Raiders Review: Another Step to Relevance

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders 18-2 victory over the hapless Parramatta Eels was another step back to relevance in 2018. The green machine earned this victory in a similar manner to the victory over the Bulldogs: suffocating defence and an attack well-lead by Aidan Sezer and Siliva Havili. Faced with a season on the precipice, the men from the capital have begun the slow march back into this competition. They still have flaws (and may never fix them). But for now, they are simply out-working them.

source: Mark Nolan

I would caution against considering the Raiders pathway northwards on the competition ladder as inevitable. The Raiders were again excellent in all phases of play, but the Eels were equally hopeless. Their attack is constrained by their small forwards’ inability to earn any metres or momentum in sets – they were manhandled by the Raiders bigger, more aggressive forwards. As each set failed to gain an advantage, their backs try to create without space. The appearance of disharmony between Moses and Norman is as much a symptom of their forwards weakness as their own impatience.

But you can only beat who is front of you, and the Raiders did exactly that. I honestly can’t remember the last time the Raiders kept a side tryless[1]. Much like last week they took huge periods of presence on their line and didn’t crack. Over the years it’s often felt almost inevitable that repeat sets on the Raiders line would mean points so the strength of this goal-line defence has been refreshing these last two weeks.

The difference in the defence of the forwards between week six and week four is astounding. For the second week in a row the Raiders A, B and C defenders were enthusiastic in their line speed. Sia Soliola seems to have made this his personal mission. His work has been tireless, and he was still rushing up on ball-runners well into the last minutes of the game. He was ably supported by Siliva Havili, Elliot Whitehead and Jo Tapine, and this created a bulwark in the middle of the park that the Eels couldn’t crack.

The Raiders defence still has its weaknesses – Blake Austin was improved in the game but is hardly solid on the right edge. His communication with BJ Leilua is still patchy at best, and Leilua nearly created a try for the Eels with a suicide sprint out of the line. It remains to be seen whether the Raiders can hold out more threatening offenses than the anodyne attacks the Eels and Bulldogs have thrown at them, but one can’t argue with recent results.

With the ball Sezer was again astounding, particularly in driving the Raiders’ bus in the first half. Interestingly, the Raiders have shifted to what is probably best described as ‘split five-eighths’. Blake Austin plays as second receiver on the right edge, Jack Wighton his equivalent on the left. Sezer swings between both as the first receiver, completely in control of the attack.

This is much preferable to what had been seen early in the year and it has shown these last two weeks. [2] Sezer was again brilliant, particularly with the boot – his kicking close to the line should have created a try for Jordan Rapana, and earned repeat sets for the Raiders. His passing was equally good – he nearly put Elliot Whitehead through a gap that barely existed. Later he made an excellent decision to run it on the last and put Austin on the outside of the Eels edge defenders. Austin’s good work to step inside the oncoming defence to score the Raiders second try was only possible because of Sezer’s slick service and good decision-making.

The dual five-eighths both had their moments. Austin is clearly happiest running, and did so for good results early. He got himself involved in the game but didn’t take away from Sezer’s control. He had several effective kicks on the right edge, particularly in the first half. But he still hasn’t worked out how to run and pass at the line – there was at least one occasion in the second half where Leilua and Jordan Rapana were ignored as Austin stepped inside an overlap. He can only seem to get them the ball either too early or not at all.

For his part Wighton was impressive as the second-receiver on the left edge. He is a threatening ball runner and is suited to the binary decision of pass v run. In the first half he worked well with Sezer, but in the second half he pushed a few passes that may have been better held, and this resulted in the Raiders not getting any points while they had a player advantage.

But this victory wouldn’t have happened without Siliva Havili. Running the attack through Sezer relied on a hooker giving him space by taking running metres when they were available and focusing on safe service to his forwards. Havili has done this in spades. He took 103 metres running in this game. He often jumps into this space and puts forwards over the advantage line before they even touch the ball. Junior Paulo (14 runs for 122m) and Josh Papalii (16 for 147m) were noticeable beneficiaries of this. Each got big runs because Havili created an easy ten with a few threatening steps.

But more than just simple run and service, Havili is showing good creativity around the ruck. He put Papalii in for the try that sealed the match, and a break he made through the middle of the ruck should have resulted in points for Leilua. His work around the ruck was the driving force of the Raiders attack in the second half. They look more targeted and more organised when he is on the field. Even when Hodgson does return the Raiders would do well to hold on to Havili.

Two in a row was critical for the Raiders to start the long path back to relevance in 2018. While they haven’t fixed all of their problems they have out-enthused them in the last two weeks. When problems have presented themselves they have stood up. Last week it was simply tackling when they no longer had breath. This game was easier, but they continued to work through the whole game and seemed to take pride in an un-breached line.

Things get harder over the next few weeks, but the Raiders can ill afford to drop off the pace. Hard work is a good start but against better sides trying hard isn’t enough. After an atrocious start to the season they have dusted themselves off and taken two steps back towards relevance. Here’s hoping they can keep on marching.

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[1] According to everyone’s favourite twitter account, @randomfootyfacts it was round 19, 2013, also against Parramatta

[2] For the record, we said this is how the team should operate when Josh Hodgson hurt himself last November. Maybe Sticky needs to read the blog hey?

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