Raiders Review: Sweet Dominance

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 28-0 victory over the Wests Tigers was brutal and exhilarating. After a year in which they have scrapped and clawed for every point and every win, the Green Machine beat the stripes off the Tigers, with a brutal defence and an enterprising attack. This was the 2019 formula executed with dominance.

Fuck yes

It’s weird to say when a side scoring 28 did it with defence but the Raiders showed they don’t stray too far from the recipe. Without a hint of exaggeration Canberra was physically dominant from moment one, brutalising the opposition when they had the ball. It felt routine for the Tigers’ sets to end with under 40 metres gained. Joe Tapine forced an error on the first tackle with a brutal hit. Ryan Sutton did it in the second half. The normally sure-handed Chris Lawrence dropped the ball twice running against the Raiders suddenly-robust right edge defence, which suffocated him like a punch to the solar plexus. Aidan Sezer’s intercept try was the logical extension of his desire (and the Raiders strategy) to give no space to the opposition edges.

Across the park the Raiders were savage. There was an enthusiasm for the entire 80 minutes that was intoxicating. When Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker pushed David Nofoaluma over the sideline in the dying seconds it wasn’t a surprise, but rather an appropriate bookend to the ferocity of the Canberra tackling for the entirety of the encounter.

There were so many great individual efforts too. Elliot Whitehead and John Bateman were excellent. Croker had his best defensive game in weeks. Bailey Simonsson was incredible. He somehow stopped Esan Masters in the 35th minute when he was the sole defender facing five tigers. He’d already smashed Nofoaluma into touch in the 26th minute when the Tigers may have thought they could score. Two try-savers in ten minutes and it wasn’t even half time.

Sidebar: A real highlight on Simonsson’s first ‘try-saver’ was that he kept his shoulders square to the ball long enough to help Croker should he had needed it. Croker himself made a great effort to get across and force the last pass, but much should be said of Simonsson being there in help, and then recovering to make a picture perfect try saver. Oh, and he had 195m on the ground. It’s great to see how quickly he’s becoming a legitimate first grade weapon on both sides of the ball.

This vicious and vindictive defence was central to this victory. Despite the scoreline, there were periods where the Raiders attack lost its lustre long enough that the Tigers could have felt they had a sniff. A Canberra drop was met with a forced error. An attacking set where Canberra only managed 29 metres with a defensive set where they only allowed 25. A slick Tigers scrum move was gobbled up by a Croker try-saver on one side, then Cotric forced the Tigers out when they thought they had him on the short side.

The Raiders were simply hostile. And the Tigers wanted nothing to do with it.

With the ball the Raiders were occasionally brilliant rather than dominant, but it was as good as a display of attacking football they have put on this season (for the record I reckon the Broncos game had some great attack too but let’s not pick nits). This wasn’t a slick display of structured rugby league, but rather players taking advantage of the opportunities that were presented them by the opposition, and turning them into points.

Central to this was Aidan Sezer. NRL.com doesn’t credit him with a try assist, but he played a big role in the Raiders first, second and fifth tries. The first he plonked a kick perfectly down between the fullback and winger. Croker got to the ball first and flicked it inside for Elliot Whithead to soccer up for Simonsson to score. The second Sezer ran it on the last, stepped inside two tired forwards, broke up the middle, kicked it perfectly for Nic Cotric, whose touch off his foot back inside to Jordan Rapana would make *pick your favourite soccer player with good touch is it Messi, it’s probably Messi* smile.

But more than these moments of brilliance, Sezer’s return seemed to open up the Raiders’ right side attack. Early ball to Bateman and Cotric, combined with the very real threat of Sezer running (he had a second consecutive game of 100 plus running metres), got them more room to move than they’ve had in weeks. So often they found space and metres by going wide. On one occasion great hands from Sezer and Bateman got Cotric in space and Jordan Rapana should have scored.

Sidebar: It was so pleasing to see Sezer have such a big game after the season he has endured. Regardless of which side you have fallen in the Sezer/ Williams discussion, both players have handled themselves with dignity and with team spirit in a difficult situation. It was great to see Sezer’s good attitude pay off.

And what a boon Bateman is on that edge. He’s just as likely to pick up 15 hard earned metres as he is to grubber through the line for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to retrieve and return to Bateman in support, as occured in a moment of ‘no-yes-YES’ brilliance on the stroke of halftime. He and Sezer utilised a few different looks to keep the defence honest. My favourite was the Sezer-Bateman-Sezer runaround, and Bateman running it back from the edge to the middle worked earlier in the season, and it makes that run-around threat even more potent.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. For weeks the Raiders have attacked down the left, and hoped on the right. Finding a way to replicate this more threatening approach on the right can only be good for their prospects.

On the other edge Jack Wighton returned as dominant as he was before he left. He showed no ill-effects from Origin, save for a few wayward kicks. He threatened with the run (another week, another 100 plus metres for Jack). He orchestrated the Raiders ‘kick to the corner, smash them into submission’ work with aplomb.

It’s worth noting that he’s now what teams are focusing on when they play the Raiders. They try to take away his options outside by rushing up, hoping that the cover defence can get across to help on his run. In this game that mostly worked, though a few times Jack was almost through. I was glad to see them bring Nicoll-Klokstad on his inside shoulder a few times (rather than outside him as the second man). This should give him a few more looks, and perhaps preoccupy some cover defenders.

It’s also worth noting how great the forward pack was. Josh Papalii’s effort off the bench (17 runs for 179 metres, 58 post-contact metres in just 40 minutes) was astounding just two days after origin. I will fight anyone who doesn’t think he’s a walk-up Kangaroo right now. Ryan Sutton (19 for 163m) started for Papa’s, and didn’t for a second look out of place. He reminds me so much of Paul Vaughan – less fleet of foot, but similarly blessed with an ability to shrug off the first tackler and always find his belly. Bateman and Whitehead were excellent on the edges, always doing enough to poke their heads through. I just wish there was a way to get Tapine more ball. I get that it’s unlikely he’ll play on the edge now, but even in the middle his quick feet are dangerous, and he needs more than seven runs (68ms) for the game. The pack were ably supported by always excellent yardage work from Nicoll-Klokstad (18 for 168m), Simonsson (23 for 195m) and Rapana (19 for 163m).

The only blemish in this game was the red zone attack. It looked inspid and stilted. Too often the ball got caught in the middle third, and when it didn’t the halves were working in almost no space. Partly this is because of the good goal-line line-speed of the Tigers. Partly this is because Siliva Havili’s service isn’t as quick or creative as Josh Hodgson’s. That’s hardly Havili’s fault – he’s been a middle rotation forward until last week. For his part Tom Starling continues to show he can play a bigger role if needed. This was not the only problem though. Too often the kicks in this area were fine but not good. Rarely did Cotric or Wighton get the ball close to the line with pace and space available.

More needs to be done for the Raiders to turn good field position – which the formula is designed to get – into points. Canberra were tackled more than 16 times in the Tigers twenty in the 35 minutes and scored zero points on those forays. Their only successful redzone attack was Bateman’s grubber for Charnze. More creativity and better service from the nine will sort it self out in time (either through Havili’s improvement, or Hodgson’s return). But they need a better strategy than what they are currently implementing.

Leaving that aside, that the Raiders were able to roughhouse a normally disciplined side coming off a bye bodes well, particularly given Canberra’s last few weeks have hardly been easy. The impact of origin and injuries have meant the Green Machine have needed the back end of the squad to play big roles in meaningful games. They’ve also needed ‘big-name’ players (or Canberra’s version of that) to play like it. For the large part the Raiders have stepped up from 1-30, and they’ve now taken two in a row when they desperately needed to.

There’s also another level still out there for Canberra. The Raiders still have Josh Hodgson’s return in the kiln. If they can continue to play defence like they did in this game while improving their offence like was hinted at in this game, they could be more than just another top eight contender. There’s a real chance that if they put this all together they could ensconce themselves in the top four.

All that is just hyperbole if they don’t continue to translate this form over the next few weeks. The Raiders have shown in 2019 that no matter what they will give a good account of themselves. They pushed the Storm, Roosters and Bunnies but without success. Next week they face the Cronulla Sharks. It will be a good test, and one Canberra looked very ready to take on after this victory.

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