It’s hard to say that the Canberra Raiders 30-22 victory over the Gold Coast Titans was a perfect one. But as the playoff picture tightened it was most certainly a crucial one in the context of the season. The performance was comprehensive, providing an important foundation from which to launch into the back end of the season.
The Raiders started the day needing a win to not only stay in touch with the top 4, but with the risk of falling out of the top 8 if they’d lost. They were playing away to a side facing a similar predicament. And despite being away from home from post to post the Raiders were the better side.
The victory was borne by a forward pack that dominated the first sixty minutes of the game. Only Josh Papali’s numbers were notable (12 carries for 113m), but in total seven Raiders’ forwards ran for more than 85 metres. Paul Vaughan and Junior Paulo were split in game time today, Vaughan playing his share of the day with Shannon Boyd and Paulo starting off the bench and largely working in tandem with Joseph Tapine. Presumably this was to avoid the drop-off that occurred against the Broncos when Paulo and Vaughan came off at the same time.
Josh Hodgson also worked a new wrinkle clearly added in the bye week – a ‘forwards only’ run-around as a set piece with Soliola and Paulo with several variations throughout the match. It resulted in a try when it caused the Titans defence to hesitate on their goal-line early, Vaughan running between defence that was not able to hold his power that close to the line.
They went back to this play several times throughout the game. My favourite variation was when Paulo faked the run around to Hodgson and simply ploughed through the line. Another was when Paulo found Tapine on an outside-in run. This sort of action from the forwards will only give them more space to operate as opposites are forced to consider the possibility of more than just the usual crash into the line.
On the back of this good work by the forwards the backs actually found a connection and fluidity to their work that was as good as it’s been all season. Blake Austin spent most of the game operating as second receiver outside Aidan Sezer and he looked much more comfortable for it. For the first time this season he ran the ball with the vigor of last year, and made the right decision of when to pass or run on most occasions. Sezer therefore found himself at first receiver almost always, and was clearly more comfortable there.
And the connections flowed from there. Sezer and Soliola re-ran a play that Sam Williams and Sia had made their own last year – an outside-inside operation which would always find a rampaging Wighton coming through the middle. It worked again today, and if Wighton’s elbow hadn’t got in the way of him grounding the ball it would have worked again here. This play hasn’t been run all season because of Soliola’s move to the centre of the park, but it’s one of the Raiders best, so it was excellent to see it again.
If today is any guide, the halves are finally carving out their own space with each other. This portends well for the rest of the season. If the halves can finally find a peaceful co-existence, then this can only mean more opportunities to unleash the backline, particularly BJ Leiulua and Jordan Rapana (who were both excellent again today, but you don’t need me to tell you that).
The final piece of the puzzle also looked like it was finding a way to fit in. Jack Wighton’s errors resulted in one try for the Titans and one missed opportunity. So it was good that he threw two of the more beautiful passes you will see for Raiders tries in the second half. In the first half he sent Jarrod Croker, running a beautiful outside-in line, through the gap with a perfectly timed ball that put the Raiders ahead by 8. Then, as if he wanted to outdo himself, he cut-out Croker early in the second, allowing BRENKO! Lee to get outside the defence and find his way down the line.
The problem of poor line speed on the goal-line and elsewhere was, if not solved today, definitely reduced. The presence of Soliola and Elliot Whitehead are important in that regard, but across the park the Raiders showed much more pace and aggression in defence. It was only as the game went silly in the last 20 minutes did the Titans genuinely threaten the Raiders line with anything other than hopeful kicks.
This is the potential of the Raiders side. Before the game descended into a Greg Bird-led fiasco, the power of the middle was, for a limited time, fully connected to the talent in the outside backs. The season ‘MVP’, Hodgson, had a relatively quiet game today and the Raiders scored 30 points and had two other tries disallowed.
But even after putting together between 50 and 60 minutes of the quality they need to deliver week-in-week-out to be a genuine top six chance, the Raiders still struggled with direction in the last 20 minutes. This time it was largely due to the absence of rakes Hodgson and Kurt Baptiste with head injuries, but in the past their presence hasn’t ameliorated this tendency for the side to veer off track. The Raiders have nine games remaining before the regular season ends.
If they can find today’s first 50 minutes on a more consistent basis, then the season won’t end there.
(The photo in this piece comes from Matt Roberts at Getty Images)