The Raiders lost last outing for a bunch of reasons, but nothing hurt more than the abject failure of the right side defence.
It served to highlight a weakness of the Raiders all year, and the challenge they face in playing Sam Williams. Sam is a leader, and a cerebral footballer, but he doesn’t have the athletic prowess of those opposite. Teams aim at him, both in forcing hard decisions close to the line, or in seeking a quick ruck and easy metres down the field. Handling this requires Sam be aggressive, getting contact with ball runners early to slow runners and give time for help to arrive. It also requires that his accompanying second-rower matches this aggression, not only to support when bigger runners target him, but also to cut down the space and options of ball-players. This needs to be supported by decisiveness from the centre, who is required to find a way to jam in hard when things go wrong, hold out when they don’t, and be able to ascertain when the situation warrants each path.
Safe to say the Raiders didn’t manage to land that puppy on Sunday. Starting centre Seb Kris was hooked at half time, victim of moments of hesitation and getting difficult decisions wrong. Then second-rower Corey Harawira-Naera got the hook when Kalyn Ponga just ran past him in the 65th minute. All of Newcastle’s points started by beating the Raiders on their right edge, even if one try ended with a kick back to the left. Simply put, it was a debacle.
In the pursuit of ensuring that never happens again, there’s a temptation to look at changes to the personnel on that edge. Matt Timoko looked far more comfortable defending in Kris’ position in the second half. Timoko seems like the future at this side, a barn-storming runner that’s seemed remarkably comfortable in defence despite the difficulty of the defensive decisions for a player of his relative inexperience. In this game on one try he held back perfectly as Ponga approached the line, getting in position to be able to help Williams with Ponga, as well as get a body in front of Bradman Best. Unfortunately Harley Smith-Shields jammed in unnecessarily, and Ponga’s cut-out ball resulted in a try. He’s offered more in attack than Kris, and if the small sample size of his defence this season is something to work from, his defence is no less worthy. Add in to the fact the obvious upside of Timoko, and Kris will need to be much better than he was on the weekend to hold this spot.
As for Harawira-Naera, I’d be very surprised if Sunday’s outing was treated as anything but an outlier. While he has had some poor moments in defence (like the Ponga try), his offensive output has been instrumental in the Raiders attacking flexibility, and some of their best moments with the ball have been predicated on him finding offloads and then taking advantage of the chaos that ensued. He was excellent in their three recent wins (and was awful in the games on either side of that).
The Raiders do have depth at this position. Hudson Young returned to the middle in this game after having been brilliant filling in for Elliott Whitehead on the left edge in recent weeks. He looked at home on the edge. In his return to the middle he played the opening rotation, and wouldn’t have seen the field again if it wasn’t for Harawira-Naera’s poor performance. As soon as he came back on on the right edge, he looked much more comfortable, and added a try in support of Jack and Smelly’s good work. But as much as I’m often impressed by Young’s work on the edge, it’s unlikely that any change will be made.
As less likely change that remains an option for Canberra is to replace Williams. While unlikely, if Canberra are insistent in plugging this hole with a bigger body they have several options. Matt Frawley is the most often called for – mostly on the basis of his good short kicking game and relatively solid defensive work. 26 tackles and no misses against the Eels are proof that while he’s hardly a wall, he can do a job. He’s no quicker than Sam, and it’s not clear (though not disproven) his game works as well on the right as the left.
A further option would be to shift Josh Hodgson to seven permanently in Williams place. While this will be a net win defensively (if only by reducing the number of small bodies Canberra are covering for across the park), it’s not a decision made to solve defensive problems. Hodgson would be forced into defending laterally more than he’s used to, and while he’s done admirably covering across into the back row, asking him to permanently defend wide would be a stretch without an off-season to prepare. He’d obviously be comfortable on the offensive side, and his long kicking game might end up being properly utilised. Brad Schneider is another option, and a bigger body, and has a decent defensive record in Cup footy, but he’s barely played in the best part of two months. Apart from a brief Subloo into first grade he’s barely been part of discussions since.
A real out of the box approach that would solve much of the defensive issue would be to play Whitehead at seven. This would put less pressure on Harawira-Naera and Kris/Timoko to cover for a smaller player on the edge. Of course Whitehead isn’t as laterally mobile as most players he’d face heading outside him, but then neither was Williams (or Kris for that matter). This idea comes with it’s own risks – most notably shifting Whitehead from his role as chief safety blanket for Jack Wighton – but it wouldn’t hamstring the Raiders attack as much as people think. With Hodgson, Wighton and Starling the Raiders would have plenty of ball-players, and Whitehead is a smart enough player to handle any attacking decisions on that edge.
Regardless, these changes are at best unlikely. Coach Stuart seems intent on maintaining this right side, at least for the time being. The argument is worthy: a bump in the road like last week isn’t worth sacrificing the cohesion and connection built over time that has succeeded in recent weeks. Therefore I’d be surprised if any changes are made on this edge that aren’t injury forced in the immediate future (except maybe Timoko. He’s spent too much time in the top 17 to get a more substantial shot soon).
But if the Raiders don’t solve the right side defence that the Knights opened like a can last week, something will have to change. It’s been a weakness they’ve been able to cover for in recent times, but if other teams can exploit it like Newcastle did, it could be insurmountable.