In his post-match press conference, Ricky Stuart was doing his best to keep a lid on things, growing more and more frustrated as reporters asked him variations of the same question.
Wait. Are the Raiders actually good?
Ricky answered by effectively saying ‘we’ll see.’ And he’s right. The answer to that question is complex. But what is certain is that they did well yesterday.
Whilst others might be tempted to focus elsewhere, this game was won by the Raiders forwards. Again ably directed by Hodgson out of dummy-half, Paul Vaughan (15 for 169m) and Frank-Paul Nuuausala (14 for 136m) punished the Titans forwards up the middle from the get go, both making an impressive proportion of their progress after first contact. They were supported in the middle by Fensom (15 for 133m) and Boyd (10 for 122m).
This battering ram created space on the fringes that Soliola and Papali both took advantage of. Soliola scored a try himself at the back end of the game, and it was the excellent outside-in line he ran in the 27th minute off a Sam Williams ball that ended with Croker’s first try after good work from Mark Nicholls. Soliola also displayed impressive ball-playing ability to put Croker through a gap in the 56th minute for his second try. Papali continues to look more at home on the right edge than in the middle, and whilst he’s yet to have it reflected in the statistics, continues to bend the line on the fringes. No better was this displayed than when he barrelled through the fringe and snuck a short pass to Rapana who showed impressive pace and agility to score.
In terms of the halves and backs it’s hard to find fault with their performance but I would caution those who would consider this backline to be ‘clicking’. Austin and Williams scored three tries between them in movements that came without passing the ball and were helped by abject defensive errors. Austin’s running game continues to impress and the two tries he scored yesterday came at critical points of the match. But his ability to organise the right hand side remains unproven, and it’s been a long time since Sisa Waqa got the ball in space on the right. Williams’ ball to Soliola was excellent but his inability to get Wighton involved in any meaningful way continues to concern.
The major worry for the game was again the right-hand side defence. All three Titans tries came by forcing the fringe defenders to make choices. Austin and Rapana ended up standing next to the same player on each of the tries, so someone is making the wrong decisions. The Raiders can hardly expect to win every week with such flimsy defence on this side. Good sides have, and will take advantage of this problem.
But can all this lead the Raiders being a top 8 side? I think the actual answer to that question is by looking at whether the performances of the last 3 weeks are repeatable. It’d be a brave man to suggest that the performance of the forwards isn’t. Hodgson has been spectacular – rather than Austin, it is he who is the best buy of the offseason. His direction and misdirection has aided the forwards find space and momentum before finding the line. Vaughan has been the Raiders’ form prop, making yards regardless of whether or not the work has been easy. His record puts him safely within, or just below, the very elite forwards of the game.
Table 1- All Run Metres by Forwards (average)
Austin has admittedly been everything a fan could have hoped. We here at the Sportress have harped on his lack of a decent kicking game and his less-than-elite ball playing on the right because these are the things that hold him back from being an elite half. His performance has been aided because he is effectively perfect for his role – the ball play of Hodgson and Williams is sufficient to allow him to focus on his strengths (running) rather than be forced into an organisational role – in the same way Benji Marshall first profited beside Robbie Farah and Scott Prince. Perhaps the ball play of Hodgson and Williams/Cornish/Sezer may be enough for the Raiders to perform well, but it remains an unanswered question in the long-term. The right hand side defence must also be fixed if the Raiders are to be a serious contender.
And so we can see why Ricky was so reluctant to answer the question. Will the Raiders be good this season?
We’ll see. But yesterday they certainly were.
 Although it’s worth pointing out that was not so much of a concern today given that the Titans’ fringes were so weak that there was little need to be creative through the middle.
 We had initially used numbers from NRL Stats for these figures but they seemed inflated to us. We checked it against the League Live app and used them because they seemed more reasonable. Regardless, both sets of numbers returned similar stories if not quite the same numbers.