It’s hard to not trot out clichés in response to the dumpster fire that was the Canberra Raiders 36-6 loss to the Parramatta Eels. As coach Ricky Stuart said after the game, “we were off today”. Most Raiders fans will be hoping they burn the tapes of that one and we get back to playing proper footy next week. But what should be of real concern to Raiders fans however, was not so much the degree of the loss, but the weaknesses it exposed.
Let’s start with the structural issues. Early on the Eels repeatedly targeted the hole between Blake Austin and BJ Leilua on the Raiders right edge. It seemed like BJ and Austin had only just met, because they constantly were doing the opposite thing: Austin aiming up on the inside running forward and BJ would be heading to the outside men. That’s how the Eels scored their first two tries – on both occasions 3 men ran at that spot, and on both occasions the Raiders left the middle guy to his business to stroll through the hole.
Sports broadcasters like to describe such holes as ‘gaping’ – it implies something being stretched to its limits. In this circumstance that’s not the right term. The hole was too big, there was no connection left between Austin and Leilua, no elastic would snap this hole closed. It’s hard to describe what was left because it’s hard to imagine such a massive unmanned space having ever existed in professional rugby league. Corey Norman must have felt like an explorer venturing into previously uninhabited territory as he strode through to set up the Eels first try. Fixing this fissure between Austin and Leilua needs to be the number one priority for the Stuart this week.
The Raiders had a bad day with the ball too. Austin had what was probably his worst game in a Raiders jersey. The Raiders first attacking set was instructive – Austin got the ball at first receiver and hit Aidan Sezer as the second man for the Raiders normal ‘sweeping’ (right to left) movement. Except the defence were practically already in Sezer’s lap and Austin hadn’t read it. The pass was to the short man and Austin hadn’t made it. Sezer held onto the ball, but the raid ended when Austin dribbled a grubber into Beau Scott’s legs.
Both things indicate the biggest restrictions on the Raiders attack at the moment. Austin is still developing as a ball-player. At this stage he seems to decide on the option he is going to play before it unfolds – much like Josh McCrone used to. As he gains experience as a ball-player he will improve here, but today it was no match for the Eels defence. That his kicking is still the Raiders third option remains problematic.
Another issue the Raiders had with the ball was their lack of direct play. The Eels line-speed in defence is a sight to behold. With the speed they showed today they make the traditional designed plays of ‘sweeping’ right to left difficult, as the backs constantly had men in the line. Instead the Raiders needed to play more direct, to find inside balls to forwards running outside in lines, and fullbacks burning up around the ruck. Unfortunately for the Raiders, the forward that specialised in that line is currently nursing a broken forearm, and the fullback who should have been running those lines was too busy dropping the ball to do anything else today. To Austin’s credit, he did start to turn up the field more often as the game wore on.
Things only got worse when Josh Hodgson left the field. The Raiders were poor with him on the field – heck he left the game at 18-0. To that point he had made several excellent runs out of dummy-half, almost imploring his brethren to follow him. But as soon as he was tackled the sets would fall apart. And then when he left the field the Raiders looked abjectly rudderless. Despite having six sets in a row on the Eels line early in the second half they couldn’t find a way through. When they did finally score in the 63rd minute, it was a play that required so many lucky breaks that Austin barely celebrated when he did score.
There were some bright spots. Edrick Lee’s defence continues to improve. He saved one try with a smart intercept and made several smart reads. Jordan Rapana’s effort was impressive as always. And between the two of them they did a lot of grunt work to spell the Raiders exhausted forwards. Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd also impressed in limited opportunities.
But it was a dismal day for the Raiders. They have an extra day of rest before they turn out against another very good side in Cronulla next week. They will definitely need it.
 Never get hurt again Sia.
 That pass from Wighton to Rapana was almost as poorly executed as Rapana’s kick for Austin.