To say that the Canberra Raiders 16-14 loss to the Cronulla Sharks was heart-breaking would be an understatement. These young Raiders learnt about finals football tonight. The Raiders led for the majority of the match, but lost their best player, their ruck defence and the game (not necessarily in that order). They can still make the grand final from here, but they’ll need a healthy ankle for Josh Hodgson, improved ruck defence and better connections on their edges in attack.
Losing in the first week of the finals is not terminal for a top 4 side. As recently as 2015 a side (you might remember the Cowboys?) managed to make the grand final after a first week loss. So the dream is alive. But without class dummy-half Josh Hodgson, it a lot harder.
Early in the game, Hodgson made beautiful music. Even before he scored the first try of the match, he was terrorising the Sharks around the ruck. The Sharks were showing hard on the edges, rushing up trying to take away any opportunities to move it sideways. Hodgson (and Aidan Sezer) both recognised this and started running at the line more. Hodgson poked his head through in the 10th minute on the back of the now standard hooker-prop run-around and was only just brought down before the line.
Then in the 13th minute he did it again. Just after he pushed both props (Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo) at the Sharks right edge defence, he jumped out of 9 on an angle, and when the Sharks again overplayed on his outside men, slipped between two props for the Raiders first points. And these weren’t the only times he threatened. In the 14th minute he took 30 up the middle when the Sharks again tried to lose the game gave him space.
And early in the game he had the support of a hard-working pack that had the wood on their opposition. Shannon Boyd (11 runs for 97m) and Junior Paulo (11 for 94m) were exceptional early. Paulo resumed the positioning that he’d placed prior to his injury break, running two wide of the ruck to run up and over the smaller defenders outside the ABC defenders. This ploy manufactures momentum and metres for Raiders sets, particularly early in the game when opposition defensive line-speed is at its highest. Josh Papali was quiet in the first half, but his second half was inspiring, rampaging up the left on several occasions, making one humongous break in the 60th minute that should have resulted in points.
The Raiders dominated that first twenty minutes as they had done recent weeks. Jordan Rapana picked up a dropped ball and went 90 metres for a try. Sam Williams, Elliot Whitehad, BJ Leilua and Rapana put the ball through the hands out right and the Raiders nearly went in. A brilliant take from Edrick Lee off an Aidan Sezer bomb would have resulted in a try if he’d held on to a return pass from Jarrod Croker. At one point the Raiders had 4 sets in a row at the Sharks line, but couldn’t earn points from them.
The only thing keeping the Sharks in this game was Hodgson’s opposite, Michael Ennis. His kicking game was exquisite, and he continually probed around the Raiders ruck. This dragged the Sharks back into the game after the first twenty. By picking on the Raiders replacement forwards – Luke Bateman and Clay Priest, or the smallest player on the field (Sam Williams), he began to find metres for his big men. Andrew Fifita (20 for 204m) and Matt Prior (22 for 233m) had a field day running at the Raiders right and around the middle. Nowhere did this hurt the Raiders more than just before halftime when Ennis worked across field and sent Prior in between Priest and Bateman for a critical pre-halftime try.
This is something the Raiders need to fix. Against the Tigers last week, and throughout this season, the Raiders have been prone to giving away metres in the middle. Every side is prone to metres on the back of quick play the balls. But the Raiders defence falls apart. In the second half the Sharks took off floundering half Chad Townsend, straightened their attack and in the last twenty minutes made several breaks basically up the middle between Williams on the right edge, and the ruck. This will have been noticed by the Bulldogs and the Panthers.
When Hodgson went down early in the second it presented the Raiders with a problem. So much of the success of Leilua and Rapana on the right edge comes from getting the ball with a bit of space. Without Hodgson drawing defenders’ hearts and minds towards the centre, the Sharks were able to overplay out wide without fear of reprisal in the middle. The Raiders were constantly working in tight margins on both edges. Even then the Raiders did manage to penetrate occasionally, but only rarely did Whitehead and Leilua on the right, or Croker and Papali on the left, ever get space with the ball before the line.
Hodgson’s replacement – Kurt Baptiste – played a very Baptiste game. He ran the ball when he could, fed the ball to the forwards and the backs as he thought fit and defended his heart out. He is as good as a back-up hooker as exists in the competition. But he’s not Hodgson. He made a stinking error on the back of Papalii’s break in the 60th minute, running it himself on the last rather than than passing to the 179 on 3 overlap the Raiders had lined up. Like most of Baptiste’s errors it simultaneously was understandable (he was trying to earn a penalty) while reminding us that Hodgson was off the field.
Without Hodgson, the Raiders can look to involve fullback Jack Wighton around the ruck more. He tends to only pop out on moves to the left edge. With Baptiste needing the people who get the ball to be the creative ones, putting Wighton close to the ruck may be just what he needs.
And so it comes down to this. The Raiders have given themselves a slightly harder path to the finals. But when they come up against the Bulldogs or the Panthers next week, they have the troops on the field to earn a preliminary final. If they can fix that ruck defence, then hope is not lost they can play in October. And If Hodgson’s injury means he can play again the dream is still alive. The journey continues.
 Which is presumably designed to keep the inside defenders honest and allow space for the hooker to make a read/run decision, but does give the defence on the edge even more time to basically end any idea of going wide.
 The ABC defenders are the first 3 defenders on the ball side of the ruck.