In their 21-20 last second loss to the Cowboys the Raiders showed tremendous character. They displayed immeasurable heart. They defended their line repeatedly, willing each other to succeed against a team who last loss in March. The frantic final period that saw Sia Soliola charge down two field goal attempts in 20 seconds, only to see a third sail over his head as time expired, was a suitable representation of the game. The Raiders ran into a juggernaut and held on as best they could. It was not enough.
The Cowboys threw everything at the Raiders. North Queensland had over 57 per cent of the ball, they completed 90 per cent of their sets and gained 1700 metres to 1300 for the Raiders. Tamou (20 carries for 218 metres), Scott (15 for 151m), Cooper (14 for 132m) and Taumalolo (18 for 168m) punished the Raiders up the middle and on the fringes. Cooper notably dominated the Raiders right-edge defence, rolling in for one try over some tired and poorly positioned defence from Papali and Austin.
And you can hardly blame the Raiders for being tired. They made 410 tackles compared to 285 for the Cowboys – the equivalent 20 extra sets in defence. Thurston exploited tiredness on the Raiders fringes – the Raiders missed 25 tackles, 15 of which were shared between Austin, Papali, Soliola and Williams. And the poor choices of our outside backs were as noticeable as ever, most notably when Rapana found himself in no-man’s land when Thurston kicked over his head for a try early in the game.
But Canberra also showed an impressive strength in defence. They made repeated desperate efforts throughout the game. Soliola (48th and 64th minute), Waqa (35th and 66th minute), Lee (48th minute), Rapana (4th minute) all made out-and-out try saving tackles. It showed impressive heart to take all one of the best modern players create and hold on – which the Raiders did to the point of exhaustion. After half an hour the Raiders had yet to be tackled in the opposition twenty. The Cowboys had already sat on the Raiders line for twelve tackles.
The fatigue this tackling caused meant the Raiders couldn’t compete with that mileage in middle. Only Shillington managed more than 100 metres (13 for 137m), and while Papali, Boyd and Vaughan were far from bad, they were unable to bend the line consistently. By his own high standards Hodgson was quiet, although he was the most consistent attacking threat for the Raiders throughout the game. His work in combination with Papali and Soliola on either side of the ruck continues to impress, and in the final twenty minutes he was the only member of the spine that threatened to create.
The difficulty making meters, particularly in the second half meant the Raiders’ halves were often operating with little to no space, and were below their best with ball in hand. Austin did start some good movements, but was again hamstrung by a team disciplined enough in defence to remove his ‘dummy-and-go’ running game. Without it he was less effective and disappeared as the game wore on. Williams’ kicking game was excellent in most parts, but as the game wore on he was unable to provide a structure for attack on the left, let alone make it threatening.
In fact, both halves looked their best when they could involve Jack Wighton, who had his best game of the season. Austin found Wighton twice in the first half for movements that resulted in big metres. On one occasion Austin found Wighton as the second man behind Soliola, the small amount of space allowed Wighton to draw two men and find Croker, whose good work quickly put Lee in to score. On the other side of the field, Austin again found Wighton early in the tackle count with some space, which Wighton again turned into a line break for Rapana (only to see Frank-Paul Nuuausala drop the ball to end the foray).
Rapana, Croker and Lee were all useful in their roles. Lee continues to improve in recent weeks. Today he scored one try, provided an impressive tap-back for another and was excellent in defence. Rapana, although prone to mistakes, continued to work hard, and continued to prove his worth bringing the ball out of the Raiders half. Croker is just excellent.
That the Raiders began to involve Wighton more, and that their defence showed such impressive commitment, is a reason to rejoice. Wighton gives the attack more depth, and the threat of him getting the ball as the second man or around the ruck will only give the other members of the spine more room and more options to operate with. Combined with the impressive commitment in defence and the talent in the forward pack, these factors should be enough to satisfy any viewer that they can compete with the best teams.
Today they did exactly that – they competed with the best team in the competition. They played well. They just couldn’t hold on.
 Papali was tired. Austin was poorly positioned, having already rushed up on the defenders outside Cooper so unable to aid Papali when Cooper ran over him.