Last week I opened the Rumble with the question “When does a winning streak begin?” The answer, apparently, is not now. The Raiders entered their round 8 clash with the Sea-Eagles powered by the confidence of three straight wins, confidence in turn gilded by Manly’s woeful opening against the Storm the previous round.
As we all know a week is a rather long time in rugby league. Not only is it enough time to study the weaknesses of your opponent, but it’s also enough time for them to diminish those weaknesses.
Much to the aggravation of the Canberra faithful the Sea-Eagles played straight and direct against the Green Machine, controlling possession and territory. As Dan pointed out in the review this was compounded by the Raiders choice of playing a left/right format for Sezer and Austin, both of whom struggled to link with their outside men. In particular, this meant that the Raiders never got the chance to test the edge of Green, Kelly and Tafua.
Now, in round 9, the Raiders face a team with an identical record from the last 4 rounds: the Bulldogs. Both teams come in with a 3/1 record from their last 4 games, both having had their mini streaks ended last round. Both will be looking to right the cart and be on their merry way.
The Raiders should rightfully be wary. While the Bulldogs have been a middling side at best this season they are a side that has been the centre of some rather big personnel developments the last few weeks, first with Coach Hasler withstanding the rumours of sacking and then with the announcements of key signings and departures.
The most recent developments are the news that Josh Reynolds will be a Tiger next year, and that no Bulldogs will be available for City/Country on Rep weekend.
This is a two pronged message from Hasler – to his players, it says you’re either good enough for Origin, or not yet ready, and to NSW, that City vs Country is a waste of time.
Both teams will lose players to the representative weekend, with Hodgson, Whitehead and Graham all named for England, while Rapana seems a deadset certainty for the Kiwis, with the possibility of Tapine securing a bench spot. David Klemmer starts, while Papalii is on the bench for Australia, with Boyd named 18th man for that squad.
So before the majority of them get the week off the Raiders need to show why so many of them are worthy of representative honours.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
The Raiders forwards got schooled last week. Only Paulo and Papalii could break into triple figures on metres, with their peers in the pack being shut down by their silver tailed rivals.
Whitehead can be somewhat excused, as more often than not he finds himself on the wrong side of Austin not distributing the ball.
Shannon Boyd is the forward who truly needs to lift his game. When Stuart pushed out Vaughan in 2016 he placed a big mantle upon Boyd’s shoulders, and it’s time for the Man-Mountain to lead from the front. Papalii may be in the top 10 of current devastating forwards, but as a second rower his impact is on the fringes. The Raiders need massive amounts of punch power in and around the ruck.
The Dogs boast forward firepower too. Klemmer is almost Boyds’ equal in size, with support from veterans Tolman and Graham. Add in Jackson, Eastwood and Kasiano and you have a very capable, and sizeable engine room.
The best strategy for the Raiders will to be target big boppers like Kasiano, to see if they can’t tire him out and turn him around.
One of the keys to the Raiders success in the 2nd half of 2016 was their two-stack attack when it came to their halves pairing. Rather than leaving Sezer and Austin on either side they had them pair up, to great advantage.
If you have them either side, oppositions can deduce the most likely outcome – Austin is not yet a true kicking or passing player, while Sezer is still developing his confidence in his running game. Defenders can therefore be ready for Austin’s step, or Sezer’s grubber.
If you stack them up however, the variables change. Does Austin run it, pass, or kick? Likewise for Sezer. Who’s at first receiver? Who’s directing traffic, and who’s calling the real play? With modern defences in the top 8 near rock solid a team that can use misdirection and sleight of hand stands a much better chance of cracking the line.
On paper it’s a pretty even game between these two spines. Mbye and Reynolds can produce quality, and Reynolds could be in for a good match now that his future is set for the next four years. The Raiders do have the edge at 9, with Hodgson a clear cut above Lichaa.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
Poor old backline. With the halves at sixes and sevens they were never going to see much ball, with LeiPana in particular missing out on the chance to wreak havoc on Manly’s flimsy side. If Sezer and Austin stack up, expect a flurry of work to come from the back five as the ball is quickly shifted to the fringes early in the count. The Raiders do some of their best attacking work from the midfield, they just need to catch the Dogs napping on the edges.
The Dogs have quality backs such as the Morris Bros, who will no doubt be keen to test the Raiders fringe defence, along with the most exotic name in the NRL, Marcelo Montoya (youkilledmyfatherpreparetodie).
The raiders need to notch a win here to stay in the eight and continue building their case for September. The Dogs are two spots behind, and will be keen to find themselves in the winners circle after going down to the Tigers. The Raiders sprung a shock win at Belmore last year, let’s hope they can do the same at ANZ.
Raiders by 10!