Victory in golden point is usually more relief than exhilaration. Saturday’s 26-22 victory for the Canberra Raiders over the New Zealand Warriors was built in this mould, a game they should have won easily but required extra time and extra oxygen because of mistakes and fatigue. The Raiders held their breaths and just held onto the game. The collective exhale of players and fans alike would have generated enough wind to power the city.
Raiders fans have seen this game earlier in the season. The Titans game was one where they didn’t manage to hold on. The first golden point game with the Knights they also found themselves unable to hold on to a substantial lead. In these cases, and today, the Raiders defence has fallen apart, unable to hold together when the other side has mounted pressure. Today the Raiders fell apart in the last ten minutes as an exhausted defence lost its structure and the gaps between the second rowers and the halves in the line became as wide as the Nullabor. But they held on.
To be honest it had been evident earlier in the game but the Warriors had been unable to take advantage. Constantly playing off their own line because of the dominance of the Warriors forwards (and the kicking of Shaun Johnson), the Raiders spent most of the first half in the wrong zone of the field. The Warriors saw multiple repeat sets throughout the half, and it was only a combination of tremendous scrambling defence and unimaginative play by the Warriors spine that kept the score close: they continually targeted the corners and the posts, rather than aiming at the fringes on the outside the Raiders second rowers. The Warriors turned more than 60 per cent of the ball for the first 30 minutes into only 4 points.It took until the last 10 minutes in the first half for the Raiders to have a relevant part in this game. Up until the 37th minute they had been the generic opposition to the Warriors protagonist.
When the Raiders did score it was on the back of some excellent play by individuals, rather than the structures and the organisation of the side. Jarrod Croker’s first try was the good work of him and Aidan Sezer – there was no rocket science to Sezer’s kick or his chase, just exemplary execution. Joe Tapine’s try that followed shortly after was more good work from Croker and some good work from the young forward after an admittedly enterprising last tackle option seemed to come to nothing. Croker’s second came because Josh Papali’s incessant strength found a way to make an impossible pass. BJ Leiula’s try that should have sealed it came because he and Jordan Rapana are almost impossible to tackle. And the game-winner was firstly excellent improvisation from BJ and Rapana, and yet again Papali’s amazing ability to shed a tackle and get an offload away.
That’s not to say the Raiders looked disjointed all game. Rake Josh Hodgson’s combination with Sezer continues to improve. Sezer himself looks more comfortable each week as the prime ball-player outside of Hodgson, and his short-kicking game was almost perfect. He made an excellent choice to not force a field-goal in extra time, reading the play perfectly to spread it wide. Hodgson too completed some important kicks and continued his excellence around the ruck. Blake Austin continues to thrive at second receiver, although he would be served by heading ‘north-south’ more often than he goes side-to-side. Jack Wighton continues to chime in with good ball-playing, particularly on the left. BJ and Rapana found space they haven’t been afforded in recent weeks and were both tremendously damaging. Oh yeah, and Jarrod Croker was astounding. Three tries, clutch kicks, and just general under-appreciated incisive running and solid defence.
But yet again the Raiders forwards were dominated. For a pack that on paper should be able to compete with any in the competition, it has looked lacklustre for some weeks.
The play of Junior Paulo has plateaued in recent weeks – he provides impetus when he runs the ball, but is hardly involved in defence. Last year’s star performer, Paul Vaughan was dropped today in favour on Adam Clydesdale, who played the 11 minutes that the Raiders fell apart. Shannon Boyd was quiet in the meagre 28 minutes he played. Joe Tapine was only worth 38 minutes on the park, and should really be a majority of the minutes player. Luke Bateman got the most minutes of any of the props (53), but he only managed 26 tackles. With the ball he too often gets manhandled in the ruck, slowing down the play-the-ball whenever he takes a hit-up. Sia Soliola (11 for 120m) was so tired at the end of the game he barely got back into the defensive line when the Warriors tied the game up.
There were some positives. Josh Papali (16 for 147m in a full game) was exceptional for the most part, but towards the end of the game his exhaustion prevented him from covering for mistakes in defence. Elliot Whitehead’s hard work should not go unnoticed – his hard-work in defence and hard-running, ball-playing in offence make him everything we wanted Shaun Fensom to be.
This forward pack will be tested in the coming weeks. It is meant to be the strength of this side. If they cannot compete with the Warriors, how are they meant to compete with the Sharks, Storm or Cowboys in the real part of the post-season? If the Raiders can get more minutes out of Boyd, Tapine and Fensom (and Vaughan!) in the middle of the game, then surely this will give more energy to Soliola and others at the end? Why is a utility so vital when it just removes Hodgson from controlling the ball?
If Coach Stuart was not already asking himself these questions then he should be after today. Perhaps the dropping of Paul Vaughan was the first shot across the bow of demanding improved performance from the pack. If so, it failed to have an impact today. They must do better.
And so today the Raiders were exhausted. And like before they collapsed. But unlike previous seasons and previous weeks when presented with an opportunity to take the game they managed to embrace that chance.
The Raiders haven’t sat this high in the competition this late in the season since 2003. We should embrace it while we can, because if they don’t fix their forwards and their defence it won’t last.
 Seriously. Jack Wighton seems to have 3 try saving tackles a game. And most go unnoticed because they aren’t open field, but rather ‘last guy in’ to stop a forward at the line. His defence is elite at the moment.
 Just ask Isaac Luke’s face.