The Canberra Raiders 28-18 victory over the Parramatta Eels served as an important reminder of the work still to be done if the Raiders are to win the premiership. The ‘revamped’ defence disappeared in the first half, and the Raiders attack desperately missed elite ball-player Josh Hodgson. But despite this, the Raiders unleashed pure destruction on the Eels right edge in the second half, cementing a second chance come September.
The Eels are a bad match up for the Raiders. They have big men in the middle that can counter the big green forwards. They are disciplined in defence, winning the battle in the tackle and the ruck, and on the edge able to match-up with the Raiders backs with both disciplined reads and physicality. If the Raiders thought they were going to have it easy the first twenty minutes proved otherwise.
The Raiders defence, such a delight (well, for Raiders fans) last week seemed to be missing in the first half. The Eels had no problem going around the Raiders. They started with the Raiders left edge almost exclusively early in sets, the opposite side to what the Storm started with last week. A break came on their second set simply by moving the ball through the hands and a try followed. They repeated the tactic a set later only towards the Raiders right edge. Again they went around and only failed to score when Semi Radradra dropped the ball in space. In the 12th minute they mimicked the play, and Radradra held on for the Eels second. In the 19th minute they went around again, Radradra again in space and all of a sudden it was 16-0 and the Raiders side was unrecognisable from last week.
The Raiders hadn’t helped themselves with the ball. The attack was impatient, going wide too early, and missing any penetration around the ruck. Adam Clydsdale started in place of Josh Hodgson – he lacked any of the deception of creativity, or capacity to find metres around the ruck himself. As a result, the Raiders forwards had a hard time early, and the halves were pushed wide in search of space. This impacted their kicking game too, as the halves were unable to kick at the line because the Parramatta defensive line were never in two minds about where the ball was going. Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin had attacking kicks end up in seven tackle sets for the Eels as a consequence.
Righting this ship was going to be difficult. With better direction courtesy of the removal of Clydsdale for Kurt Baptiste, the Raiders began to work their way back into the match.
The Raiders had an idea of where they thought they should be going with the ball – from the 18th minute onwards they relentlessly attacked the Eels right edge with a variety of mechanisms. Wighton would insert himself from fullback to provide an extra man on some forays. On others Sezer and Austin would line up on the same side. They ran an outside-in play where the ball went from Sezer to Papalii, who reversed it inside for a streaking Wighton. They had a try disallowed when Sezer and Austin combined on the short side, with only Brenko Lee’s errant left foot preventing a try being scored. Minutes later Sezer took the short side on the last, Jack Wighton chiming in with a perfect short ball to Jarrod Croker that would see Lee finally score.
It was this movement to the left that the Raiders used unashamedly to dominate the second half. Indeed Croker toyed with the opposition on that left edge all game, beating his man at will and making flick passes to his winger seem routine. In the 56th minute Wighton simply put Croker in a one-on-one with his opposite, who beat his man and put Brenko in. Then minutes later Austin found Wighton, who’s excellent cut-out pass found Lee streaking down the left to score.
This urelenting assault on an opposition’s weakness was pleasing to see. Elite sides like Melbourne and North Queensland identify these weaknesses and turn them into points. That the Raiders halves were patient enough to continue to exploit this weakness despite their deficit bodes well for the future.
In defence, they weren’t nearly as clinical. Too often the Eels were able to find holes in lazy defence in the second half. They made breaks and earned penalties. But pleasingly, the Raiders effort on their goal-line began to replicate what they showed last week, hardening the closer that the Eels got to the line. The speed off the line was as impressive as any time this season, and it put Eels half Jeff Robson under pressure. Routinely he was caught with the ball, and it led to him forcing balls wide, and maybe even contributed to a critical error in the last ten minutes of the game.
The Raiders forwards will be pleased that Josh Hodgson returns next week. Kurt Baptiste’s arrival after the Eels third try was half a response to Clydsdale’s poor defence, half a response to his poor work around the ruck. Only Josh Papalii (16 runs for 167m) and Junior Paulo (13 for 114m) really provided the Raiders with momentum in sets; and notably Paulo did most of his work running two passes wide of the ruck. Elliot Whitehead was amazing in defence and running wide, and he and Luke Bateman both saved tries with effort alone.
And so this was not perfect. The Raiders sorely missed Hodgon in the middle, and the defence in the first twenty minutes is a great worry. Better teams than the Eels are between the men in green and the premiership, and they can ill afford to give a side a 16-point head start in September. They cannot win games just on reputation alone. Given they barely had one outside of Canberra until last week, this shouldn’t be a problem.