The Canberra Raiders lost 21-20 in golden point for the second time this season to the Manly Sea-Eagles. It was the epitome of a moral victory. Manhandled in the middle the shorthanded Raiders clawed their way back from a 14 point halftime deficit, only to fall short in golden point. While the Green Machine showed plenty of courage they remain unable to find the illusive execution that was a hallmark of their excellence last year.
Even before they lost Shannon Boyd and Dunamis Lui for the game they were getting dominated in the ruck. Manly stopped the Raiders from getting any roll on through middle by making sure they slowed every ruck to a crawl. There was little urgency in that space , with forwards routinely forced into slow play-the-balls through the physicality of the Sea-Eagles. Only Junior Paulo (20 carries for 161m) was able to make much of the situation – no other Raiders forward would carry for more than 100 metres. Josh Papalii (10 for 88m) was willing all game but clearly was fatigued from his efforts in Origin. Clay Priest (10 for 90m) had his best game for the season, which made him barely adequate.
Throughout the game the Raiders built their best sets on the back of people who weren’t traditional forwards. Josh Hodgson was excellent as always in the ruck, but it was jarring to see him running as a lock again. Not just because of the waste of his skills in such a role, but also because several excellent sets were built on the back of his strong ball-running. Similarly as the game wore on the work of the back 5 in dragging the Raiders forward became more and more critical. Only Nic Cotric didn’t have more than 100 metres running the ball. This is a worrying trend because it suggested that as much as the Raiders were getting dominated in the ruck, metres were there for the taking (if only the forwards were willing).
Most of these metres were made attacking the right edge of the Manly defence, something the Raiders did adequately in the second half. Running at Cherry-Evans the Raiders found metres and quick play the balls. It was a direction the Raiders needed to pursue more throughout the game. Sometimes discipline is more than not giving away penalties.
This lack of discipline was on display when gifting the Sea-Eagles position and possession throughout the game. Many of these errors led to points. After being on the wrong side of possession after some excellent kicking from Daly Cherry-Evans, the Raiders needed to get off their line and up the other end. But an error from the normally reliable Croker and poor tackle effort from Joe Tapine meant Martin Tapau was scoring Manly’s second. The Raiders at this stage looked like they were hanging on. Barely. The sixty per cent of the possession Manly enjoyed began to tell, and the Raiders let in two tries in the last ten minutes. One was lucky, a cut-out pass aimed for the centre finding the winger unmarked. The other was dropped ball from Tapine, who surely had the worst ten minutes of his career in that short period.
After being outplayed for the majority of the match the Best Winger In The Game™ somehow managed to drag them back in. After setting up the first try of the game of for Blake Austin, Jordan Rapana scored the Raiders second after some smart work from Leilua. He then went 80 metres out of dummy-half in the 70th minute because Jordan Rapana does rad things on days that end in Y. Suddenly the Raiders were in the game.
A frenetic last ten minutes was everything the Raiders hadn’t been throughout the previous 70. There was urgency in the ruck, quick play the balls, searching runs. Still there were errors. These handling errors weren’t numerous but they were influential, ripping away opportunities for the Raiders to go ahead. Jack Wighton dropped a ball pushing into space alongside Aidan Sezer. Croker had earlier dropped a ball in a similar spot. Leilua put Whitehead over for what should have been the game winning try but couldn’t find a way to make the pass legal in the eyes of the officials. Paulo dropped the ball that became DCE’s field goal.
It was, at it has been for weeks, spotty. The Raiders showed moments of brilliance – even outside Rapana, Hodgson, Paulo and Papalii on occasion. They attacked weaknesses and showed good effort and resilience in defence. But only until they didn’t. The Raiders aren’t even putting together a good half or so at the moment. They don’t even have good periods. Good sides get enough opportunities to score points, as Manly did in the first half today.
If the Raiders can find a way to tighten this up they can be a real force in this competition. But half-way through the season they have rarely put together a full half of good football. Showing courage isn’t enough, you’ve got to be able to execute.