Raiders Review: Out-muscled, out-kicked and out-thought.

BY DAN

If there’s ever been a team that desperately needed a bye, it is this Canberra Raiders team. For the second week in a row the Raiders found themselves playing the overwhelming majority of the game without the ball, making 100 more tackles than their opponent.[1] Unlike last week  they weren’t good enough with the ball, or disciplined enough without it, to hold on. A thumping, 30-8 loss at the hands of a very good Warriors team was what followed.

In truth a game has never done a better job of demonstrating the importance of a good kicking game. Sam Williams had his worst game this season – potentially his worst as a Raider – when putting the ball on the foot. He rarely found turf, sidelines or corners with his kicks. His short game was also inconsistent, and he only really threatened late in the second half when Jason Croker couldn’t handle a well-placed but by no means excellent grubber. Blake Austin and Josh Hodgson, instead of picking up the slack left by Williams, conspired with him to reinforce a deficit of field position the Raiders felt throughout the game.

Consequently, the Warriors spent a lot of the game in the Raiders half of the field. After 15 minutes, 72 per cent of the game had been played in capital territory and things didn’t improve.

The Warriors turned this good field position into an extraordinary amount of possession. They had 64 per cent of the ball for the game and pummelled the Raiders across the park with it. Ben Matulino (21 carries for 204m), Simon Mannering (20 for 173m) and Jacob Lillyman (13 for 131m) destroyed the Raiders up the middle of the park, while Hoffman (16 for 120m) and Thompson (11 for 137m) made merry on the Raiders right and left respectively. Their better kicking game got them four extra sets. As if they needed it.

They were relentless. There was nowhere to hide, with the Warriors second forward pack (their backs) just as physically dominating. Matuvei (16 for 218m) and Hurrell (14 for 125m) were notable performers.

And as they tired, the holes opened up in the Raiders’ defence. Focusing on the 38 missed tackles oversimplifies these defensive issues. The Raiders found themselves in some horror mismatches. Croker was abused by the sheer size of Thompson and Hurrell on the right. Missing tackles on those two is no great shame, but both mishaps resulted in tries. Shillington notably put an air swing on Johnson that saw him stroll over in the 46th minutes to make the margin 12. It is a lot to expect a more agile defender to bring down Johnson. An old prop has little hope.

But Shillington’s miss was indicative of a structural issue for the Raiders. The defensive approach seemed confused. They were deliberately standing off Johnson in an attempt to not offer him holes to attack – a difficult position for an up-and-in defence to put itself in. With ball in hand Johnson waits for defenders to commit in knowledge that his speed will allow him to pursue the alternative to what the defence has chosen. The Raiders found themselves stuck between backing off Johnson and needing to shut down these aforementioned bowling balls abusing them.

They never got the balance right, with players in the middle of the park found out of the line too often. Shillington (8 missed tackles) was made to look stupid routinely in these circumstances, finding himself grasping for air 3 or 4 metres in front of the line.[2] Players exhausted from last week’s effort against the Cowboys found no respite here. And the Raiders suffered.

In the absence of the good kicking game, and with a dearth of ball the Raiders could do little to stay in the game. Of the Raiders forwards, Vaughan (13 for 128m) and Soliola (14 for 126m) were the best but never found themselves in a position of ascendency. The Raiders’ backs tried to find space on the outside of the Warriors up-and-in defence early-on with some success. Good work from Wighton to pass quickly to Waqa saw him find Rapana for space on the right. It indicated the Raiders willingness to pursue a way around the brick wall, rather than through it. But the Raiders didn’t get the ball, or the space, often enough to pursue this tactic throughout the game. Austin and Hodgson couldn’t find any opportunities to exploit, and the usually conservative Williams showed his limitations as a player when trying to find something out of nothing – most notably when looping a pass into Manu Vatuvei’s oncoming hands late for the Warriors’ last try.

The lone bright spot for the Raiders was the gorgeous try they put on in the 20th minute. The Williams-Soliola-Wighton passing sequence was brilliant, exploiting both Soliola’s excellent ball skills and Wighton’s dynamic running. It has had a sneaky cameo from Austin, who’s inside run provided an important decoy that delayed the cover defence long enough for Wighton to slide into the hole off Soliola’s pass.

But apart from that, the Raiders were outmuscled, out-kicked and out-thought throughout this game. They are quickly losing sight of the competition leaders and potentially the finals. They have a good run home, but need to find a solution when they find themselves in such a size deficit. Today they showed some ideas, but they were found wanting.

[1] Fensom (64 tackles) and Hodgson (45) doing a lot of the work.

[2] One may wonder if a sliding defence may have been a better approach against the Warriors than the current compressed approach, but Stuart has always had a particular defensive philosophy. It’s probably a daft idea to change your defensive structure for one game. But the amount of points the Warriors are able to put on the Raiders in recent years indicates this might just always be a problem.

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