Raiders Trial Review: Rust and Cracks

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders won their only trial for 2020, 12-10 over the Canterbury Bulldogs. It was hardly a startling affair. It showed the Green Machine will be operating in much of the same manner as 2019: good defence and opportunistic attack that uses talent and smarts through the middle third to manufacture points. Execution was lacking, and some positional aspects remain unresolved issues, but there was enough of 2019 in what they did to suggest competitiveness in 2020.

Let’s start with the obvious caveat: trial games do not matter. Teams fiddle with lineups, test players in positions they haven’t played, and then use unusual rotations and wholesale changes that can make some players seem better than they are simply because they’re first string coming up against a team’s second string.

But they can give us an idea about the kinds of structures and general game plans that might be used. In this game the Raiders adopted the same approach that served them so well in 2019. They attacked most commonly through the middle third, pushed left when that didn’t work, and otherwise kicked to corners, and tried to let their defence put their oppositions in bad positions. It’s an old plan, but a good one.

Josh Hodgson looked relatively sprightly given how he usually approaches such games. His combination with Josh Papalii and Sia Soliola was familiar, and they went close to barging over on several occasions. That will continue to be a good option close to the line. He kicked brilliantly on the two opportunities he had to kick, one long near 40-20 and one cross-field grubber that earned the Raiders only repeat set. It was standard Hodgson quality.

Sia and Papa looked like facsimiles of last season, but what was most pleasing was the involvement of both Joe Tapine and Emre Guler. Tapine looked like he is ready to tap into that wonderful combination of pace in his feet and power in his body that we have been waiting to pop out. His offload to Papalii that set up the Raiders first try showed exactly what we should be able to see from him on a weekly basis. He used his quick feet at the line to jump outside the inside defender, powered his torso between two defenders and popped the pass to Papalii who found Jack to score. It wasn’t his only good run but it was his most notable.

For his part Emre Guler looked quicker than past years, and took 193 metres off 15 carries with relative ease. Taking those numbers with a grain of salt for the aforementioned reasons, he looked great and gives plenty of succour to those worried about the Milk’s depth this season. He ran with purpose and will be a big contributor off the bench if this performance is anything to go by.

When they were unsatisfied there, their most happy hunting ground was shifting left to Jack Wighton, who was (as usual) brilliant with his feet, though less so with the decision making of his passing. Twice he put impossible balls into Jarrod Croker’s path. Twice they hit the ground. When he went to another option – on one occasion Elliott Whitehead slipped out to the far side of him – suddenly there was acres of space. The Raiders will notice teams over-playing Croker and Wighton. They’ll need to find other options. Whitehead is always a good one there, but one hopes that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is able display a more developed role as a secondary ball-player this season.

Once the first-string settled in, they began to do many of the structural things we remember from 2019. Playing smartly through the middle, kicking to corners and smashing the Dogs as they came off their own line. If there was a criticism it was that this attack was conservative and handled well for the most part by an unimpressive Bulldogs squad. The Raiders’ middle focus and reliance on the left edge – specifically Jack Wighton and Elliott Whitehead- for penetration – is a similar restriction that existed last season, only now there’s no Leipana on the right to throw the ball to perform magic on the right. I’d be surprised if they had unleashed any dramatic changes in a trial game, so we’ll have to wait until round one to see if this is actually an issue.

And the right was very much a work in progress. George Williams looked best taking on the line, but we already knew that. The real issue here was the abject unfamiliarity from him with the three attackers outside. Corey Horsburgh’s positioning was unhelpful. He consistently pushed wide and deep, encroaching on the space of those outside and forcing Scott and Cotric wider and wider. He almost never tipped his run back into the middle, a John Bateman staple. Williams went searching for his outside men, throwing loopy and long passes trying to find Cotric in space, but Horsburgh had positioned himself such that it had been eaten up. One pass was nearly intercepted, the other took so long to get to Nic that the defence arrived in the meantime. One the few occasions that Corey was closer to George, it still looked disjointed, with the ball hitting the ground from Williams’ face-balls at least once. There was an occasion early where Corey sat well on Williams’ shoulder, received a ball and nearly barged over, and it was there that you, if for a brief second, saw the menace that Horsburgh could be on an edge.

The right was also an issue in defence. More than once the Red Horse was beaten to the outside, causing George Williams and his outside brethren to have to help inside and creating an overlap. We highlighted this as a potential problem when the Horsburgh at back row plan was revealed, and it showed its head on several occasions in this match.

Horsburgh didn’t cost the Raiders points in this match, but the right did. The Doggies first try came when George Williams made the wrong decision, forced Curtis Scott to come in, and Nic Cotric’s ever-so-slight delay saw him caught in no-man’s land as a cut-out pass sailed past him. The second try was because Josh Hodgson was a small guy on the goal-line, the Raiders didn’t get up, and Horsburgh didn’t help across.

If the Raiders are going to win like they did last year, they can’t go around having a defensive weakness like this. The rest of the defence broadly looked capable of last year’s feats; but the right as it currently stands did not. While Horsburgh’s defence was hampered by his lack of lateral speed, all three defenders outside him made errors. The right edge will likely be aided by the return of John Bateman, but with six NRL rounds until that will reportedly happen, there is a lot that can go wrong here when they start playing for points.

There’s a problem that needs fixing, either through trust in Horsburgh, or letting him go back to what he does best. The performance of the right side may convinced Coach Stuart to move Joe Tapine or Sia Soliola there; both feel like they would handle the shift well, though Soliola’s body is probably less capable of big minutes given the time he’s spent as a rotation forward. Stuart will need to have a think if he’s willing to be patient with Horsburgh, or if Tapine offers a better short-term option.

Ultimately, the big takeaway is that the Raiders looked rusty but settled into their work. They showed that much of the lessons of 2019 remain a structured part of their game-plan, and that should be heartening for fans of the Green Machine. It seems likely the Raiders will again be competitive in 2020. But there’s work to do, most notably to bring stability and sense to the right side, in both defence and attack. The Raiders have less than a fortnight. Bring it on.

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