In these pages this season we’ve done our best to ascertain what to make of this young outfit, vacillating between despair (wondering if the Stuart was ruining our young halves) and optimism (actually considering that the current team, as constructed, might be good). On balance we’ve tended to be pessimistic in our view. The Raiders 24-12 loss to the Broncos on Saturday evening did little to alleviate our pessimism.
Sure there were good signs. The forwards routinely rolled down the ground throughout the game. Vaughan (11 runs for 101m), Shillington (11 for 129m), Boyd (14 for 132m) and Fensom (15 for 129m) doing their business in the middle of the ground, and Soliola and Papali working the fringes. Hodgson worked well with them, and made a lot of metres (10 for 110m) himself later in the game as the Raiders took advantage of a tired Broncos ruck defence. His creativity with the ball was often excellent and he continues to be a critical creator in the Raiders attack.
In the halves Williams continued to prove himself an excellent organiser, and his pass to Kennedy for the Raiders second try was an excellent example of how to attack a sliding defence (two second rowers running either side of Anthony Milford, forcing the defence to stop Kennedy or Papali one-on-one. Both players chose Papali and Kennedy strolled onto the good ball by Williams for the try). Austin performed as he always does – running the ball well, and backing up whenever he sniffed an opportunity, most notably on the end of Edrick Lee’s amazing ball that resulted in the Raiders first try. Croker – who sometimes doesn’t get the mention he deserves in this space – was excellent as always, bending the line every time he got the ball. It is heart-warming to note he is only 24 and will be a mainstay of the Raiders left side attack for years to come.
But to be honest, we knew the Raiders have a good forward pack. We knew Williams is an excellent organiser. Austin has demonstrated his running ability all season and Hodgson’s creativity has been clear since game one. It’s an outrage that Croker doesn’t get more traction in conversations about representative football.
The real problem for the Raiders is the other side of this coin. The problems we have all known about – defensively and creatively – remain.
Using a single word to describe the Raiders edge defence – particularly on the right – is difficult without swearing. During the game some hyper-intelligent commentator compared it to an airport travelator (ok, that was us).
This is a problem that has existed since Ricky Stuart came on board. The Raiders play an ‘up-and-in’ defence, a hallmark of the teams Stuart has coached. Last week I worried about line-speed. This week however, the Raiders had the opposite problem. Too often the outside defenders rushed up and were found out as the Broncos spread the ball to the edges for major meters and points.
Most would argue that making the right choices in defence is a matter of experience and attitude. And this may be correct. Austin, Kennedy, Waqa on the right, and Lee on the left too often found themselves completely out of position by a Broncos attack clearly attacking the fringes. The right edge (Kennedy, Austin, Waqa) accounted for a third of the Raider’s 24 missed tackles. These offenders have been mentioned in practically every post this year, and despite some improvement – Austin’s effort can never be questioned, and he continues to make good tackles when he makes the right choice – this is still an anchor on the Raiders improvement each week.
Another issue is that at some stage Raiders fans may need to come to terms with the fact that Blake Austin may just not be able to pass or kick the ball. Almost every time he got the ball he dummied and ran, something he does as well as any half in the competition. Unfortunately this is no longer surprising opposition defences and is proving less and less threatening. His kicking was plainly awful. He only had one successful attacking kick, due more to luck than execution. When he kicked defensively, it was almost always caught on the full by a Broncos back in space.
Austin’s lack of variety in attack puts a lot of pressure on Williams and Hodgson to provide the Raiders’ attacking structure and creativity. Hodgson was below his best tonight, making several poor decisions late in tackle counts, and on two occasions kicking for no one (or Frank-Paul Nuuausala if you’re being polite). Williams has proven solid, but he’s frankly not the kind of player that can create chances that aren’t created by the team’s structure. Without Austin expanding his game, the Raiders can only become title contenders by Hodgson becoming one of the best dummy-halves in the game. He may well do that – he has certainly shown potential. But it’s a lot to expect.
The Raiders have improved from last year, of this there is no doubt. The difference between last year’s team and this one is massive. But losses like the one against the Broncos serve to remind us that the difference between this year’s version and a premiership contender is even greater.
 Mostly because we’re pessimistic at heart.
 Frank Paul Nuuausala was better also (11 for 109) after a couple of shocking weeks.
 Though notably not the ones that he played for. You know, the ones that won the comp 3 times in 5 years, and appeared in 5 grand finals in 8 years.
 Lee most notably when he rushed up prior to a pass being thrown, allowing Hunt to pass the ball behind him to the winger for a Broncos try.