The Canberra Raiders 20-19 loss to the New Zealand Warriors isn’t forgivable or forgettable. This season is quickly becoming some horrid, recurring nightmare. Each week they lead. Each week they lose in the most harrowing way possible.
This loss is the kind that defines players, seasons and careers. Leading 19-12 with 4 minutes to go the Raiders knew what they had to do to win. They knew that the previous two losses made the stakes higher this week. But they capitulated, destroyed by a mixture of fitness, game awareness and defensive structures.
The heart aches for the players. My sympathies are with the fans. There’s a darkness hanging over this side now and it will take a mammoth effort to fix it. This game alone would be hard to stomach. On the back of two other heart-wrenching losses it’s borderline cruel. This is the kind of loss that leads to people tearing up tickets and burning jerseys.
A short story about this game can be told in the defensive efforts of the last two sets of the game. You may remember this as when the game went from ‘I hope we can hold on’ to ‘I hope I don’t drink my bodyweight to numb the pain’.
The Warriors ran the exact same set of plays on both. They swept to the right to get the metres. They followed this with a centreing hit up, and then kicked an unbelievably unpressed field goal.
Two sets. In a row. Game on the line. Exactly the same plays. Exactly the same result.
It says so much about the endemic nature of the Raiders defensive problems.
Metres were made by simply running their sweep movement at Blake Austin’s edge. I have said before there’s a problem of structure and strategy here. But there’s no doubt that sides attack Austin and Williams as the weaknesses in the Raiders line. The Warriors made mountains of metres by attacking these edges all day. When the game was on the line they again hit these edges and the Raiders had no answer.
Then after those metres were made, the rest of the side was unable to show the necessary line-speed to stop next hit up or pressure the kick. The winning field goal came on the back of a tackle where a Warriors forward ran the ball a full 12-15 metres before contact. It was hardly an isolated incident. The Raiders line-speed has never been good, and in was at its worst when the game mattered today. Easy 70 metre sets with the game on the line are not how winning football is played.
Both field goals came with next to no one pressuring Shaun Johnson. It was astounding to see the space around him. It was disheartening to see how far they were from either field goal.
Fitness. Game awareness. Defensive structures. These are all to blame. But they have all been problems before today. They were problems before this season. They will be problems tomorrow.
You might hope the Green Machine learnt lessons from this loss. The play of Siliva Havili continues to impress, almost as much as Sticky’s unwillingness to play him rankles. His service improves with every game and his defence in the middle is physical. He’s a willing kicker and his decisions to run the ball are excellent, like when scored the Raiders first through a well-made run out of dummy-half. He should play as many minutes as he is capable. That he won’t is a poor reflection on Stuart.
Stuart also needs to decide who his best two halves are and let them play. I think Aidan Sezer is one. Not just because Havili is a better hooker (that is an understatement) but because Sezer is the Raiders best attacking and defensive half. Sezer takes the line on more than Williams, and is a better ball-player than Austin. Today he nearly scored and was only held up by the amazing abilities of Roger Tuivasa-Shek. He looked comfortable splitting the field with Williams, and the right-side attack looked more coordinated than in recent weeks. When he moved into dummy-half the Raiders attack became more frantic, relying on the brilliance of outside backs rather than any work done by the halves.
In defence though is where Sezer stands out. In the first 20 minutes the Warriors barely ran the ball to his side, focusing instead on Williams’ edge. When he moved to the middle New Zealand attacked both edges with glee.
The corollary of this is what to do with Austin. His defence remains problematic at best. Three of his kicks today were frankly not of first grade standard (although two ended in Raiders points or possession). He can either pass or run, but it’s becoming rarer to see him do both. He remains devastating in open field, and is a brilliant support player. But I’m not sure he adds more than his counterparts in the halves.
What is even more clear is that the experiment with Sezer at hooker has to end. The attack grinds to a halt when he moves into the middle. His presence in the middle seems to strip Williams of any agency on his side. Sezer clearly finds it harder to read the game from the middle, and often sends the ball to the wrong side of the field. There was more than one occasion in this game where a Raiders attacking set ended limply because Sezer sent the ball int the wrong direction. It’s a shame. Rumours abound that Sezer is intent on leaving for Canterbury soon, and its hard not to think that forcing him to play out of position is driving that. But I am not confident Coach Stuart thinks likewise.
Its all the more saddening given a number of individual performances were excellent. BJ Leilua (129 all-run metres) was simply astounding today, particularly given the quick turnaround from what seemed like a serious ankle injury last week. His break that resulted in the Raiders second try was beastly, and he repeated the dose throughout the game, turning otherwise dead sets into metre-eaters.
NIc Cotric was also excellent. How he managed to barge through fourbdefenders to score the Raiders third try is almost as confusing as how he managed to shake about 8 defenders in his pre half-time run that set up the Raiders field goal.Shannon Boyd (12 runs for 119m) continued his form this season, and was joined by the inspirational Sia Soliola (12 for 121m) and Elliot Whitehead (12 for 108m and 37 tackles) in a hard working pack.
But these positive were vastly outweighed by the frankly inexcusable effort at the end of the game. The Raiders could have won that game easily. But instead a combination of fitness, awareness and structure confounded them to yet another heartbreaking loss.
These problems have existed before today and have not been fixed. Coach Stuart will provide reasons and excuses. But it’s hard to take them seriously when the issues that plague the side are so omnipresent each week. Can they fix their fitness, awareness or defensive strucutres? Today presented them an opportunity they failed to take. Three games into this season and the Raiders are struggling to breath.