It’s difficult to make sense of what occurred in Sunday’s 41-34 loss by the Raiders to the Bulldogs. The Raiders started horribly, the Bulldogs started luckily and 26-0 to Canterbury after twenty or so minutes is what resulted. But what we learnt was that the Raiders defensive line-speed was their biggest weakness, and outside of the ruck, their offence was not as impressive as the scoreboard may suggest.
In the early parts of this game the Raiders defensive line-speed was abhorrent. This lack of pace established the Bulldogs dominance. Routinely making 60 metres on the sets they didn’t score, the Bulldogs forwards found the huge metres they made in this stage of the game. They were ably escorted down the field by the Raiders reluctant defence. 11 of the Raiders 20 missed tackles occurred in the first 10 minutes.
This lack of line-speed directly resulted in points. Rona strolled over for Canterbury’s second try simply because the Raiders line was slow to move up to a bog-standard cross-field movement. Rona got the ball in space about three 3 metres from the line and basically walked in. Josh Reynolds’ first try was another example of this lack of line-speed. Reynolds received the ball close to the ruck, attacked the line, stepped Papali and walked in. The defensive pace of the Raiders was such that they managed to move about 1.5 metres in the time that Josh Reynolds ran 10. This lack of pace was repeated in the Doggies critical try that put then up by 6 with 15 to go when the left side almost seemed to back-off, allowing Thompson to get over in the corner. The commentators noted it was a carbon copy of the Rona try. Line-speed cost them points directly in these examples. It would indirectly cause more before and after those tries.
Apart from that the opening period was characterised by some luck for the Bulldogs (most notably in their other tries which came from broken play) and some poor work with the ball by the Raiders.
During and after this debacle the Raiders did have bright spots. Fensom (20 runs for 178m), Vaughan (14 for 155m) Boyd (12 for 120m) and Shillington (16 for 172m) showed tremendous willingness to work hard in the middle of the park. Papali worked hard on the right, but Soliola was unusually quiet on the left.
Both Hodgson and Baptiste displayed creativity and capability around the ruck to direct the forwards. Hodgson and Baptiste again connected with Cornish at different stages of the game in an attempt to repeat the play that saw the Raiders score twice against the Dragons – two long balls from 9 to 7 to second rower. In this game Papali was stopped both times but the timing and the direction of this play continues to work. Hodgson’s kick for the Cornish try was excellently played and showed his creativity gives the Raiders attack an important additional ball-player. It was hard to not get excited about how close this play by Hodgson looked to similar plays by Cameron Smith.
But this was the most fluid the attack looked – tries to Fensom and Austin were either lucky (Croker’s kick accidently landed in Fensom’s lap) or came from broken play. Waqa’s ‘early’ try came from a good ball out the back by Fensom to Blake Austin who did back up well but it was hardly a well worked move. His second try resulted from taking advantage of tired defence. Throughout the game Cornish failed to establish anything on the left that didn’t come from a connection with the dummy-half. His kicking too was mediocre, a shame given it’s his strength. Austin failed to do anything with his outside men – Waqa had his best game of the season because his move to fullback reduced his reliance on Austin to get the ball.
These issues are fixable. Line-speed in defence seems to be about attitude as much as anything. Stuart has already acknowledged that Austin needs to pass the ball more – but this has been clear from game one this season. Two losses in two weeks find the Raiders outside the 8 looking in. If these issues aren’t fixed soon it will stay that way.