After the Cowboys overcame an 18 points deficit to defeat the Raiders 32-24 last night, one might have been tempted to trot the old football cliché it was a game of two halves. What this loss really represented however, was the future and the past of the Canberra Raiders. At the beginning of the game we got to see the promise of the future. The back end of the game showed us the problems of the past.
The promise of the future was prominent in the early passages of the game. The forwards, with the help of Josh Hodgson’s excellent service, found the going easy in the first quarter of the game, pummelling the Cowboys line and making massive meters. Shillington had 74 of his 104 all run metres in the first half, Vaughan 66 of his 95. Fensom (73 of 100), Papali (88 of 118) did similar damage early. Vaughan and Fensom in particular made metres even after contact.
These big yards were facilitated by the always excellent play of Hodgson. His service around the ruck was again exemplary. An excellent 40-20 in the 4th minute, three brilliant runs he made of our dummy-half that set up Raiders attacking sets, and the complete collapse of the attack when he left the field, simply serve as a reminder that he remains the single most important Raider on the field.
This early work of Hodgson and the forwards allowed Williams, Soliola and Wighton to engage in a gorgeous game of three-man-monty with the left edge of the Cowboys defence. The first try came after Williams and Soliola linked up, the later popping up a gorgeous ball for Wighton, who, running around a decoy from Croker, used excellent footwork and strength to score. In the 16th minute they attacked the edge again, this time using Soliola as the decoy to hold up inside tacklers. This in itself was of interest – up until that point Williams had been exclusively hitting Soliola on the face ball. Williams then popped a lovely ball to Wighton coming around the back of the ruck, who in turn fired a gorgeous ball Edrick Lee in the corner. The brilliant ball play from Soliola and WIghton – who played some of his best football this year – was unleashed in a left side attack well organised by Williams.
In the early going the Raiders fans saw all that has been promised about the future. Talented forwards bending and breaking the line. A dazzling hooker creating this space and more around the ruck. An organised half, using the brilliant ball-playing skills of his second-rower and his running full back to isolate and destroy an edge of the defence. This attack was repeatable, making defenders make decisions that the Raiders could exploit. The kicking game was excellent early, gaining multiple repeat sets – a rarity for the Raiders. Even in defence we saw multiple try saving tackles made by Wighton and Soliola, providing a degree of fortitude to a defence often lacking in it.
Alas it could not last.
The reasons that it didn’t are ones that Raiders fans have seen before. For starters, the Cowboys held onto the ball more in the second half that in the first. The first half they completed only 50 per cent of their sets. In the second there was a period in which they completed 9 of 10 sets in which they scored 3 tries. Holes that had gone unexploited in the early stages became red carpet for the Cowboys to waltz down in the second.
More worryingly, throughout the game – including the early domination – the Cowboys forwards were just as able to make massive metres up the middle as the Raiders. Tamou (170m), Scott (168), Hannant (158m) and Taumalolo (132m) all punished some slow ruck defence from the Raiders forwards.
And when pressured by the Cowboys at the start of the second half the Raiders couldn’t find a way to get themselves out of trouble. This was surely exacerbated by the absence of Hodgson from the 42nd minute with injury. After that when they did get the ball, the Raiders forwards couldn’t seem to find any space. As they became more and more harried, the halves forced more passes and made more mistakes. Shillington had an awful 5 minutes, forcing a pass to the opposition that allowed them to draw within two in the 57th minute, then missing an easy tackle just 3 minutes later that led to the Cowboys taking the lead. The kicking game stagnated, the halves either not getting to the kick, or finding a way to find the defence.
Austin was again quiet. He continues to struggle to find a way when his running game is shut down. We have noted in this space that Austin and Wighton find it difficult to involve themselves when the other is prominent. Tonight was Wighton’s night and as such it seems and Austin took a back seat. The limits to his game that have been obvious this season – most notably an inability to facilitate anything to his right – remain unfixed. Papali was amazing when he the ball tonight. He just never got it.
And so the Cowboys ran over the Raiders. The ease the Cowboys did si was reminiscent of many losses in recent years – a defence unable to carry the weight, an offence unable to relieve the pressure. The early work reminds us all of the potential this team has to compete with the best teams in the competition.
And all the while we watch for the promise of the future, while continuing to live with the pain of the past.