The Canberra Raiders’ 36-14 victory over the St-George Illawarra Dragons was crucial and thorough. It had shaped as a bad match-up for the Green Machine, but they cast off the demons of Darwin and showed they were could handle a bigger side. It’s not a season defining victory – the Dragons aren’t good enough for that – but it is more evidence that this Canberra side has a real shot at the top four.
The Raiders had plenty to play for in this game. They needed to prove their early season success against bigger sides wasn’t a fluke. A loss would have slipped them back into the mix of sides hanging between 14th and 5th. Instead the Raiders are sitting in 3rd, six points clear of 9th, and with a small service break between them and five through eight. This victory may have seemed ‘easy’ (are Raiders wins ever easy?), but it was hard fought and worth every effort.
The story of this game was the Raiders pack. They faced a bigger opposition, much similar to those that have overwhelmed them in recent weeks, and didn’t just match them, but outright dismantled them.
For once this wasn’t a solo effort by Josh Papalii (though his 121m, including FIFTY post contact metres, and 30 tackles, were impressive as always). Sia Soliola (14 runs for 133m) started in Papalii’s place and showed that he can still match it with the first string. He was ably supported by Joe Tapine who had 94 metres in the first half, split between using his quick feet to gain advantage over bigger men in the middle, and using his size and pace to overwhelm the edges. These players stood out, but the whole pack was impressive.
The middle swamped the Dragons in defence. For about 70 minutes of this game they took the physical challenge of their oppositions all-star middles and simply owned them. For most of the match the Dragons found no succor attacking the middle third. Cameron McInnes, who before this match had the most run metres of any nine in the competition (including Damien Cook) was held in check. Neither Tyson Frizell and Paul Vaughan cracked 100 metres (though in less minutes than normal). The Raiders formed a f*cking wall, and for the most part it held.
Cracks did emerge, firstly between Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh, and then between Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead. In the ten minute period where they scored two tries the Dragons played with enthusiasm and the Raiders, previously up 26-0 and just about ready to clock off, suddenly had to rally. It seemed darker Nic Cotric was sent off, but they reset and settled, stood up to their more favoured opponents and owned the ruck.
In response to the middle holding tough, the Dragons kept pushing at the edges. But they were met with similar resolve. John Bateman and Elliot Whitehaed were both excellent in this game. Bateman cracked 100 metres with the ball, and Whitehead was an integral part of several movements on the left. But moreso than their work with the ball, it was the defence that impressed. The Dragons sweeps at either edge were swallowed up by the Raiders. On the Raiders’ right, Corey Norman and Matt Dufty both looked like they might make it through at times, and were almost always swallowed by John Bateman. On the other side, Whitehead and Wighton are such air-tight edge defenders that teams are now trying to go around them to try their luck with less space but more forgiving defenders. So often the Dragons ball players got to the line, realised there was no space and kicked in hope. The Raiders (for the large part) handled it easily.
This impressive middle effort was certainly heavily influenced by the Josh Hodgson masterclass that was on offer. He set up three tries, all one pass off the ruck, identifying a sliver of space for a middle man to hit and score. Tapine’s try was a perfect line and quick feet from the big man, but Hodgson’s ball was inch perfect. Then he got out from behind a quick ruck from Aidan Sezer (!), won Paul Vaughan’s attention and gave Siliva Havili enough space to score. Then he put Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in because love is beautiful and there is still good in this world. That the latter two tries occurred when the Raiders were down a man and simply shouldn’t have been scoring. There was always enough defenders there. They just weren’t where Hodgson was sending the ball.
And he didn’t just do it at the flash end. He kicked wonderfully. He pulled off not one but two one-on-one strips. He created space around the ruck the Dragons were desperately trying to slow. He darted out of dummy-half, putting forwards over the advantage line. When Cotric was sent off, he took over, turning the Raiders into a 12-man battering ram, charging through the middle and destroying the gob-smacked Dragons. It was breathtaking to see, and a timely reminder of his importance to this side.
All this meant that suddenly Jack Wighton wasn’t the only show in town, as had been the case against the Eels and the Sharks. Wighton, perhaps feeling less pressure to throw the hero pass, seemed happier to play shorter, trusting Croker and Whitehead would see the same things he saw. The long ball was still there, but Jack instead created with the men outside him, rather than for them. The result was uplifting. The Raiders terrorised that edge, scoring twice but almost always going close. It relied less on Wighton, giving him freedom to get in new positions – or old ones – such as the line he ran off the inside shoulder of Whitehead on an outside-inside ball movement that went Sezer, Whitehead, Wighton. It was an old fullback line and it was beautiful. For his part Sezer continued to chip in with good movements, digging into the line at first receiver and not being aftraid to run the ball. As noted, it was he who created the ruck speed that ended in Havili’s game sealer. I would have preferred his kicks didn’t always seem to find legs though. For the second time in recent weeks the coach called it his best game for the club.
Sidebar two: I just want to talk for about Jarrod Croker’s positioning behind and slightly inside Elliot Whitehead just before Jack’s pass to Smelly that ended with Croker scoring. Croker created the extra man himself by essentially shaping to run on the inside of Whitehead, popping up outside him and receiving the pass. It’s a small thing, but it’s part of what makes him great.
All this good work by the halves and the forwards was supported by an equally impressive effort by the back three. Nicoll-Klokstad had 200 plus metres, scored twice, once by sheer effort, and saved a try with a great hit on Matt Dufty (not to mention nearly chasing Dufty down in the 79th minute despite Dufty having a head start and Charnze having to cover an extra twenty metres of so coming across field). Bailey Simonsson dropped one bomb but was otherwise excellent, combining well with Croker for a try and countless other raids. They are rapidly building an understanding that will serve the Raiders well.
The major downside for the Raiders was the send-off of Nic Cotric. It was the right decision (though complaints about consistency are fair in my mind, if beside the point). Cotric’s tackle was dangerous. Whether he meant to or not, he put Lafai in a really bad position. Cotric will be out for at least three weeks you would think.
It was pleasing to see how the Raiders responded to Cotric’s send off. In recent years that could have been the beginning of the end (if they weren’t already in the middle). Instead they showed faith in their formula and their system, focused on winning the middle and kicking to the corners. They didn’t do anything new or different really, just what they’re good at, with consistency and more resolve. It was what good sides do; and not something one would associate with ‘Raider football’ before this year. The result was about twenty minutes a player short, and the Raiders scored two tries to one.
Canberra now have a ‘soft’ draw for about three weeks before they get a chance to show that they’re contenders when they play the Storm, Sharks, Roosters and Manly within weeks of each other. Now is not the time to be complacent. They’re closer to 14th than they are to 1st. They need every win they can get to ensure they have the best shot at the double chance and a home final.
But this was a pleasing victory. They faced down the demons of Darwin. They stood tall when the game turned against them. They excelled when the going got tough. There’s a proper resolve to this side, and it’s matched with some impressive football players. The Raiders may not have beaten a top four side in this game, but they certainly played like one.