Just how the Canberra Raiders managed to beat the Roosters 21-20 requires a bit of explanation. At face value, it is inexplicable. The Raiders made over 300 less metres than their opponents. They made nearly 10 sets worth of tackles more than the Roosters. They made seven more errors. They even had a player sent to the Sin-Bin with 15 minutes left to go in the game, and somehow managed to not only hold on, but score a try. They played with only 15 – Shaun Fensom went out with concussion in the first minute, and Lachlan Croker at the end of the first with a shoulder injury. To put it bluntly, these are not the games the Raiders win. And yet here we are, in post-victory bliss trying to work out how it all went right.
For starters we should look at the forwards on both sides of the ball. With the ball it was the Raiders reserves that showed remarkable ability to bend the line. Paul Vaughan was at his brilliant best (12 runs for 169m), destroying the Roosters line on several occasions, single-handedly creating momentum where often there was none. Jeff Lima (16 for 145m) and Sia Soliola (16 for 128m) were also excellent, the former repeatedly taking the first or second hit up of flat-footed sets, the latter showing his professionalism by slipping into the lock role with aplomb when Fensom went off. Shannon Boyd and Frank-Paul Nuuausala made next to no metres (45 and 30 respectively) but that was because the Raiders politely refused to have the ball while they were on the field. Boyd in particular was fascinating in defence, repeatedly making the first three tackles in a set, as if to prove to everyone just how fit he now is. And Josh Papali proved the Raiders only attacking option on the left, forcing his way over for two tries, one of which he legitimately had no right to score.
Josh Hodgson had an interesting game. He was quiet early, and played the second half at five-eighth after rookie Lachlan Croker went off injured at halftime. He made some glaring defensive errors – Jayden Nikorima scooted around his slow feet in the second half to score what seemed to be the game clinching try. Mitch Aubusson had already done this to him earlier, and it had resulted in Blake Ferguson scoring. But Hodgson is irrepressible. He made a break out of nothing late in the game that brought the Raiders close to the try line leading to a Papali try, and then later kicked the most clutch 40-20 you will ever see, bringing the Raiders close to the line for the Sam Williams field goal that would ultimately be the difference.
But no one should think the Raiders attack was fluid. In the first half they barely had the ball, but movement out wide was non-existent. When it did make it out there, the Raiders’ backs mangled pretty much every opportunity they had. BJ Leilua threw the ball at Rapana’s feet when he could have scored. Hodgson did similar to Croker. Wighton and Croker tried to get on the end of set plays that ended with the ball on the ground. Lee barely touched the ball, let alone in the attacking half. And between Lee, Rapana and Wighton they could barely handle a kick, often creating repeat sets for the opposition from seemingly inoffensive kicks.
Kurt Baptiste, filling in for Hodgson at dummy-half, was awful. On at least two occasions he failed to get to the ruck as the ball was being played. One time Hodgson sprinted from first receiver to get there in time, another Papali filled in and made an error on the play. He also refused to pass the ball to Hodgson on his left, forcing the ball to Williams and the play out right. He managed to make it until the 76th minute without passing the ball to Hodgson. When he finally did, Hodgson kicked the game deciding 40-20.
If one was grading the Raiders defence you would give it an ‘A’ for effort. The execution was not impressive – the Hodgson missed tackles were only noteworthy because they happened to result in tries. They were hardly lonely. One could argue the Raiders’ atrocious line-speed was caused by the fatigue that came with playing with only 15. But it was unimpressive from the get go. Roosters’ forwards made massive metres against the Raiders big-men in the middle. Daniel Napa (18 for 189m) Sio Taukeiaho (16 for 147m) and Sam Moa (13 for 134m) found themselves making 8 or 9 metres before contact on most occasions. Aiden Guerra and Blake Ferguson repeatedly found space and metres against the Crokers in the first half. But the Raiders showed a conviction in defence that saw them hold on for dear life in the face of a multitude of repeat sets. At one stage in the first half the Roosters had a full four sets on the Raiders line. They prodded and poked at the Raiders, but similar to last week, scrambling men were always around the ball at the opportune time.
The Raiders were helped by the Roosters. There’s not much point in sugar-coating it – they looked awful. They dropped ball in attack to let the Raiders off. They dropped the ball coming out of their own half to let the Raiders back in. They took penalty goals twice early in the game when the Raiders were clearly struggling to keep them out, and missed all four try conversions. When they held on to the ball, there was no creativity, no difficult decisions for Raiders defenders to make.
The Raiders still walked away with a victory. But no one should be under the illusion that they played well. Any victory without Austin and Sezer is a bonus, and if the Raiders can somehow make it to week 7 at 3-3 they should be praised. But while their effort was exemplary this week, a repetition of the errors in future weeks is unlikely to result in victory again.