Raiders Review: The Build Begins

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 30-12 victory over the Wests Tigers was exactly what a round one victory should be: imperfect but comprehensive. The Raiders were far from their best, yet manufactured a victory built on old strengths and some new. There’s plenty to work on, but all that matters in March is two points and honesty about what needs to be improved.

The challenge of the early season is in winning while still establishing your connections across the park. It’s rare things are perfect in week 1, and rather than learning about how good a side is, the view is generally one of potential. The Raiders came into this game with premiership aspirations, so for them it was about showing that their range of performance. Much of the focus was on how good the new forward pack could be, how the spine would function and whether the outside backs would be consistent enough. Another nagging doubt was in the departure of John Bateman.

The Green Machine began the long season of answering these questions in this victory. The Raiders looked their best playing through the middle third. Josh Papalii (10 carries for 89m) had a quiet outing before it was ended with a comical sin-binning, as did Dunamis Lui (6 for 49m). But that’s a lesson learnt in itself. While two of the big names from 2020 were held in check, the bench mob were thrilling in their work. It was pleasing to see that the Raiders bench strength is such that Papalii doesn’t have to carry the hopes of a city on his shoulders. He only played 49 minutes, Lui 17, and Tapine 42. The Raiders used all their bench forwards for at least 20 minutes. They rarely did that in 2020.

Joe Tapine was simply electric. It seemed every run he broke a tackle (shit he had SEVEN tackle breaks for the game and had three offloads). Sia Soliola (12 for 118m) had several strong carries in difficult situations. Ryan Sutton (14 for 120m) looks stronger and fitter than last year and was brutal and Ryan James (11 for 89m) scored a try well-earned by simply outworking tired middle defenders that failed to get off their goal-line. Underrated too was Hudson Young’s part here (12 carries fro 120m). He had several good carries through the middle (as well as on the edge). I was particularly excited to see him picking up some old Bateman line, such as the ‘back against the grain’ under line off Josh Hodgson that Bateman had perfected.

This crew was beautifully maneuvered by Josh Hodgson. He wasn’t perfect in his return but he gave us a good idea of the strength of his new anterior cruciate ligament as well as how he intends to play with the new rules. He ran a bit more than normal (9 times according to Champion data), and while he didn’t quite get into space he wanted, it was pleasing to see him take on the line. When he got a bit of space to take the ball to the line and put a forward into a half-gap, it looked dangerous. Ryans James and Sutton both clearly enjoyed jumping out with him early in the second half, and a period of dominance followed for the Raiders.

Hodgson’s connection with George Williams remains a work in progress. Much was made in 2020 of a perception that Hodgson didn’t give Williams enough ball. In the first half, it was almost the opposite. Williams had 48 touches in this game (well up on his non-Hodgson 2020 average of 42). Hodgson continued to feed Williams the ball, particularly in attacking areas, even when it didn’t seem advantageous. As a result, the Milk often felt like they were pushing wide without having earned the right through the middle. Williams took too many passes at a standstill, didn’t threaten the line and was too easy to read. There was consequently little space found, and the Raiders looked clunky. On a few occasions Williams got to play with a bit of space he began to straighten and take the line on, bringing the threat of the hard-running Hudson Young with him. These usually followed Hodgson giving the middle a proper working over, and thus forcing a defensive adjustment that gave Williams the space to work.

Jack Wighton had a quiet game too. He had substantially less touches (33) than Williams and spent a lot of time playing second receiver, even on the left. He rarely got the ball in any space; that was partly because the Tigers defence was so intent on nullifying him that it jammed up and in from the edge. It was pleasing to see Wighton not panic at the lack of ball or space. If there was a lesson here it’s that the Raiders need to be creative about how it gets him a bit more space before the line more often.

It’s clear that the attack is a work in progress. The forwards were relentless and Hodgson drove them well, but the connections across the spine remain imperfect. The balance will take time. The halves also never found easy connections outside them. Both Seb Kris and Curtis Scott had tremendous games, but mostly because of their defensive efforts and their willingness to take hard yardage carries, or work around the ruck with Hodgson. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad got clean ball twice but on both occasions made little of it. The lack of cohesion meant the Raiders had to find opportunistic tries. Two came from Williams kicks, one from Canberra getting to a loose ball. The other two were driven by the singular efforts of Joe Tapine and Ryan James. It’s a good sign that even when they can’t get their offence into gear, they can still find 30 points (and have two tries called back), but they need to develop a more sustainable approach over the rest of this season.

The good news was that even while the attack wasn’t flying, the defensive strength was previous was brought to 2021. The line-speed of the middles was generally really good, and the Raiders used a brutal physicality to overpower runners and slow the play the ball when they threatened to get consecutive quick rucks. This is hardly rocket science, but there was a consistency to the defensive presence that suggested this was a deliberate tactic. Win the ruck in the hit rather than from slowing the ruck on the ground. The trust of the bench depth enabled this, as the middle forwards were happy to expend more effort in defence in the knowledge that help was waiting to get on. It didn’t work every time (the Tigers’ first try came when the middles just got worn down and couldn’t cover inside out), and the middle occasionally was overwhelmed, but that seems inevitable given the changing nature of the game.

In support of this attempted brutality in the middle was frankly impressive edge defence, particularly on the goal line. They swallowed up everything the Tigers could offer. Hudson Young was stunning filling in for John Bateman. In the words of my dude David (@daystacka on twitter), he declared war on both the Leilua brothers and he won. He kept Luciano’s brutal running in check, stopped Joey from creating, and managed to piss them both off. He was solid as a rock in helping George Williams’ inside shoulder, and made some critical tackles in goal line defence. On that side it was also pleasing to see Curtis Scott so solid (but aggressive) in defence – he made some important reads to shut-down otherwise promising Tigers’ raids. The only concern on that side was Bailey Simonsson. He never seemed comfortable, making several aggressive reads that he couldn’t back up with a made tackle. The other edge was also excellent. Elliott Whitehead was human white-out as per usual, ably supported by Sebastian Kris. It took near 80 minutes, 30 odd second-half tackles in the Raiders’ red zone and a stunning Jimmy Roberts flick pass to eventually break them.

There’s still a heap of work to do. No one who saw that attack stumble like a drunk who just dropped his keys on his doorstep would think this side is ready to win the competition. But you don’t win it in March. There’s time to build cohesion and connection with the ballplayers around the existing strengths in defence and the middle forwards. They managed to create plenty of opportunities despite not being fluent. They showed that their outside backs are not only up to it, but capable of being a threat. These are good omen for their range of possibilities.

Right now they needed two points and a bit of for-and-against help. They got exactly that, and they’ve only begun to tap the edges of their potential. This wasn’t a good victory by the Raiders, but they ended up doing it easy. And that is a very good sign.

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