The Canberra Raiders 19-0 victory over Parramatta was yet another hard-nosed performance. Against an opposition that underwhelmed they attacked through the middle, kicked to the corners, and defended like hell. This was meant to be a big test for the Raiders, but they barely felt troubled.
Before we spend the next few hundred words getting thoroughly carried away, let’s take a moment to consider just how poor the Eels were for the good part of this match. They only completed 57 per cent for the match, including only managing to complete six sets in the entirety of the first half. By that time the Raiders had been tackled well over 20 times in the opposition twenty. Conversely, the Eels had only been tackled four times in the Canberra half. They dropped ball coming off their own line. They dropped it on the few occasions they got a sniff. Even after they made breaks errors followed. It was not a performance they would like to remember.
It’s hard to say how much of these errors are directly the result of the Canberra defence but it’s safe to say it played a role. I wasn’t at the game, but the physicality of the Raiders’ tackling traveled through the Fox Sports mics well. The slap of flesh on flesh makes it easy to wonder if errors came from keeping an eye out for a green jersey as much as anything else.
The defensive performance in this game was impressive, even if it didn’t have the same array of standout moments of other games. Instead the Raiders so overwhelmed the Eels that it felt like they rarely got moving. You don’t ‘accidentally’ blank a team after all. The line played with speed all night. On so many occasions the Raiders A, B, and C gap defenders were so quick off the line and so physical in their hits that the Eels could barely move the ball. More than once they barely squeezed 25 metres on a set before kicking.
What was pleasing about this is the lack of individual stand-outs. Players had great moments in defence, but it wasn’t limited to an individual or a set. BJ and Bateman worked hard on the right edge. Whitehead and Wighton on the left. Croker and Charnze chipped in with necessary tackles close to the line. Hodgson, Havili and the middle men made sure that the Eels could barely move. Even Sam Williams was rock solid, bringing down Clint Gutherson with a great legs tackle the only real time he was tested.
This impressive defence has allowed the Raiders to play a less hectic attacking style in 2019 and this game was no different. Despite advantageous position, they continued to keep the ball in the middle third for the majority of sets. Josh Papalii had 17 carries for 154 metres including 59 after contact. We wrote earlier that he tends to take the hardest carries for the pack, and in this game it was no different. He’s playing as well as he ever has for the Raiders, and if he doesn’t start for Queensland come origin then Kevin Walters needs his head examined.
Ryan Sutton (14 for 118m) and John Bateman (14 for 121m) were also impressive. I wasn’t convinced by Sutton’s performance in the trial games, but he has improved so dramatically week-to-week since then. For the first thirty minutes of this match you could have argued he was the best forward on the ground. Sia Soliola (11 for 125m) and Siliva Havili (11 for 99m) also provided important punch of the bench.
Focusing so much work around the middle third was probably overly conservative, and despite Jeff Bezos levels wealth of possession, it took until the 27th minute for Papalii and Hodgson to combine for the first try. If Hodgson’s pass to Papa to put him on the outside of his defender was good, Papalii’s footwork close to the line was a masterpiece. Similarly, the Raiders second try came when Hodgson grubbered in the middle third. It was tapped ahead with expertise by Whitehead, who fell on the ball in the in-goal.
The focus on the middle, and the consequential lack of ball for outside men on attacking forays didn’t stop them from getting involved. They all did huge amounts of yardage work (each one of the back five cracked 100 metres on the ground) and found ways to break tackles, and occasionally, the line. Finding a way to get them involved outside of dummy-half runs, or through their own ad-lib work is a crucial area the Raiders must work on. I’d rather be trying to fix that when you’ve won four of your first five games though.
The halves for their part continue to improve, both as individuals and as a connection. In recent weeks the ball had been kept in the middle third by defences rushing the Raiders attack outside in, and the Raiders have begun to take some steps to remedy this. Wighton has shown he’s willing to mix up his approach. He sent early ball to Croker in the 4th minute, then brought Cotric on an big outside-in movement in the second half. In between he chose good times to run, threw some long balls and generally played with a greater degree of variety than previous weeks. None of these resulted in points, but it showed his thinking about how he can keep the outside defence uncertain.
Sam Williams had some good moments. Part of the Raiders wealth of possession came from repeat sets, which he created at least two with well placed kicks (Wighton and Hodgson also created one each). His bomb that saw Wighton soar above the pack for the Raiders third try was well placed too. He also ran the ball a few times, a welcome departure on his previous efforts this season.
But even with all that improvement, and with an overwhelming majority of the ball, the Raiders found it hard to create points. Canberra had all the ball and only three tries, of which two came from kicks (and one of which was pretty lucky). There were moments of poor timing – Williams threw a poor ball on a sweeping movement to Wighton that ended in an error. Wighton’s floater to Rapana showed his passing left to right needs work. Generally these forays looked stilted, overly planned, and reliant on someone throwing the perfect pass at the defensive line. I’d like to see the halves get a bit more early ball to the outside men. They’ve shown they can create points given a bit of fresh air, and the few times it happened tonight gave a different rhythm to the attack.
But this is nit-picking. Apart from sitting close to the top of the table, the Raiders’ performances, and in particular their defence, afford them the luxury of continuing to work this out as they go. Instead of previous years, they have a solid defence that, should it continue in this fashion, gives them the benefit of being able to stay in, or ahead of, games regardless of what they are doing with the ball.
Their dominance, combined with the performance of the Eels, probably push the questions about the Raiders’ ‘realness’ out a few weeks. The wounded Broncos, fresh off a long-break and full with desperation wait around the corner. The Raiders have a formula that works. I can’t wait to see them put it to work.
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