The Canberra Raiders 30-28 loss to the Newcastle Knights was another frustrating loss in a close match. Much like last week there were several performances that should give Raiders fans heart. But this game also revealed substantial structural issues in the Raiders spine that, if unaddressed, will leave the Raiders looking up at the 8 come seasons end.
In the offseason much was made of the need for the Raiders forward pack to perform better in 2018. Shannon Boyd in particular spoke of his desire to improve and regain his spot in the Australian team. His start to 2018 has been impressive. He had 120 metres tonight and every hit up he took shook the Knights line and injected momentum into Raiders sets. In defence he monstered the Knights ball-runners on multiple occasions. He has been steller up front so far this season. It makes Stuart’s choice to limit him to less than 40 minutes in both games a serious error.
Several other forwards were impressive. Sia Soliola (9 for 68) played huge minutes, made 40 tackles and was effective when he carried. Perennially underrated Elliot Whitehead (11 for 83) was the Horace Grant of the Raiders, doing all the dirty work needed, shifting to centre when BJ Leilua hurt his ankle early, making critical tackles and backing up both Jordan Rapana and Junior Paulo to benefit from their good work to score twice. Charlie Gubb (5 for 47) and Dunamis Lui (16 for 128) were excellent in their spell through the middle of the game. There was one set where they each took two hit ups, driving the Raiders down the field through the small Knights middle that emerged when Watson moved to hooker to allow Brock Lamb on the field. It is pleasing to see hard-working depth in the forwards, something that has lacked in previous years.
Siliva Havili, while not as dynamic as last week showed he is continuing to impress at hooker. His work with Sia and Boyd close to the line just off the ruck, while not perfect, revealed a burgeoning rapport that will resLate in the game he came on to play lock. I’d prefer him to play at nine, but he showed an ability to run the ball, and even snuck the offload that lead to the Raiders last try.
Jack Wighton with the ball in hand is the Raiders biggest threat on sweeping plays. His pass to Jordan Rapana (who, of course was excellent again) for the Raiders first try was a perfect decision, and he continually made the right decision with ball in hand.
The Raiders halves had nights they would like to forget. Both spent more time tonight running at corner posts, rarely running straight and challenging the line. Sam Williams showed none of the perspicacity of his round one performance. He rarely took on the line, and more often than not just happily shuffled the ball on. His 40/20 was excellent, and his kick for Rapana that ended in the Raiders second try was also quality, but on more occasions than he would like his kicks settled in the hands of the Knights back three on the full. On the occasion he kicked out of the full (he didn’t) it still reflected a frankly bizarre decision to kick for touch from the blindside rather than put up an attacking kick, or to take more metres. For a player brought into the side the better organise and control the side he did little of either, and the Raiders looking increasingly unstructured and disorganised as the game wore on. Aidan Sezer’s presence around the ruck seems to quieten his influence – ironic given Sezer had so often found it hard to get his voice heard in the past.
Williams’ halves partner Blake Austin had some moments – running the ball late in the first half, playing off Sezer late in the second to set up the Raiders final try – that showed the best of his ability. And to be fair to him late in the game he showed on a couple occasions he has an ability to ‘do the right thing’ – like putting the ball into touch on several occasions to settle the Raiders play.
For his part Sezer was again admirable but limited in at 9. In an effort to counteract his slow service he jumped out of dummy-half on several occasiosn to try to take metres before he was ready to pass. This was effective, and he looked dangerous on several ocacsiosn, but it is much easier for defences to read where the ball is going when the 9 is taking it there. He is yet to master ‘showing’ one side and sending it to the other, and one feels as a makeshift rake it’s unlikely he ever will. He remains a fine option as a backup, but given he is playing 50 plus minutes there a game now, it is problematic.
But more problematic than the lack of direction was the way the Knights exposed both Williams and Austin in defence. The Raiders defence at the best of times is a inconsistent affair. Notably the tendency for the line to either hold, retreat, or slide too early, is incredibly problematic. This is something that has plagued the Raiders for the entirety of the Stuart regime and does not look like abetting. This lack of movement opens up the defence to be exploited by good ballplayers, and individual players are called on to make critical reads.
Both Williams and Austin were routinely exposed in this task. The Knights first try came from an appalling read from Austin when Aidan Guerra strolled through between Papalii and Croker. Austin should have been in that hole but instead was trying to tackle someone Papalii had already wrapped up. The next try saw Kalyn Ponga draw Williams into turning his body to come in an help Sia Soliola. Lachlan Fitzgibbon strolled in through the gap Williams created. Austin again was to blame on the game deciding try when he shot out of the line to try and shut down a raid and was nowhere near the ball player. In the second half the Knights basically took 3 hit ups and then sent the ball at the Raiders right edge defence, where Elliot Whitehead and Sam Williams coulnd’t shut down several raids. While BJ Leilua’s absence didn’t help, the Raiders line was routinely backpeddling, creating the space that Mitchell Pearce needed to create momentum.
Fixing both the and the spine’s clunky attack and inadequate defence will take some work form Coach Stuart and the Williams, Austin and Sezer. But the Raiders can’t afford to be 0-3 if they play on playing finals footy this year. Stuart suggested in the press conferences he knows what has to be done for the Raiders to start winning. Now it’s up to him to do so.