In defeating the Penrith Panthers 30-22 at GIO Stadium on Saturday, the Canberra Raiders begun the process of exorcising the demons that haunted them last season. The process may have been delayed by untimely injuries in the halves, and its not clear if they can seriously threaten for a finals position, but the outcomes of the off-season is unequivocal – this side is much improved.
The best bits of any game last year was watching the work of Josh Hodgson around the ruck and he begun this season as he ended last. Throughout the game Hodgson created space through his deception and creativity out of nine. On the occasion he kept the ball he made incisive runs – in the 18th minute it was his dart that broke the back of the Panther defence allowing Austin to stroll over for the Raiders second try.
When Hodgson chose to utilise his big forward pack they found metres. Across the board they were impressive. Props Paul Vaughan (13 runs for 106m), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (8 for 119m), Lima (12 for 123m) and Soliola (13 for 114m) all found plenty of space in the middle when the Raiders had the ball. Lima and Nuuausala’s performance were a pleasant surprise, doing yeoman’s work on the early-set hit-ups. For the Raiders third try, Hodgson put Vaughan into a big gap, sending him rampaging down the field – something he had already done with Nuuausala. On the next tackle, Croker threw off a tackle and found Aidan Sezer for his first of two tries on the day.
And unlike previous years this success in the middle linked much better with the weapons out wide. Aidan Sezer was the Raiders best but impressed more with the ball in hand that with the boot, playing on both sides of the ruck and routinely connecting with Wighton, Papali and Croker on the left. He threatened the line with ball in hand, and made something out of nothing when he dragged himself over the line, and the Raiders back into the match, when he leveled the scores in the 55th minute.
The Raiders put together several set pieces that started with Soliola and Sezer working the ball out wide. Sometimes it resulted in tries – such as when an excellent Sezer ball put Croker outside his defender and into space, and the ensuing play saw Austin and Papali combine to put Lee over in the corner for the Raiders first. Other versions of these set plays, including the outside-in from Papali to Wighton on the left edge threatened each time it was run. It will be a shame if Sezer’s reported broken cheek bone keeps him out for long.
Austin too suffered an injury which will likely keep him out for multiple weeks. But while he was out there he showed better connections with his edge runners than at any point last year. He threatened as expected when running the ball, and seeing the Panthers shock when he dummied-and-ran the ball was as funny as it was impressive. It is also worth pointing out the excellent play of Jack Wighton. He was safe under the high ball and inserted himself well into the action around Sezer and Soliola.
All this is remarkably positive. But the Raiders hardly had it all their way. For the 20 minutes that sandwiched the halftime, the Raiders barely touched the ball. The mountain men dominated the middle for this period, putting the home side under pressure and turning an eight point deficit into a six point lead. The defence in the middle of the park could not slow the Panthers ruck at any point, a major concern considering the size of the pack. Dropped ball mattered here, but more important was the Raiders giving away unnecessary penalties. Sezer’s kicking was good, but hardly perfect, and Austin has a long way to go in this aspect of the game.
In last seasons games the Raiders were unable to recover from periods such as these. But this time, despite losing Austin, the Raiders managed to do enough to get in front. Sezer created something from nothing in the 55th minute, and the scrambling defence that kept the Panthers out after multiple sets at the line with around 20 minutes to go, and then again at the very end of the game. The Raiders showed a resilience that surprised.
The sight of Fensom streaking away to seal the game was solace to Raiders fans. But they have to resign themselves to a period without their ‘as advertised’ halves. The resilience showed in getting back into this match will be needed for a while yet if the Raiders are to be contenders.
 Although Nuuausala has shown this before, just not consistently.
 Perhaps a function of the heat more than effort though.