The Canberra Raiders dispatched the North Queensland Cowboys 30-12 in a scrappy, but well earned victory. The Green Machine won because of the efforts of their back five, another very good display from Josh Hodgson, and a defence that is definitely decent, and maybe even good. The Raiders made it closer than it needed to be and in that it revealed problems that still need to be addressed. However, the win was just the latest example that Canberra has the foundation in place to succeed in 2019.
This victory was pleasing because of the circumstances in which it occurred. Coming off a smart victory over Newcastle, near favourites far away from home, unusual weather, against a side that was keen to turn their season around. It had all the making of a let-down game. Then in the game, they lead for the whole game, didn’t panic when the opposition got close, worked the ball smartly down the other end and took advantage of the opportunities when they came. It was everything that previous years haven’t been.
The Raiders won this game by making a mockery of the biggest pack in the competition. The mobile pack was conducted around the park by the maestro Josh Hodgson in typically brilliant fashion. He didn’t have his best game – his kicking game was a step below what it has been in recent weeks – but his work through the ruck was excellent as always. In the first twenty minutes it felt like the Raiders took sixty metres on each set with a minimum of fuss. Much of this came from Hodgson finding them extra metres by engaging the markers, and giving the forwards plenty of running space. Consequently Josh Papali (11 for 101m) Dunamis Lui (12 for 101m), John Bateman (14 for 120m), Ryan Sutton (15 for 139m) and Sia Soliola (12 for 125m) all cracked 100 metres on the ground.
And Hodgson’s work was made much easier by the fact he so often got the forwards involved after the back five had already produced several good runs, injecting momentum into almost every set. Jordan Rapana (18 for 178m), BJ Leilua (15 for 112m) and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (17 for 147m) were incredible. These three started almost every set for the Raiders, and then more often than not got involved again. In previous years we have argued that Wighton/Cotric/Rapana/Leilua gave the Raiders an advantage in set starts unparalleled in the league. The introduction of Nicoll-Klokstad into that group has not seen the Green Machine take a backwards step.
The back five didn’t just contribute in the dirty work. They were glorious in attack too (although BJ got carried away a few times). Leilua and Rapana accounted for three tries, and Croker and Cotric the other two. There was a degree of opportunism in some of these. Rapana’s first try came after a Sam Williams grubber pin-balled into his hands. Croker’s try came from quick work after a handling error. Some were more exhilarating – the Raiders third try involved brilliance from Nicoll-Klokstad to hold a pass into the line, send Rapana into space, who then kicked perfectly back in-field for Leilua to fall over the line. It was as exciting to see Rapana and Leilua up to their old tricks as it was to see Nicoll-Klokstad ball-playing like a modern fullback. Rapana’s second came after Cotric and Nicoll-Klokstad had overpowered the defence with devastating runs following an Elliot Whitehead charge-down. By the time Rapana got the ball the Cowboys were physically overwhelmed.
And then there’s the Raiders’ defence. It’s incredible that the defence has become the bulwark around which Canberra builds leads and hold them. Early in the game the Raiders muscled their big counterparts into short-yardage sets. Then as the game got close through the middle of the second half it was the defence that held the line when Canberra’s discipline deserted them. The line-speed was almost always there (or at least the intent of line-speed) and key defenders across the park mean the Raiders no longer have the multiple weak points they once did. Wighton brought down Coen Hess close to the line. Croker made a series of good reads to end sweeping movements. Whitehead and Hodgson seem involved in nearly every tackle in the middle third. Bateman and Leilua both did an exemplary job supporting Williams. This defence has been so consistent in effort and output through four weeks that it’s getting dangerously close to being a feature of Canberra’s play.
The Raiders aren’t perfect though. Williams had a night in defence he’d probably like to forget. On both Cowboys’ tries they targeted him, and he jumped out of the line and created the gap that the points came through. Williams’ size is a big part of this. He knows he can’t get caught on the line against sizeable defenders, so he is always keen to push up. If he gets his decision wrong, the defenders can get in behind him, as Gavin Cooper did on the Cowboys first try. Or he can get isolated against a superior attacker, as Morgan did for the Cowboys second try. If the Raiders are going to keep Williams at seven over the long term, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Leilua and Bateman to provide the support he needs.
The Raiders defence had to be good, because their discipline didn’t match their defensive effort. 9 errors and 7 penalties doesn’t sound like a lot – in fact it’s an improvement on last week’s 13 and 6 in the same categories, and it’s similar to what they produced (10 and 6) in the loss to Melbourne. In this game it was more the position of the errors than the volume. Croker, Cotric and Rapana all dropped ball in the Raiders own twenty (though not all their fault). Hodgson kicked out on the full to give away attacking field position. Sutton dropped the ball on the first tackle of an attacking set after the Raiders had foregone the opportunity to take two. They gave away penalties to help the Cowboys down the field far too much.
Better teams will take advantage of these errors (as Melbourne did a few weeks ago). An improved defence is not a cure-all, and no defence can hold out forever in the face of the poorly-timed or positioned errors that have plagued the Raiders play early in this season.
The attack, despite the improvement in output tonight, still remains a work in progress. The Raiders succeeded because of their middles, and the outside men tonight. Again the halves struggled to find fluency. Aspects of this were improvements on previous weeks. The Raiders finally stuck a full-sweeping movement. Both Williams and Wighton dug into the line, Croker made the right read and Cotric scored. It was nice to see this come off. But as far as involvement of the halves in scoring, this was largely an isolated incident.
Wighton was improved on last week, and he continues to learn within games as well as week-to-week. He blew a possible try in the second half by trying to throw a cut-out ball instead of a more simple option. Minutes later, presented with a similar situation, he put it softly into Croker’s hands, who found Cotric, back to Croker and the Raiders iced the game. Along with his smart kicking into the left corner throughout the game (and his chasing may well be the best in the competition), he’s proving a much smarter five-eighth than I thought. He needs to find an inside pass occasionally which may open some space both for his run and maybe his outside men. His overall performance is heartening if not perfect, and points to better times ahead. For his part Williams was solid with his kicking and game management but rarely created any threat to the line.
These flaws can be worked on. I am almost certain the Raiders of July will be a much more potent attack than this version. It’s clear they haven’t beaten a proper good side yet but what they have shown is that there is the foundation in place to make a serious go of 2019. A proper defence. A brilliant 9. Talent in attack and defence in the backs and on the edges. They need to fix their attack, lose the errors and penalties, and ensure their defence is as robust in August as it has been in April.
But shit if they can do all that then I don’t want to get carried away, but for the first time since 2016 Canberra might have the foundation for a proper football team.
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