The Canberra Raiders started their 2018 campaign with a heart-wrenching 30-28 loss to the Gold Coast Titans. The Raiders showed the painful lessons of 2017 hadn’t been learned, with defensive errors, poor handling and some odd rotation decisions by coach Stuart ending in a painful loss. But there were enough good signs to suggest the Raiders can’t panic yet.
The story of this game is that the Raiders only had 40 per cent of the ball. An early lead fell away as first half errors by Wighton, Rapana, Cotric, BJ Leilua and Croker invited the Titans into a game they had no right being in. In the second half a mixture of ill-discipline, luck and brilliance by Ash Taylor meant the Raiders didn’t touch the ball for almost 20 minutes.
This weight of possession contributed to the Raiders porous defence. The line wasn’t coordinated or straight. It was aggressive at times, but too often individual players were out of sync with the men on either side of them. The Raiders couldn’t stop the Titans from offloading – 15 is too many offloads in the modern game. It didn’t help the Raiders had to double the work in defence.
While the middle was not too bad, there are serious concerns on the Raiders edges. Blake Austin took his ‘rocks and diamonds’ approach to the other side of the field. The Titans first try came when Austin and Papalii were so out of position that Kevin Proctor strolled to the line . The second try came when Jack Wighton had to cover for the leaky edge and couldn’t get back across the field in time to cover Taylor’s smart kick for Elgey. In the second half the sheer number of tackles the Raiders had to make meant the left edge was often outnumbered purely because it had to cover inside.
But amidst the frustration there were actual good things.
The Raiders shot out of the blocks in this game because they dominated around the ruck. They controlled the ruck because Siliva Havili was excellent early and the forwards followed him. After the trial game we had suggested that he needed to run the ball more. Early in the game he did exactly that, once taking the ball 15 metres before being touched (all the while looking for someone to follow him). On the next set he went over from dummy-half.
It was a brilliant start from the new rake, and all the more confusing when he went off after around 25 minutes and was barely seen again. He was clearly tired – he’d been trailing sets since about 17 minutes, but to sit him for the next 50 minutes was an error.
Havili combined well with the rest of the forward pack as the Raiders dominated the opening stanza. Shannon Boyd had 77 metres in the first half, and 147 for the game in one of the best games he has played for the Raiders. His runs were dominant despite coming in tough position. His defence was active and physical. Late in the game he chased across from the centre of the field to help shut down a Konrad Hurrell run. If this is the Shannon Boyd the Raiders get in 2018 then good things will follow.
The rest of the forward pack was brilliant early on when they actually touched the ball. Josh Papalii (9 runs for 101m) looked good on the left edge with the ball. Joseph Tapine (6 for 67) was excellent before he went off with a broken finger. Elliot Whitehead (9 for 100m) showed a move to the middle suited him – although it is likely he will back to the edge to cover for Tapine.
And Sam Williams was sublime in his return. He took on the line on multiple occasions, setting up the Raiders third and fourth tries by straightening the attack. For example, Paulo’s try came because Williams straightened, and then did something that Raiders halves often forget about – pass inside. His kicking game was satisfactory – his long kicks were taken on the full too often and his short kicks were on the mark. He was the sole organising force in attack, and robust in defence.
The performance of Havili and Williams presents Stuart with a conundrum. The Sezer experiment at hooker looks like it will take time to develop. While he handled the defensive side of things with aplomb, Sezer almost always stands up to deliver the ball, slowing down the attack. He also telegraphs the direction of play, making it easy for opposition defences and harder for the forwards. He is better suited to playing one pass off the ruck. If only there was a place he could fit in. There were some good moments – there was a moment in the second half where he ran angles with Austin and Papalii. It was the best moment either Austin or Sezer had in that period.
For his part Blake Austin barely touched the ball when the Raiders were at their best. Jack Wighton operated as the defacto ball-player outside Williams, as displayed in his try. Wighton’s decision-making improves every season, and if he could only get a stronger carry he could be properly elite. Austin may end up being the odd man out because he’s not a better ball-runner than Wighton, and not a better ball-player than Sezer. For now though, Sezer spends time out of position and the Raiders struggle.
It’s only the first game, and the Raiders showed enough positives that fans shouldn’t get disheartened. But if the discipline, ball-handling and defensive issues aren’t fixed quickly, it could be a long season.