Bulldogs v Raiders: Five Key Points
An insipid second half from Canberra has seen them throw away a gilt-edged chance to take two points from an injury-hit Canterbury side, who showed remarkable resolve to finish over the top of Canberra 16-10 at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
No Graham, no worries
Bulldogs skipper James Graham has been a pillar of strength for the blue and whites this year, mounting some monumental numbers in big minutes. The big Englishman has churned through 145 metres and 40 tackles from around 60 high-quality minutes each week this season, so when he was concussed in just the 14th minute it left a gigantic hole in Des Hasler's forward rotation.
A huge chunk of that workload was taken on by veteran prop Aiden Tolman, who got through the full 80 minutes in the middle, including over 200 metres and 39 tackles. Young back-rower Adam Elliot put in his first ever 80-minute stint at NRL level, adding two tries to his 27 tackles and 81 metres.
Josh Jackson put in a typically robust 80 minutes with 38 tackles and 108 metres while lock David Klemmer was also asked to play bigger minutes, running for 185 metres in his 66 minutes.
Strength becomes a weakness for Raiders
Plenty has been spoken about Canberra's potent right edge causing headaches for defensive lines across the NRL but those same players proved a critical weakness for the Green Machine defensively on Saturday.
All three Bulldogs tries were put past the Elliott Whitehead-Blake Austin-Joey Leilua-Jordan Rapana four-man combo, with the huge gaps and poor reads between Austin and Leilua of particular concern. Bulldogs back-rower Elliot scored twice; he beat Austin one-on-one for his first and ran untouched straight between a flat-footed Austin and Leilua for his second. In between Leilua was embarrassed by a big Josh Morris step for the Dogs' other try.
The hot-and-cold Leilua had a particularly off night, missing a total of eight tackles as well as producing two errors while Rapana (six misses and two errors) and Austin (six misses) also had forgettable nights.
Morris twins wind back the clock
Canterbury's Morris twins, Brett and Josh, are officially on the "wrong" side of 30 as far as outside backs are concerned but clearly no-one has told the brothers because they were again in vintage form on Saturday.
While their forwards were muscling up to cover for Graham's loss, playing big minutes and laying a platform, Brett and Josh were showing the sort of desperation that has netted the pair a combined 24 Tests and 25 Origin appearances.
In raw numbers, Brett (eight tackle busts, two offloads, 127 metres) and Josh (one try, seven tackle busts, four offloads, 163 metres) were mighty effective. But even those admittedly startling figures don't capture the value of plays like the one they produced in the 27th minute.
A poor kick-chase from Canterbury allowed Raiders half Aidan Sezer to streak into space and with plenty of support, a Raiders try looked inevitable but Brett raced after him and forced a rushed pass to a supporting Austin, where Josh's equally-desperate try-saving chase forced another pass that couldn't be collected by Rapana and the Morris twins had saved yet another try for the Dogs.
Cotric's game-changer a silver lining
If there was any good news for Raiders fans out of a dire loss it was the continuing impressive form of teenage winger Nick Cotric.
The blockbusting 18-year-old produced a piece of magic that swung the game Canberra's way after Canterbury had opened the scoring. With a second blue-and-white try begging, Cotric rushed up to shut down a play and somehow held on to a remarkable intercept, managing not only to cleanly grab the ball in an instant but stay on his feet and race downfield to set the Dogs on the back foot.
It turned a likely Canterbury try into a Raiders' attacking chance and he was at it again later in the half, roaming mid-field from a kick-return then engaging the afterburners to split the Dogs' line and race downfield. This time it did lead to a try, with Josh Hodgson finishing off a length-of-the-field movement two plays later to score under the posts.
Cotric finished the night with 147 metres and seven tackle busts, proving once again he is a star of the future.
Injury worries for club and country
Graham's concussion will be monitored through the week and while he should be fine for Canterbury's next game in a fortnight, his immediate availability for England against Samoa next Saturday will come under threat depending how he pulls up.
Kangaroos prop Shannon Boyd played just 24 minutes at the start of the game before being subbed off and not returning. His coach Ricky Stuart said it was an injury to "the back of his lower leg" though appeared to not realise Boyd had been called up by Australia to replace clubmate Josh Papalii after he was dropped following a DUI case.
"I don't know [if he'll be able to play next week], I'd have to talk to the doctor," Stuart said.
"Hopefully it doesn't for Shannon's sake. Is he in the 17 now? OK, so hopefully it doesn't for his sake."
A first-half hamstring injury to Bulldogs star Josh Reynolds won't affect next weekend's rep round after the City Origin-eligible five-eighth's club pulled its players from City-Country selection – however it could have big ramifications for Canterbury.
"For Josh to leave the field it would have to be pretty serious but they'll be assessed by the doc," Hasler said.
"It will be something between a grade one and a grade three."