The Canberra Raiders lost 16-12 to the Canterbury Bulldogs. It was a hard-fought game in which the Raiders showed that work still must be done to overcome the deficits that 2017 left them with. Some progress has been made but major questions remain unanswered.
The best news for the Raiders from this game was its forward pack is ready to lead in 2018 if they are given the opportunity. Shannon Boyd is my pick for big improver this year and he ran the ball well for his entire stint. Boyd was also dominant in defence, except for a single error in which he conspired with Jack Wighton to let Michael Lichaa wander over from dummy-half. Junior Paulo and Josh Papalii were enthusiastic and had some excellent runs. Elliot Whitehead is going to be well-used in lock – I’m excited for him to get his hands free a bit more often. The conservative game plan of the first half seemed to restrict him there a little. Joe Tapine was quiet, but I wouldn’t read too much into that.
Coach Stuart identified last year that a key determinant in the Raiders renaissance in 2018 would be improved defence. The Raiders did let in two very soft tries but showed improved line-speed and substantially better technique than at any point in 2017. The best example was an attacking movement in the first half by the Dogs where the Raiders showed good line speed initially, and then didn’t panic when the ball shifted to the left. They didn’t slide until the ball was outside them and then Sezer, BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana bundled the ball runner into touch. The two tries were both minor moments of lost concentration and reminded the Raiders they have worked to do in this space Hopefully the improvement in this game is built on.
The other major question that remains unanswered revolves around the spine. In this match no one played themselves into or out of contention for the six, seven and nine jerseys. Siliva Havilli, the clubhouse leader before this match for the dummy-half position, was patchy in the opening half. He worked well with the starting pack in the early period of the match as the Raiders sought to establish their forward pack with conservative play. His defence was strong, and I would love to see him run the ball a bit more, and perhaps be more creative close to the line but errors and opportunities conspired against him.
He does have some work to do though. He couldn’t get the timing right on other set plays the Raiders run off the ruck, such as when they send two props on either side of a defender. He dropped the ball at dummy-half, and threw a ball to Shannon Boyd on the last that should have gone out the back to halfback Aidan Sezer. His delivery was occasionally slow off the ground. Time and NRL experience is probably the solution here.
Havili’s position as Josh Hodgson’s heir apparent was put under pressure by an excellent last 30 minutes by Craig Garvey. He showed good enthusiasm and good skill, setting up the Raiders second try with a fake to the right, a step to the left and a good ball to Makatoa who muscled over. It was the type of play that elite hookers make often. It was good to see that the Raiders second-string dummy-half is capable of them.
For his part Sezer was also a mixed bag. At halfback he kicked a ball out on the full but also put a perfectly weighted grubber into the in-goal for the Raiders first repeat set since 1998 (Ed: Please check date). Like Havili his timing was sometimes off, such as when he put a ball slightly behind Boyd on a play that would’ve resulted in a try if the ball was held. Later at dummy-half he seemed capable, and combined well with alternative half Sam Williams on several occasions, such as the Raiders first try. But he stood up nearly every time he was in the ruck, and like Havili’s sometimes slow delivery off the ground this can have an impact against teams with superior line-speed in defence.
The other halves were exactly what they always are. Sam Williams kicked well in the first half but rarely threatened the line. Settled almost exclusively on the left he controlled that side of the field well, but who thought he wouldn’t. He will add valuable stability to the Raiders however Coach Stuart decides to deploy him. Blake Austin was happiest playing wide of the ruck and did so on both sides of the field. It is the best way to use him, and may be how Sezer, Williams and Austin all fit into the starting side. He and Wighton both looked good playing out the back of second-man movements.
The Raiders were not perfect and showed that 2018 is still a work in progress. But there’s enough there to suggest they know how they can be good in 2018. Only time will tell if they get there.