It would have been understandable for fans of the Raiders to have been fearing the worst when Manly strolled over in the right corner in the second minute. Coming on the back of a handling error, the Sea-Eagles easily moved the ball wide, around the Raiders’ compressed defence, and into the corner for the score. The same try has been scored in every game against the Raiders since Ricky Stuart became coach.
Following that try, a strange thing happened though: the Raiders dominated, particularly in the first half, and won the game 29-16 – a margin that seemed a fair indicator of the difference between the sides.
The Raiders were led by a stand-out performance by English recruit Josh Hodgson. Hodgson routinely took advantage of the space around the ruck that Manly helpfully provided. The combination he forged on the Raiders right-hand attack with Blake Austin separated the Raiders from the Sea-Eagles.
It was Hodgson who took advantage of slow defence around the ruck to put Austin into space for the Raiders’ second. He repeated the manoeuvre, faking to the left before Austin put the ball one pass wider for Kennedy to score. He even managed to contribute a 40/20 late in the game when the Raiders’ attack was lacking the vigour it had displayed in the first half.
Hodgson routinely put the Raiders’ forwards into space, and found room to run himself. The nine runs he made only resulted in 64 metres but it seemed like much more in the context of the game. He contributed to the rolling thunder that the Raiders forwards personified up the middle of the ground with creative and deceptive service. And didn’t the Raiders forwards enjoy that ball. Vaughan (19 runs for 189 metres), Fensom (18 for 152) and Papali (14 for 128), Kennedy (13 for 103) and Soliola (12 for 102) all cracking 100 metres a week after only Vaughan had done so.
The halves were singled out for praise by Ricky Stuart and it was easy to see why. Blake Austin was tremendous. Routinely he attacked the left side of the Manly defence, setting up Kennedy and Waqa for tries by drawing extra defenders because of his threat with the ball in hand. His work of Hodgson for his first try displayed his dynamic running ability, sidestepping his way through three weak-willed defenders such as Cheyse Blair. Many times we have been critical of Austin’s defence in this space, but today he made at least three try saving tackles, and earnt what appeared to be a broken nose for his trouble. Sam Williams’ kicking game was excellent, taking advantage of the extra time he was given by the forwards to aim accurately to the corners, and a pinpoint kick (and good work from Waqa) saw Rapana go over in the corner. Williams also grubbered well for Croker’s try in the second half. Stuart noted that he organised the team well, using his kicks to get the Raiders out of trouble early, and kill the game late.
That’s not to say this was a flawless performance from the Raiders. Again the Raiders let the game drift in the second half, to the point that a 19 point lead at halftime suddenly looked under threat. It would be convenient to say this coincided with Hodgson being subbed off in the 57th minute, but it had begun before that period. It’s true however that Buttriss showed none of the creativity that Hodgson showed, and this led to stagnation from the Raiders’ forwards. He will remain in the team as long as it takes Hodgson to become an 80 minute player and not longer. Williams failed to provide much of threat on the left and never managed to combine with Wighton in any meaningful way. This contributed to Wighton being kept out of the match far more than he was likely comfortable with. Austin’s rarely threatening kicking game will also continue to put pressure on his halves partner to carry the load in that regard. The Raiders also gave the Sea-Eagles too much ball in the attacking twenty because of errors coming out their own zone. The defence covered it’s edges better, which Stuart credited to better work inside.
Of greater concern was the poor performance of the Raiders backs defusing threatening kicks. Bombs routinely were dropped, and should have led to more points than they did. Wighton dropped a couple himself, in addition to his atrocious handling of the first kick of the game. Croker dropped one, and another fell between many Raiders and should have resulted in a try to Cheyse Blair. Edrick Lee also contributed little outside of errors.
How sustainable the good performance of the Raiders is harder to tell. To borrow something that used to ring out in Bay 72 of Bruce Stadium: can we play you every week? The Sea-Eagles were awful. They dropped ball in their own half. Their defence let the Raiders forwards run riot, and only Mason and Trbojevic threatened the Raiders much. Cherry-Evans and Foran were ineffective, particularly in the first half. It is unlikely the Raiders again will play such a helpful opponent.
Ultimately though it was two points the side desperately needed. It was not perfect, but it’s a way better feeling than last week.