After a year in which they found new and amazing ways to lose close games, the Raiders showed impressive effort, determination and even some skill to snatch victory over of the tired and unimpressive Parramatta Eels in golden point, 28-24. The Raiders manufactured a victory without the ball or (at times) enough men on the field by showing heart in defence, and taking advantage of the Eels lack thereof. But what should be most heartening for the Raiders is how this portends for next year – the weaknesses of the present are fixable. The strengths are permanent.
The errors were plentiful. Fensom and Frank-Paul both dropped the ball trying to offload. Vaughan fumbled a couple of times, once coming out of his own twenty, and another in a scoring position. That particular play – where Hodgson lines up either Boyd or Vaughan on the outside shoulder of a defender – has been one of the Raiders most run and most successful plays all year – today it proved too difficult for Vaughan. Every time the ball went high, Waqa looked about as comfortable as Tony Abbott at Mardi Gras. Rapana gave away the ball mid-way through the first half by chipping over the top for himself after he ran out of dummy-half before realising it was the last. The halves were at best inconsistent, kicks seemingly only hitting the mark when they were for Jarrod Croker, and rarely making the right decision with the ball. After Croker’s intercept, Williams went left out of dummy-half when he should’ve gone right, and then Cornish dropped the ball in a scoring position after taking on the line despite having Brenko Lee and Rapana unmarked outside. Cornish and Williams either ignored Papali or gave him poor service. His excellent form has been wasted due to the Raiders’ halves inability to utilise him this year.
But these errors are entirely fixable. It may be years before Vaughan and Fensom drop as much ball as they did today. Waqa will probably never play fullback for the Raiders again. Cornish has played his last game for the Raiders, and Williams is unlikely to see much time with Aidan Sezer coming to town. And all Austin has to do is look right and he’ll see the Big Papa.
The errors, combined with excellent kicking from Corey Norman, meant one side had a lot more possession and position. The Eels 2123 metres on the back of 58 per cent of the ball dwarfed the 1259 the Raiders made. The Eels had 61 per cent of the ball in the first half after the Raiders completed only 11 of their 20 set
And this overwhelming lack of ball revealed something that had only been seen occasionally from the Raiders this year – improvement in defence. On several occasions Croker made excellent reads, bringing down Junior Paulo and Corey Norman close to the line. Cornish too made a series of great tackles as the Eels sought to isolate him with bigger players on the right edge. Edrick Lee is more and more often making the right choice as to when to come in from his wing. The lack of line speed in the middle of the park still exist – the Paulo and Alvaro tries , where they ran over tired forwards failing to come off the line quickly were prime examples of this. But there was evidence of the defence has dramatically improved over the year.
Josh Hodgson again proved his worth for the Raiders, organising the forwards well on the seemingly rare occasions the Raiders had the ball. His try that won the game showed his vision and understanding of the game – only playing what the defence gives him. The rare times he kicks from dummy-half reveal that he should do it more. And the Raiders best ‘redzone’ offence is the work he does with the forwards close to the posts with Vaughan and Boyd. Baptiste showed that he is an excellent back up for Hodgson, providing solid service to the forwards and throwing an excellent ball to Croker for his try. Hodgson should be playing 80 minutes a game – the tired defence of the forwards is surely influenced by an interchange rotation being used on the hooker – but Baptiste is able as a replacement.
And while we have often harped on the promising Raiders forward pack, today showed the Raiders backs are becoming a strength they can rely on. Croker makes a half break whenever he gets the ball, and has an amazing ability to get on the good end of a grubber. He is already elite, only 25 and will be playing representative football in the next few years. Edrick Lee’s improving defence also met with several impressive moments with the ball. His combination with Croker is a real weapon, and his strength to get the ball down surrounded by three Eels for the tying score was excellent. Jordan Rapana showed how much improvement he has made in his insertion into the backline on the Lee try. He is one of the Raiders most willing in defence, and his attack improves every game he plays. Brenko Lee is still a raw talent, but he has great potential if he can prove himself more able to defend laterally.
These strengths are all those of a team on the up. An excellent forward pack, a talented spine and electric backs show that this team has the potential to be a top 8 side next year. Today these talents proved enough to overcome the weaknesses. But for the Raiders to be playing finals football next year, they will need to reduce and remove them.
And that’s where you come in Ricky.