The Canberra Raiders 54-4 victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs was a victory of professional effectiveness over utmost incompetence. On the back of the first dominant forwards performance in weeks, the Raiders made light work of a side simply not in their class. The Raiders had all the ball (62 per cent), made all the metres (800 more than their opposition), and scored nearly all the points. The bookend of a series of games against (relatively) easy competition, it ensconced the Raiders in the top 4. But it was little more than a warm-up before the Raiders face true tests against the Sharks and the Storm, aiming to prove that they are genuine contenders. Only then we will know if it is a harbinger of something bigger.
For weeks it seems the Raiders forwards had been treading water against packs not their equal in talent. But against the Bunnies, the pack dominated in a way they hadn’t since round 16 against the Titans. With Josh Hodgson’s always excellent direction around the park, the forwards repeatedly made excellent metres, and mandhandled the Bunnies big men into errors (thank you Burgesses) or poor field position. They played smart football after tries, bolstering their gains with excellent post-try sets.
Elliot Whitehead (15 runs for 156m, 29 tackles) was exemplary on both sides of the ball – with Josh Papali (15 for 130m) and Joseph Tapine (10 for 103m) he did the hard-work early in the game to subdue the Bunnies big men when they had a series of back-to-back sets on the Raiders line in the first half. Whitehead’s lack of comfort speaking when being awarded his richly deserved man-of-the-match award after the game belied his importance to this team. It should be something he should get used to.
Aidan Sezer reinforced the forwards’ dominance with his almost perfect kicking game. He created the Raiders first and third tries with pin-point kicks, the third most impressive because he kept the ball in two hands (and the defence in two minds) before an excellent grubber was eventually pounced on by Edrick Lee. He built on the excellent work by the forwards after tries, kicking well to corners, not allowing Souths to build any room to breathe.
With a dominant forward pack being guided around the park by an excellent dummy-half and halfback, it was no surprise that the backs found the going easy. BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana both spent the majority of the game making their opponents look silly. Rapana’s catch that brought the Raiders first try, his dart through three defenders for the Raiders second, and BJ’s run through similarly non-existent defence for the Raiders fourth, all showed the vast talent (and effort) gap between the sides. Poor Michael McGuire must have been gutted to see a man with a rolled ankle pick up a dropped ball and go 60 metres untouched through a space where at least six defenders roamed. BJ compounded his oppositions embarrassment when he effectively ended the game on the stroke of halftime with an impeccably weighted grubber for Rapana that resulted in the Raiders fifth try of the half.
The other backs had their moments. Jack Wighton’s ability to arrive just in time to stop missed tackles becoming tries on the Raiders line is becoming an all-to-crucial part of the Raiders defence. He chimed in with some opportune points today, picking up a dropped ball and taking a leisurely 40 metre jaunt to score at the start of the second. Jarrod Croker was solid as always, despite a somewhat poor day with the boot (by his normally high standards). Both he, Sezer and Papali dominated their battle on the edge with Sam Burgess. Edrick Lee’s decision making in both defence and attack is becoming a real asset to the Raiders.
The only downside for the Raiders was a lack of crispness when on the attack. It wasn’t until Blake Austin scored in the 71st minute that the Raiders put together the sort of imposing backline movement that had come to characterise their play recently. Sezer and Austin attempted unsuccessfully to run the set plays that had involved Wighton (the outside-inside movement), and it wasn’t until the last ten minutes that Hodgson took the opportunity to try to send the dominant forwards in set pieces towards the posts.
Partly this is because the Souths defence played up-and-in, pressuring the Raiders edges, giving Sezer and Austin less time to operate. Austin in particular struggled with this and several times turned the ball over after telegraphing face balls to wide-running big men – it was reminiscent of Josh McCrone’s time with the Raiders. Partly it was because too often the Raiders, in seeking to jump outside the pressure, went too wide early, relying on Sezer to make plays instead of working through the middle and the edges.
And partly this was because the Raiders just found easier ways to score. When Rapana can go over untouched between three defenders from 8 metres out, when Leilua and Wighton can stroll 60 metres untouched after picking up loose balls, and when a second rower can send in a prop untouched for 50 metres down the wing, then perhaps you don’t need to focus too much on a crisp red-zone attack.
But that won’t happen against the Sharks next week, or against Melbourne the week after. The Raiders get a preview of what finals football will be like over the next couple of weeks. The forwards will need to be just as good, the halves will need to direct the side better and the backs will need to be crisper.
Let’s hope they are up to the test.