The Canberra Raiders 24-6 victory over the Gold Coast Titans demonstrated the full range of possibilities of 2020. With the inherent uncertainty of a season opener, the Green Machine began to show just how they planned to build a contender this season. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it showed that the gene structure of 2019 has been carried forward.
The first game of the season is always full of uncertainty. For the Raiders so many questions were waiting to be answered. Would they be able to match last year’s defensive intensity? Would they remain disciplined in attack? Was 2019 just a really good dream or a reality that would extend into this season? This uncertainty was even more exacerbated by the fact that the game almost didn’t happen.
This game didn’t provide definitive answers to the uncertainty, but the Raiders show they have a platform to build a contender again. So much of the 2019 game plan was borrowed – the middle third whirring up-field, the ball-players on the edge testing the line. Crushing defence and intelligent kicking were familiar also. A truly awful fifteen minutes after halftime was familiar, but it was an older vintage.
There was so much to enjoy about the middle third dominating, particularly through the first thirty, and last twenty, minutes. Josh Hodgson was quietly excellent, directing forwards in and around the ruck to great effect. The tricks of his trade are such a joy to watch; eyes one way before a 20 metre rifle heads the other, a threat to sneak before putting a forward into just enough space to make metres. It’s a wonder his own side trusts him to do what it looks like he’s going to do. His ability to spot just when the wrong defenders are in the wrong places was how Emre Guler got his first try in the NRL, which put the Raiders into a (somewhat) unassailable position at 18-0 half an hour into the match.
Hodgson was a good part of the reason the Green forwards dominated their opposition, but by no means was he the only one. Josh Papalii (16 runs for 156 (43 post-contact) metres is so reliable these days. He rarely got an easy run, but he made every run easy. Like last year he was often turned to when a set wasn’t looking pretty. Corey Horsburgh, back in his more familiar middle position after his ill-fated foray to edge defence, was a handful, not just barging through the middle, but so often finding an offload. On one occasion he flopped back a pass that ended with Jack Wighton, and the broken line that resulted from second phase play was all the invitation Jack needed for his second try. Emre Guler (16 for 137) worked hard all game – he used his quick feet at the line to get defenders off balance and push through gaps. When the Raiders were under the pump in the second half, he had several desperately needed runs, and his catch-pass to put Elliott Whitehead in late was a thing of beauty.
This success in the middle meant Jack Wighton and George Williams had plenty of space to work in. As the Raiders moved the ball wider there was some interesting hints at what may come. Bodies in motion, swithcing in and around the the ball players was a welcome sight and worth monitoring in the coming weeks to see if it stands. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was particularly active around the middle of the ruck before a concussion ended his game prematurely.
But the strengths of 2019 were present here too. Wighton scored early, an eerie facsimile of his try from the grand final. He simply spotted two small defenders in the line ran at the gap in between them with ferocity and was unstoppable. He terrorized that side of the ground all game, and if he can ever work nail the pass-run decision tree he could be unstoppable. In this game he twice sent loopy passes to the wing in when running the ball, or playing short, was where the defensive weakness was.
Similarly there was plenty to like about George Williams’ game. He ran hard, and was a threat to the right edge consistently. His combination with Joe Tapine, although short-lived an impermanent, looked to have promise. Twice found himself in a position to score that he couldn’t finish. On both occasions I felt like a pass was available to him. He never found a clear way to get Curtis Scott and Nic Cotric involved, but there’s plenty of time for that to come.
For their part, Scott and Cotric looked like a couple of loosed puppies in this game. Untethered from the right edge due to lack of combination with Williams, they went looking for work around the ball. Both made a series of big runs, bouncing off defenders and making big metres, followed by quick rucks. It was a Cotric/Scott production that hurtled the Raiders down the field and lead to Williams nearly scoring early. If they play like this going forward, the Raiders have a real weapon there.
A more familiar weapon for the Raiders was the defence, that, for the large part of the game, looked relatively solid. Early they were physically dominant, with the middle matching their offensive dominance with a powerful threat. In the first half, the Titans barely got a look in. In the second half however, the defence was looser, and the Titans matched massive metres up the middle with an ability to continually test the Raiders left edge. In a sense it was pleasing. George Williams had looked so solid on the right edge that the Titans barely attacked there. But the Raiders were often scrambling on the left, and Jarrod Croker was more than once in no-man’s land when the ball found attackers outside him. Good cover defence and some patchy execution helped the Raiders keep the damage to a minimum, and the switch of Bailey Simonsson, who moved to fullback when Nicoll-Klokstad left the field, for Michael Oldfield no doubt contriibuted to the communication problems. There’s work to do there.
It was also pleasing to see the kicking game so functional. Hodgson, Wighton and Williams all were mostly excellent kicking the ball, though not without error. The Raiders used their kicking to trap the Titans in the corner, and crash defenders into them. On multiple occasions throughout the game the Titans would find themselves kicking from well inside their forty. This kicking game is of critical to the Raiders success. When things weren’t going the Raiders well in the second half, it was built on the back of the few occasions they kicked poorly, and they got themselves out of it by getting back to their tried and true formula: work through the middle, kick to a corner, and smash them.
The game was hardly perfect. As we mentioned Williams and Wighton both had moments that should have been tries that they couldn’t finalise. Wighton’s out-on-the-full kick early in the second half set the tone for a poor period of play where the Milk couldn’t get out of their own way. But they finally worked their way back to normalcy – of which Siliva Havili’s insertion seemed to play a big role – and finally they hit the left edge where they’d had so much success. Whitehead scored and the game was iced.
The Raiders have plenty of work to do. The Titans, although improved on their 2019 model in many ways (though none of them involve Bryce Cartwright), won’t be a player in the finals this year. The Green Machine should handle them as easily as they did. But the importance of building a platform for success can’t be understated, and given the number of troops that are out of action, and how that might be added to by this game, this was a critical two points. If they can iron out the imperfections, and build on the genetics of 2019, the sky is the limit.