If one was harbouring any concerns that the Canberra Raiders were not a premiership contender it was dispelled in their 20-16 golden point loss to the North Queensland Cowboys. The Raiders showed critical factors in their rise last year have carried over to 2017, and in some cases have improved. The Raiders did not get the win they deserved but they have put the competition on notice.
Winning in Townsville is hard, especially in March when the temperature is still in the high twenties by the end of the game. Winning against this Cowboys team, boasting that pack, those halves and a set of scorching outside backs was never going to be easy. This was compounded the absence of Junior Paulo, Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker – not to mention the last minute pre-season departure of Edrick Lee.
With the chips already stacked against them, the Raiders’ own errors added to the difficulty of the task. They gave away too many penalties trying to match the Cowboys physicality in the ruck – they were trying to find away to slow down the rampaging bulls that were destroying the china shop in the middle of the park. Jason Taumalolo is the best forward in the competition and it’s not close. The Raiders felt every one of his 295 metres (on 22 runs) through the middle of the park, as they did Matt Scott’s 200 (15 runs) and Scott Bolton’s 166 (18 runs).
As the possession mounted against them during the second 20 minutes of the first half the Raiders also made critical handling errors to compound the issue. Aidan Sezer dropped a simple pass after the Raiders had finally gotten a critical penalty and the opportunity to get off their own line after the Cowboys first try. A Blake Austin kick as the possession was starting to turn against the Raiders in the 21st minute found plenty of air but no yards and the Raiders were back defending their line. These were not isolated incidents and this meant that to stay in the game the Raiders were continually relying on their defence to stay in the game.
But holy hell was their defence something. Faced with the aforementioned bruisers, the Raiders middle forwards continually aimed up. Less the physical domination that characterised the catalytic victories against Melbourne and Cronulla last year, it was reminiscent of the Raiders defence against the Storm in last years preliminary final loss. Inspiring efforts to scramble interspersed with excellent technical nous. The line speed held up throughout the game. The centre forwards continually made successful tackles – Sia Soliola made 38 takles without a miss, Luke Bateman 38 with one miss, and Josh Papalii 42 with just two misses. Shannon Boyd nearly killed Ethan Lowe. And I cheered.
Pleasingly for Raiders fans the defence made a notable improvement from last season. The Raiders edges held strong. For as long as we have written this blog attack has been aimed here and the Raiders defenders – firstly Terry Campese and Josh McCrone, and now Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer – have been found wanting. The Cowboys aimed their wide-running forwards at Austin and Sezer and for the most part the Raiders repelled them. Sezer made several genuine try-saving tackles against bigger players and with Papalii they kept the Raiders left edge solid. Blake Austin too was exemplary, and the try that the Cowboys did score by going through that edge was the well-worked set play that required three more passes than would have been required against the Raiders of round one 2016.
On the odd occasions the Raiders had the ball – they had a full 12 sets less possession than the Cowboys – they looked like the attack is close to last years already. Josh Hodgson was his usual excellent self, creating two tries for BJ Leilua; one by seeing Lachlan Coote in the goal-line defensive line and isolating Leilua on him, another when he saw Coote out of position and a kick was grounded by Leilua. He worked well late in the game too when shifting out of the ruck as a third ball-player – ostensibly playing as a lock but not being required to do the hard labour of hit-ups.
The forward pack didn’t get enough ball to make metres (only Papalii had more than 100 metres for the match) but they made it count when they did. Papalii’s side step of Lowe that set up the Raiders first try to Zac Santo should have sent shivers down the spine of the competition. If a man with that power can move that deftly he’ll make more than Lowe look stupid this year. Soliola, Boyd and Bateman all provided power when needed despite being exhausted by defence.
Even the halves showed improvement from last year. On several occasions Austin looked breathtaking when he ran the ball. He will score points this year without passing the ball. He still needs to improve his ball playing and it’s not surprising that Leilua and Rapana came searching for the ball so often given the usual link between them and the middle of the park – ball-playing second rower Elliot Whitehead – was on the other side of the field. It also led to them pushing the ball more regularly than was advantageous, most notably when an errant Leilua flick pass ended up creating a Cowboys try.
Sezer’s kicking game, with Hodgson remains a strength for the side. I’d like to see him run the ball more. It will open up a bit of space outside him. He suffered from the absence of Croker outside him – with Whitehead filling in for the injured captain, Sezer didn’t have a fast-paced threat to drag defenders wider. Outside Whitehead, rookie Nic Cotric looked exceptional, powerful with the ball (he’s 18!) and capable in defence.
But the Raiders started with a loss. And they will likely lose BJ Leilua next week to a punching charge, further stretching their massive depth issues in the backline. It doesn’t get any easier here, with the defending premiers coming to Canberra, a place they rarely struggle. But Raiders fans can be content. This side is not the same side that played in round one of 2016. It is the side that ended 2016. And it’s going to give this competition a real shake.
 If you’re wondering why we haven’t mentioned the refs it’s because we have a ‘don’t whinge about the refs’ policy in these reviews. So if you’re looking for someone to tell the refereeing of the ruck was inconsistent at best you should look somewhere else. If you want to read that the refs routinely ruled Cowboy knock-ons incorrectly you probably not going to hear that from me. If you’re looking for someone to tell you that they let particular Cowboys like Thurston get away with what they wanted like a couple of dirty cops you won’t get what you want. And if you were hoping someone would tell you that Rapana’s pass to Whitehead was not forward, and in fact neither was a Hodgson pass of a similar vein on a critical attacking set in the second half, you should probably find another blog to read. Because we are not going to say those things here. No sir.
 The final penalty count was 11-4.
 The edge in our unqualified parlance is the area where the halves and the second rowers normally defend next to each other. Teams across the league attack here because a) the halves are often smaller than the massive centre or backrower running at them and b) you want to make the halves work a lot in defence. For many sides it operates as the fulcrum from which set-plays work off.