In defeating the Newcastle Knights 36-22 the Canberra Raiders did just enough against a truly awful rugby league side. After slicing and dicing the Knights defence in the early part of the game, the Raiders hung on without the ball due to their commitment in defence, and the Knights’ inept attack. Errors, penalties and poor sets coming out of their own half allowed the Knights to camp in Raiders territory. It was only the porous Knights defence early the in game, and their side-to-side offence late in the game that allowed the Raiders to hang on.
When they had the ball, the Raiders looked excellent. Blake Austin’s support play was the takeaway from the early part of this game. On the second set of the game, Austin made a risky decision to send the ball wide to Josh Papali on the right edge instead of kicking on the last. When Papali drew the defence perfectly to put Sisa Waqa into space this decision was vindicated. Waqa found Rapana who found the ever-present Austin backing up in the inside to score.
Austin scored again in support after Josh Hodgson held up a ball beautifully after a short scoot out of dummy-half, putting Vaughan one-on-one with the Knights hooker Tyler Randell. Vaughan busted through and found who else but Austin backing up. A step that made Kurt Gidley look like an old man learning to dance for the first time followed, and Austin was in again. A few minutes later Austin was again rewarded for his support play when he landed on a grubber from Williams.
Hodgson was excellent as always. His dissection of the Knights defence to put Vaughan into space was brilliant, as was his kick late in the second half that saw Croker score. He continually put forwards like Shillington (17 carries for 160m), Vaughan (11 for 110m) and Fensom (14 for 120m) in good space through his creative dummy half delivery. It was noticeable that the Raiders forwards struggled with him off the field. Hodgson is an elite rake, something that only the most ardent Raiders supporters could have hoped for when he was signed last year.The Raiders should extend him as soon as legal.
The Raiders forwards were good in the first stanza but tired as the game wore on – presumably because of the amount of defence they got through. Only Shillington was able to consistently make metres as the game wore on.
Apart from those highlights, the Raiders had few positives. They played the majority of the game without the ball. The Knights had 59 per cent of the ball. They were tackled in the Raiders redzone 40 times (compared to only 13 for the Raiders). They outgained the Raiders by 1744m to 1229m.
This was all down to the amount of ball the Knights had. Penalties, dropped ball (such as Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Sia Soliola’s drops coming out of the danger zone) and other errors meant the Raiders played the majority of the game in their own area. The Knights could have done more damage if they had anyone on their fringes that could run a decent line at the massive holes that opened up – they definitely missed Beau Scott. The Knights attacked the wings, going side-to-side rather than attacking holes. The Raiders defence did well to get up on the fringes, and scrambled well, but against a better side would have been gutted.
Sam Williams had a mixed bag. He put on some great short kicks that resulted in tries. He also used the threat of Papali on the outside and Fensom on the inside to scoot through the defence and put Papali in midway through the second. But his normally excellent kicking was subpar for the second straight game. This was exacerbated by the fact that sets rarely ended with any momentum, particularly in the second half and as such he sacrificed metres for some space to kick in.
And so the Raiders won – something that they desperately needed to do. But the performance hardly has inspired fans to book bus/train/plane tickets to Sydney for the first week of the finals. If the Raiders want to make a serious run, they’ll need to find a way to get a better share of the ball. Better sides won’t be as kind as the Knights were.
 We make it a rule to not comment on refereeing in this space so I’ll cheat and put it down here. How many forward passes did the Knights get away with last night? Mullen’s try scoring pass, lauded by the channel 9 commentary team was thrown from a metre behind the 10 metre line, and caught 2 metres in front of it!