The Canberra Raiders 18-14 victory over the St George-Illawarra Dragons was a testament to perseverance. It wasn’t pretty but it didn’t need to be. It wasn’t clinical but it hasn’t been this season. The Raiders spent much of the game searching for direction, unable to find momentum in sets, connection in attack, and any semblance of line-speed in defence. They did so many things wrong until they didn’t. They persevered, and all that matters now is that the season stays alive for another week.
There might be a temptation to call this a turning point. That is dangerously premature. The truth was that the Raiders execution was nowhere near as impressive as their ability to simply hold on, to find a way to compete, even though they weren’t at their best.
For the great majority of the game the difference between the two sides was kicking. Across the spine the Raiders kicking was substandard for much of the game. Sezer, Austin and Hodgson all gave the opposition seven-tackle sets in attempts to kick for repeat sets – something the opposition was able to successfully do on at least seven occasions. Sometimes the bounce was cruel but more often than not the kick itself was the issue.
The Raiders actually looked their best when driving through the middle. Josh Papalii (16 runs for 149m), Junior Paulo (14 for 153m) and Dave Taylor (9 for 98m) were instrumental in all of the Raiders’ periods of success. Taylor and Papalii in particularly were excellent at the end of the game, driving the Raiders into field goal range, and it was Taylor’s excellent, albeit risky, offload to Elliot Whitehead that sealed the game for the Raiders. Papalii’s ball play was also impressive, and his ball to Cotric in space on the stroke of full time was skilful.
Despite this degree of success for the men in the middle, Josh Hodgson had a poor game. He took next to no metres out of dummy-half, looked lethargic and lacked any of his usual creativity. He simply aimed and passed and followed the ruck down the field for much of the game. His execution was poor. On more than one occasion he made a disastrous choice to take the blind on the last tackle. It never worked out. While one grubber should have resulted in a try to Jarrod Croker, on many occasions his kicks hit the legs of the opposition or were chased by only himself. He did have good moments – a McCrone hand is all that stood between Hodgson and try to Papalii in the first half, and he nearly sent forwards over on two other occasions. Unfortunately both times the ball-runner was Luke Bateman, probably the weakest runner of the Raiders forwards, who was held back despite advantageous position close to the line.
Halves Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin swapped sides from their usual spots this season. Sezer camped himself on the Raiders right edge and Austin on the left. Early in the game it seemed masterstroke when Hodgson took advantage of a quick play the ball close to the line, spread the ball to Austin who made a very good decision to pass to winger Nic Cotric for first try of the match. After that though Austin found it difficult to, well, pass, and seemed to inhibit the Raiders previous polish on the left edge. The one time the Raiders managed to get the overlap Austin was unable to get a pass under pressure to an open Croker. For his part Sezer was more willing than Austin to get BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana involved, who enjoyed the extra ball and often threatened the line. But even that just resulted in over-excitement and errors.
Defensively the Raiders made the one-track Dragons attack look threatening more often than it should have. Enthusiasm waxed and waned, early desire to pressure the Dragons attack giving way to the ‘bend but don’t break (maybe)’ approach that has characterised the Raiders line this season. Nene McDonald went through the middle of the defence to for the Dragons first, Nightingale went around it for their other try. On both occasions it seemed to suck the life out of the Raiders for a period following.
Down 12-6 in the second the Raiders season was heading to its end with a whimper. The Raiders seemed to be busy grinding down their gear-stick, searching for the fluency and execution that has avoided them for large parts of the season. It wasn’t all lost, but what was left was grinding to a halt. The Raiders had to find a way to stay with the game.
And then Aidan Sezer made the two biggest plays of the game.
The third try was on its way for the Dragons when Sezer stuck out a mitt and changed the course of the game. His intercept try was a study in contradictions. It was both brilliant and lucky. He streaked away from the defence surprisingly slowly. If he hadn’t caught the ball the Raiders season would be all but over. But he caught it, and he made that 85 metre run. And the Raiders suddenly were even.
After the sides traded penalties, and six incompetent field goal attempts to end regulation, early in golden-point Sezer took the ball on the fourth tackle and kicked one of the great 40/20s. In fact it was more of a 30/20. Yes it took a bounce but it was a well-executed, ingenuous act. That’s not a way you’d describe much of the Raiders last six weeks or so. Burdened with the gift of field position the Raiders persevered once more, this time Whitehead’s try ending one of the most painful losing streaks in recent Raiders history.
And so the Raiders are still alive. They have to win 5 of their next 7 to make the finals, something that seemingly remains out-of-reach despite this win. The Storm are up next. Perseverance won’t be enough to beat Smith, Cronk, Slater and Munster. But it’s a start.