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NRL Friday Night Forecast: Raiders vs Sea Eagles

Blake Austin will make his return against the Panthers. (Photo: NRL images)
Roar Guru
2nd June, 2016
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1672 Reads

With the dust settling on yet another State of Origin classic (note that all State of Origin games are automatically “classics” despite this one being an utter bludger of a game) we return to the more mundane arena of club football.

What better way to symbolise the drop from the perpetual hype machine of Origin back to the reality of club football than a Friday night game in Canberra, a city that the NRL forgets about most of the time?

Friday night footy!
» North Melbourne vs Richmond: Friday Night Forecast
» Origin is great – it’s also a crass sell-out
» What the hell? Bin the tank talk
» The talking points: Weird mid-season rugby-free weekend

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The Raiders enter the game in a very unusual position. They’re well in the eight and yet they’ve actually played pretty badly for the most part.

If you had told a typical Raiders fan that, after 12 rounds, the team would be sitting in sixth position on the ladder, they would probably have assumed that the team was playing error-free football and performing much better in the sort of close and late situations in which the team faltered in 2015.

The hypothetical fan would probably also reasonably assumed that the team was getting key contributions from the new halves pairing of Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer and that Jack Wighton was flourishing at the back.

Not so. The reality is that the team has the second highest error rate in the competition, has been almost as awful in close and late situations as last year and Sezer, Austin and especially Wighton have all been mostly disappointing. Yet somehow the team reaches the halfway point in the season well inside the eight and with a genuine opportunity over the State of Origin period to push their claims for a top-four spot.

Meanwhile, for the Sea Eagles 2016 has been a mostly stop-start season as injury after injury has ruined any chance new head coach Trent Barrett has of putting his stamp on the team and rebuilding in the post-Foran era.

The team has only three players who have played all eleven games thus far (Lewis Brown, Nate Myles and Siosaia Vave) and the constant chopping and changing is reflected in the team’s current 12th spot on the ladder.

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More recently the news has been all bad with the team entering tonight’s contest on a three game losing streak after a brutal stretch in which they played the Cowboys, Broncos and Sharks in succession. The team’s last win was way back on Anzac Day.

Team Sheet

Raiders Positions Sea Eagles
Jack Wighton Fullback Brett Stewart
Brenko Lee Left Winger Brayden Williame
Jarrod Croker Left Centre Steve Matai
Joey Leilua Right Centre Dylan Walker
Jordan Rapana Right Winger Tom Trbojevic
Aidan Sezer Left Half Daly Cherry-Evans
Blake Austin Right Half Jamie Lyon
Shannon Boyd Prop Darcy Lussick
Josh Hodgson Hooker Matt Parcell
Joseph Tapine Prop Nate Myles
Josh Papalii Left Second-Row Lewis Brown
Elliot Whitehead Right Second-Row Jamie Buhrer
Luke Bateman Lock Jake Trbojevic
Kurt Baptiste Interchange Apisai Korisau
Clay Priest Interchange Josh Starling
Sio Soliola Interchange Brenton Lawrence
Paul Vaughan Interchange Siosasa Vave

Starting with the home team and Ricky Stuart has named a significantly different side to that which overcame the Bulldogs on Sunday. However, the reality is there is little to no chance this is the team that runs out for the Raiders tonight.

We’ll start with the one change that is solid. That is the selection of Brenko Lee on the left wing to replace his cousin Edrick. The older Lee tore his hamstring on the loping 60-metre try-scoring run which took the Raiders almost out of reach of the Bulldogs on Sunday before Joseph Tapine danced his way to the match-sealing try in the 77th minute.

Speaking of Tapine, the former Knight has for the time being been promoted to the starting line-up in recognition of his outstanding impact against the Dogs. The same also goes for Luke Bateman whose energetic carries in the second half set the tone for the Raiders fightback. Bateman has been named at lock with Shaun Fensom set for a “rest.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Lima has been sent to reserve grade only two weeks after returning from injury with firebrand Mounties prop Clay Priest to get another crack at first grade. Finally, Josh Papalii has been named to back up from State of Origin with Sia Soliloa to join Paul Vaughan on the bench.

But chances are a lot of that will change. For starters there is one colossal, in both a literal and figurative sense, omission from the named team and that is the recently recruited Junior Paulo who will almost certainly be drafted in for his first game in lime green if his new contract can be registered in time.

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Beyond that, it would be very strange if Shannon Boyd starts the game after a sluggish performance against the Dogs and don’t rule out Paulo jumping straight into the starting team. Other changes such as Papalii starting on the bench are also in play.

For the Eagles, there are only two changes to the 17 that lost to the Sharks in Round 11 with the return of Steve Matai at left centre and Apisai Koroisau on the bench. Nate Myles has also been named to start as he backs up from Origin but don’t be surprised if he is shuffled to the bench.

The team remains without key cornrow buddies Jorge Taufua and Martin Taupau. Taupau’s absence is unfortunate as it will rob them of an opportunity to target the Raiders right edge defence with a power game the way that Greg Eastwood exploited it on Sunday afternoon. Lewis Brown, who will deputise for Taupau at left second row, is a fine player but he is not in the mould of Taupau.

What to watch for
One of the most exciting developments for the Raiders in 2016 has been the spectacular right flank partnership between Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana.

The duo has now contributed 14 tries, 19 line breaks, nine try assists and ten line break assists between them. Rapana’s 15 line breaks leads the competition and Leilua’s nine line break assists are far and away the most by a non-spine player. They are also each averaging over six tackle breaks per game.

Leilua has also contributed a truly astonishing 35 offloads in only ten appearances and is on track to have 84 for the season if he plays all remaining club games. That would be the most any player has had since Feleti Mateo had 85 for the Warriors in 2011, although that included four finals games as the Warriors surged to the grand final.

In short they are a pair of tackle-busting, line-breaking, try scoring agents of destruction and probably the most fearsome duo since Tango and Cash.

But in defence? Unfortunately, that is a different story.

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As has been the case for several years the Raiders edge defence, on both the left and the right, remains very poor. This week we will look at some recent failings on the right side which also includes Blake Austin, but it’s worth noting that it would be just as easy if not easier to dredge up similarly embarrassing still shots of the left edge being shredded in earlier rounds.

The central problem, and it is one that many teams struggle with, is outside defenders knowing when to come in and when to slide out. This first series of shots demonstrates an example of the right edge as a unit collapsing inwards when they arguably didn’t have to and creating an opportunity for the Bulldogs to score.

This image is from early in the first half and as we pick it up we can see that, for the time being, it is a simple four on four assuming that Jack Wighton can get off his line and intercept Greg Eastwood who has the ball in hand.

raidersedge1

If everyone stays on his man and they work from the inside out they should be able to snuff this attack out.

As we wind the play on, however, we see that not only has Austin come in on Eastwood, Leilua is also drifting in towards the big Kiwi and Curtis Rona, who is running a hard outside-in line.

raidersedge2

Ideally in this situation, Austin would have left Wighton to cover Eastwood and focussed on Rona, thereby allowing Leilua to stay out to cover the sweep play from Sam Perrett at the back.

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That way we could avoid the following situation where Jordan Rapana has been left facing a two on one.

raidersedge3

As the play continued Perrett was able to finish drawing in Rapana before passing out to Reimis Smith to score on debut.

This wasn’t the only time the Raiders right edge got pulled in when they arguably could have stayed out.

This next play comes from later in the first half and shows what happens when Sam Kasiano actually holds the ball and runs hard. As we pick it up in this first image, we can see Kasiano has pulled in several defenders to the far posts with the previous play. We can also see the Bulldogs have set up with a pet play where they attack in in single file Sandpeople style to hide their numbers (or maybe just to give themselves options).

raidersedge4

Yet even with the gravity of Kasiano drawing the defence to the middle of the field the Raiders still have an opportunity to slide across from the inside out and at the very least push this play out to the sideline.

Instead, they did this:

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raidersedge5

Everyone comes collapsing in on the ball carrier, giving Mbye plenty of space to float the ball over the top to Reimis Smith for his second try of the day.

None of this is new for the Raiders and, while we’ve looked at the right edge here, there have been several occasions this season in which it was the left edge defence of Aidan Sezer, Jarrod Croker and Edrick Lee that was getting smoked.

While edge defence on your own line can be challenging, the frequent problems the Raiders have defending these sorts of plays, and the apparent lack of agreed structure and communication, can only be a coaching problem. The team is never going to be able to realise their full potential if they cannot fix their defence.

So if the Raiders edge defence is a problem, who will be the intrepid Manly outside backs to exploit it? Well, that’s where we get to the biggest problem the Sea Eagles have experienced in 2016; the constant re-shuffling of their backline due to injuries and suspensions.

The following table paints a very unpleasant picture for the Eagles.

Right Half Left Half Right Wing Right Centre Left Centre Left Wing Fullback
Round 1 Cherry-Evans Walker Williame Lyon Matai Taufua Trbojevic
Round 2 Cherry-Evans Walker Williame Lyon Matai Taufua Trbojevic
Round 3 Cherry-Evans Walker Trbojevic Lyon Matai Taufua Stewart
Round 4 Cherry-Evans Walker Trbojevic Lyon Brown Taufua Stewart
Round 5 Koroisau Walker Trbojevic Lyon Matai Taufua Stewart
Round 6 Koroisau Walker Trbojevic Lyon Matai Taufua Stewart
Round 7 Koroisau Walker Trbojevic Lyon Matai Taufua Stewart
Round 8 Cherry-Evans Walker Trbojevic Lyon Matai Williame Stewart
Round 9 Cherry-Evans Godinet Wright Lyon Matai Williame Walker
Round 10 Cherry-Evans Walker Wright Lyon Brown Williame Trbojevic
Round 11 Lyon Cherry-Evans Wright Walker Trbojevic Williame Stewart

As you can see, the team has been beset by changes throughout the year. The only period of relative stability was the three games between rounds five and seven, however that period, while featuring the same seven players each week, was missing the ten million dollar man Daly Cherry-Evans. Not ideal. Overall, the team has used eleven players across the seven backline positions and no position has been occupied by the same player for all eleven games.

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Until recently, Jamie Lyon had enjoyed the most stability, playing the first ten games in a row at centre. But as hopes that Dylan Walker is ready for a full-time role in the halves receded, Lyon has instead been drafted into the right half slot with Daly Cherry-Evans sliding across to the left edge.

Meanwhile, Tommy Turbo Trbojevic has played fullback, right wing and left centre at different stages and looks set to return to the right wing tonight after last appearing there in Round 8.

Don’t be mistaken, there is plenty of talent in that table and many teams would be delighted to run out the backline the Sea Eagles will feature tonight. However, the constant changes make it extremely difficult to establish firm combinations in both attack and defence. Which will only make it harder to capitalise on the Raiders’ lacklustre edge defence.

First try scorer – Jordan Rapana
I tipped Rapana three weeks ago ahead of the Thursday night clash against the Dragons and I shall repeat the dose here. Much like my pledge with respect to selecting Corey Oates every time I get the opportunity, I am fairly comfortable saying that if I’m previewing a Raiders game and Jordan Rapana is playing then he is my man.

Prediction – Raiders
The Eagles have not been regular visitors to Canberra in recent years having only played four games on the Canberra Stadium permafrost in the last decade.

Many Raiders remember the Eagles’ last visit bitterly after a Brett Stewart try from an offside position in the dying minutes ended any hope the team had of playing finals football in 2015 (of course, many of those same fans conveniently forget the two soft as butter tries Jamie Lyon scored earlier in that game to put the Raiders in a position to lose in the first place).

However, with a superior and rejuvenated forward pack and Blake Austin inching his way back to full capacity, I expect the Raiders to have just enough to overcome an Eagles team who are unlikely to want to be there on cold Friday night two days after State of Origin.

Shoe in of the week
Were you aware that sometimes it gets cold in Canberra? No, really, it does. This will probably come up in commentary tonight.

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You can read the Thursday Night Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back the Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter.