
This wasn’t helped by basic handling errors. The Raiders only completed 70 per cent of their sets – it’s the kind of number that rarely wins matches. The wet had plenty to do with that, but many errors were more absent-mindedness than a slippery pill.
Wighton had his most difficult game as a six. He took on much more responsibility for the attack in the absence of Aidan Sezer, even switching to play on the right, occasionally as first-receiver. In this game it seemed more than he could handle. Williams was solid – as if we’d expect anything less – and his cool head to slot the winning field-goal after the well organised double prop decoy was a welcome change to last year’s end-game debacles. He kicked well in the second half, and scored a try in the first, but he couldn’t solve the offensive problems facing Canberra this season.
The two tries they scored came on the only real occasions they got space close to the line outside of Hodgson’s good early work. They also came from abject failures in the Newcastle defence. Williams strolled in when Siona Mata-utia made one of the worst defensive efforts I’ve ever seen. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad bounced out of a poor Jesse Ramien effort to score the Raiders last try. Like Croker’s tries last week these are more opportunistic efforts than sustainable attack. There needs to be something more systematic and deliberate.
Sidebar: Nicoll-Kolkstad was brilliant again at the back, in yardage and also in his positioning and handling of kicks. I was surprised by how strong he was carrying the ball – no doubt Jesse Ramien was too. He’s proven an incredible pick up for the Raiders, and is more than just a fill-in fullback. He is a legit first-grader.
The set plays of previous years are nowhere to be seen. There’s been little opportunity for Croker or BJ to work off the shoulder of a half playing straight into the line. Wighton can run but hasn’t found a way to get the ball outside on a consistent basis outside of big, sweeping movements. Williams was better in this regard, but his run doesn’t worry oppositions (though, maybe they should make more effort than Mata’utia did). There is little space for the edge attackers and the Raiders’ dynamic backs barely got a sniff in the opposition twenty. Nicoll-Klokstad (21 for 185m), Leilua (12 for 120m), Rapana (14 for 92m) and Cotric (15 for 143m) still did huge yardage work coming off their own line. I was particularly glad to see Leilua get involved so happily.
It’s clear work needs to be done on the offensive side of the ball. This defence through three games is the kind of unit that Canberra has been unable to build throughout the Stuart regime. It’s what has separated them from consistent success in the past. For now though the Raiders will just have to be happy with another win built on an impressively solid defence and an effective forward pack. If they can put all the pieces of the puzzle together, there could be something special there.