A lot happens in a fortnight, especially when the majority of the league gets the week off due to Rep round. Players get season ending injuries (Idris, Williams) or get done for shoving powdered line marker up their schnozzes (Kenny-Dowall, Proctor and Bromwich).
If there is one team that has avoided all the turmoil, it’s the Raiders. Papa will miss this game due to his self-reporting of his drunken motoring escapades, but Shannon Boyd has made a timely recovery after relinquishing his spot in the Kangaroos side due to a leg injury. Rapana made it through the Rep weekend unscathed, as did Hodgson, Whitehead and Leilua.
The Knights enter this game from a different angle – coming to terms with the fact that they’ll most likely never have the services of Jarrod Mullen at their disposal, after he was handed a four year ban for doping. It’s been a tough road for the Novocastrians, and their efforts to rebuild the club are being hampered by news such as this. Still, the best way to build a squad is to expose them to as much game time as possible and hope they learn quickly through experience.
The Raiders have some on-field learning of their own to do. After a scintillating finish to 2016 they seem to have unlearned much of what they found last year, trying too hard to ape the structure and styles of their opponents. The Raiders succeed when they stick to the game plan that best suits their physiques – sending large bodies through a narrow corridor in the middle, in turn generating space for the strong back line to go to work.
One of the key structure shifts we’ll be looking for this weekend is the double stacking of Sezer and Austin – we’ve talked extensively in recent rounds about how that combination causes all kinds of defensive read headaches for opposing teams, and with the two of them strengthening their opposing skills (Sezer with running, Austin with kicking/passing) it’s a no-brainer to load all that firepower onto whichever side you’re attacking.
There is every chance this could be a welcome blowout for the Green Machine, but such a result could have detrimental effects. What we really want to see is properly directed attack, sturdy defence and a consistent game plan across the 80 minutes.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
Stuart seems determined to make this bench work, and that doggedness is in turn taking its toll on the team and the fans. In particular, the efforts served up by Clay Priest and Luke Bateman are causing the Raiders no end of problems in attack and defence. With Dave Taylor returning to an extended bench and the signing of Fijian Masivesi Dakuwaqa the Raiders forwards stockpile is beginning to grow again, hopefully generating more competition for at least two spots.
If Dakuwaqa is legitimately good he may ultimately fulfil the destiny that Jordan Turner has so far been unable to take hold of – a large, agile player who can fill a few positions across the park. He will no doubt spend a few rounds in Mounties, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he can get within striking distance of first grade.
You have to feel for the Knights. Three of their best/most experienced forward units are sidelined – Mitch Barnett, Jamie Buhrer and Rory Kostjasyn (Kostjasyn is primarily a hooker but also plays at lock and in the second row). It’s now up to the likes of Saifiti, Starling and Tupou to try and eke out some territory for the Knights.
Back to the Raiders starting forwards and their own problem of recent weeks – going forward. The weakness in recent rounds is too much lateral/diagonal running. This lessens the forward momentum, which is important for after-contact metres, and leaves ball carrying forwards open to being driven back. I’ve drawn up a small diagram that should remedy the problem.
If the Raiders concentrate their barrage around the ruck the Knights line should buckle pretty quickly – if the Raiders persist, however, in running diagonally they’ll give the Knights the chance to turn them back.
I want my double-stacked halves burger now goddamit! Just look at this diagram which I whipped up in MS Paint.
Look at all those variables! That’s not even all of them! The point is this – as good as Sezer and Austin are, neither of them possess the full bag of tricks. Which means they’re dipping into their limited repertoires repeatedly, handing over more and more data for other teams to study so they can shut them down when they operate either side.
If you stack them both left or right then you increase the mystery for defenders – is Sezer first receiver or is it Austin? Who’s running it? Passing it? Maybe one of them is further along the sweep, which if you add in Wighton means you have three potential pivots on one side. Defenders will lose their minds trying to predict what will happen next.
Or they could play one left one right and run out of ideas 20 minutes into the game.
Luckily for the Raiders they come up against a spine struggling with the basics. While Lamb and Feeney have potential it’s pretty fair to say that Hodkinson is not having a great year. If the Raiders can find their 2016 mojo in attack then the Knights halves will need to be 100% focused in attack.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
Only Rapana and Leilua had game time across the Rep weekend, which means that Wighton, Croker and Cotric have all had a week off to recover and sharpen their skills. They will of course need decisive action from the forwards and the spine if they are to unleash their attacking fury on the Knights.
Cotric once again must be singled out for his maturity, especially in defensive reads. His ability to stay calm in the face of a centre-winger gamble and then grab that intercept is priceless.
The Knights biggest backline threat is Nathan Ross, a tough as nails winger in puts in a massive effort every week. Unlike Gagai, who cried because his side was no good.
The Raiders should be favourites for this match, which is troubling because (a) their recent form doesn’t really warrant it and (b) they were a team that the Knights drew with and nearly beat last year. Only a strict adherence to my diagrammatical teachings can bring home the win!
Raiders by 10!