Any hope that the Raiders recent form was ‘just a blip’ dissipated during their 34-20 loss to the Newcastle Knights on Sunday. Out-hustled and out-thought, the Raiders more-talented side could not overcome the wide gap in effort and execution. The same problems that have been exploited by other sides this season were targeted by Newcastle successfully. Until something changes the Raiders cannot be considered contenders.
It has to be said that the Raiders approached their task with all the enthusiasm of a hungover man pulling on the starter cord of his lawnmower. In general demanding greater effort is used as a catch-all, a lazy assertion that allows us to explain poor performances without actually analysing anything. However, there is undoubtedly a problem with urgency in the Raiders work with and without the ball. It’s no coincidence that the few times the Raiders looked their best was just after half time and towards the end of the game when the impending result manufactured urgency for them.
During these periods when they were effective they did so by playing through the middle. Too often this year the attack has been aimed at utilising their skills outside the edges. It’s understandable given the beasts that reside there but relying too much on BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana stunts their effectiveness, and that of the Raiders. Early ball heading wide in sets too often slowed any ruck dominance a set had earnt and reduced the effectiveness of the attack. Rapana in particular has had patchy form in recent weeks – you can see that he feels a need to get the side moving and it can result in errors. Today he made two errors in the 63rd and 64th minute that basically ended any chance the Raiders had of taking the game.
Josh Hodgson had a poor game by his standards, and his recent form has mirrored the Raiders losing streak. This season has been harder for Hodgson. After his breakout 2016 opposition defences are seeking to reduce his time and space around the ruck. They know the Raiders attack goes through him. This means he has be more decisive and deceptive with his movements.
Against the Knights his service from dummy-half was slow, particularly in the first half, and his lack of deception was startling early. In the first half he was caught three times with the ball by ruck defenders having hardly moved. Even plays that he has used to great effect in the past were poorly run. A good example is his ‘two-prop’ set up which the Raiders use close to the line – Hodgson will send two props at either shoulder of a defender, forcing indecision which gives enough space for a forward to crash over. In the first half he tried this with Shannon Boyd and Sia Soliola but failed to disguise it, and his lack of quick service saw the play snuffed before it could take effect.
Being the great player he is he adjusted. For a brief period in the second half he threatened to take the game over. Elliot Whitehead’s try in the 44th minute came from Hodgson taking a single step to the left before heading right and throwing a face ball that allowed the backrower to fall over the line. It seems simple but that single step is critical in creating that try – it forces a momentary pause in the defence and requires it to adjust. That small amount of space is all that Hodgson needs to create points. But as teams are focused intently on him he has to work harder to create it. If he can’t manage to replicate his form for last year on a more regular basis than he has displayed recently the Raiders won’t go far.
The Raiders defensive performance was poor and that was mostly due to effort. Poor line speed meant that the Knights were rarely trapped in their own area and were able to kick the ball out in good field position. The plan to negate the Raiders attack by stifling their kick return has been employed by a few sides in recent weeks. Oppositions may find it harder to put the ball out if they are kicking from their 40 rather than the Raiders 30.
A notable exception to ‘effort’ being the main problem in defence is the ongoing problems between BJ Leilua and Blake Austin on the right edge. The Knights attack in the first half was squarely focused on that side of the Raiders defence, and when Austin ran out of the line in the 16th minute he created not so much a hole as a bleeping open cut mine for Mata’utia to explore all the way to the try-line.
Other sides have targeted this gap mercilessly in recent weeks and we have noted that it looks as bad now as it did when Leilua first joined the side in 2015. The Raiders cannot win a title where such major defensive mistakes are made with such regularity.
Another problem has to be the ongoing performance of the segments of the pack. Sia Soliola (13 runs for 111m, 34 tackles) and Junior Paulo (19 for 160) were excellent. Paulo in particular appears to be hitting peak form now. But the rest of the pack continues to underwhelm, most noticeably Shannon Boyd who, if NRL stats are to believed, didn’t have a single metre gained in the second half. The return of Josh Papalii next week will go a long way to help. But replacements will have to be found for Luke Bateman and potentially Boyd. This means more Clay Priest which isn’t a good thing.
Things are bleak now for the Raiders. The problems they have – playing too wide in attack and too slow in defence are eminently solveable. It’s what makes them frustrating. They have time to fix them, another point in the Raiders favour. But nothing they’ve done in the last few weeks shows they have the stomach to climb the mountain again.
 I’ve got a feeling Boyd will have charge coming from his high shot in the second half