The Canberra Raiders played the worst game of the season in their 16-10 loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs. They were ill disciplined, directionless and uninspired in their football. The only thing the Raiders have going for them right now is the talent in the squad, and the time remaining in the season to fix their issues.
The Raiders started this game with all the sprightliness of me emerging after a big night of drinking the Raiders -based pain away. Several sets managed less than 20 metres before the Raiders kicked into safer territory. Shannon Boyd was particularly poor early in the game, scratching out 45 of the least inspired running metres before retiring to the bench with an injury that removed him from the rest of the game. It was the 7th time in 9 games this season that Boyd has failed to cross the 100 metre mark, something that most other starting middle forwards in the competition achieve weekly. His 84 metres per game are about half of that averaged by Josh McGuire, one of the forwards he beat out for a spot on the Kangaroos bench.
With the departure of Paul Vaughan and Shaun Fensom this season, the Raiders forward pack depth was always going to be tested. Even we flagged that this would be a problem. So far Luke Bateman and Clay Priest have done little but disappoint. If Bateman (7 for 54m) was uninspiring, Priest was downright horrid – and not for the first time this season. A bench forward’s role is to come on and ensure that the forward momentum continues while the starting props catch a breather. Instead Priest gave away idiotic penalties, dropped the ball, and had his lack of lateral speed exploited on several occasions by opposition forwards. Dave Taylor may not be the answer, but questions must start being asked as to whether Clay Priest is.
The forwards poor play was compounded by some poor directional play from the Raiders spine. The Raiders spent the good majority of the game seemingly unaware that their job was to get the ball close to the goal-line. Josh Hodgson was too willing to send the ball wide to his halves out wide rather than get his forwards to do the dirty work up the middle – he also failed to utilise his normal deceptive ruck work to create extra metres for his forwards and momentum for sets. Blake Austin had his worst game of the season, spending most of it dancing sideways rather than sending runners towards the line.
Jack Wighton has one of those games where he drops the ball in try scoring positions more than he should. Tonight it was twice – once off a slightly high outside-in pass from Elliot Whitehead, the other was from a well-placed Aidan Sezer grubber.
Of the spine only the much-maligned Sezer took the line on. It was his willingness to do this that created the Raiders first try when he made half a break, sent Josh Papalii through a hole who found Jarrod Croker in the corner to score. He was the Raiders best in this game, his ball-running creating one try and his kicking nearly creating another. Sezer has made an effort in recent weeks to take the line on more, and has looked good doing it.
It’s a lesson that other Raiders could have used tonight. The overwhelming desire to move the ball out wide without penetrating the middle at all was confusing – moreso given the ease with which the Raiders made metres in the middle when they played straight late. Even the Raiders second try was essentially a series of dummy half runs. Instead for most of the game the Raiders pawed around the edges like virgins at a bra, fiddling and fumbling their way into errors.
In defence the Raiders met the Bulldogs honest but unimaginative offence with care and kindness rather than hot blood and courage. As has become customary this season, the Raiders allowed their opposition cheap and easy metres through the middle of the park. And then when the Bulldogs got close to the line the defensive pairing of BJ Leilua and Austin took it back to 2015 with a mixture of poor tackling and poor reads that allowed the Dogs to score three very soft tries through their region. The lack of effort, communication and proper defensive technique was reminiscent when they first met in late 2015 when Leilua was a lot fatter and Austin was a lot more inclined to stand on his heels in defence.
Fixing some of these issues shouldn’t be beyond Coach Stuart. The man simply needs to grab the forwards and point them in the right direction. Hodgson is too good a player to not straighten his play up and find a way to find more space for the big men. Sezer’s play continues to improve and Austin has been much better this season than last. Last season, and in spots this season, this group of 17 men have shown they have the willingness to get off their line and stop the opposition middle-forwards for running roughshod over them.
The capability is there. The Raiders have the talent and there is plenty of season to go. But if the Raiders are serious about contending they can ill afford more games like this loss.
 Seriously, I’ve not seen a professional footballer pull the park-footy tackle attempt that Austin tried on for the Dogs first try. I might still have a shot at the big leagues!