There was a lot of anticipation behind the 2018 AGL National Championships and boy did this game deliver! After copping a huge reality check in their last meeting, the Wolfpack came into this one looking to defend their home turf and prove that their last meeting with the Raiders was something to be forgotten. With new state coach, Jason Ray at the helm, the boys in blue let their Defense come out and set the tone at the opening whistle. The Raiders relied early on the run game behind their feature back RB Vince Vilicano but were unsuccessful in getting much yards against the big NSW D line, led by DE Tim Clulow. Raiders QB Ben Gastarov then looked to the air but was shut down by the NSW secondary, leading to a 3 & out for the lads from the west.
After the punt, the Wolfpack came out with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove. The offence was led by (my boy!) QB Mark Shoebridge and NSW looked to focus on a run heavy offense, lining up in a 2-back set. The first 2 offensive plays for the Wolfpack were quickly blown up by the Raiders fast D, forcing Shoebridge to pass on 3rd down. This proved to be a blessing in disguise as Shoebridge rolled out of the pocked to the right and fired down the field. The play looked to be blown up by the WA secondary, however they could not get a handle on the ball and it popped up perfectly for Eamonn Akamarmoi to catch and take it in for the opening TD. It looked like the free safety dropped down and was involved in the pile up, so Akamarmoi was able to cruise in easily for the Wolfpack’s opening TD.
The next few series were back and forth between the two sides, trading blows and tackles before the Raiders got on the scoreboard. This came in the form of a Safety; the first safety I’ve seen in AGL competition in a while. WA kept NSW from picking up a first down and forced a punt on their own 10-yard line. Wolfpack LB Daniel Pearson stepped up to snap the ball to P/K Cameron McEvoy, but with the wind down in Corrimal, Pearson snapped the ball over McEvoy’s head and it rolled through the back of the end zone for the score. Obviously not a good start for the NSW Special Teams.
Going into the second quarter, the game continued going back and forth with neither team gaining the upper hand. WA punted the ball to NSW and S Mitch Hunt fought through the gunners to bring the ball out at the 10-yard line. This would prove to be costly for the Wolfpack as on 3rd down, and after receiving penalties that put them back on their 1-yard line, RD Christian Gaitau was tackled by WA LB’s Jonathon Bielawicz and Jarrod Bennetts, in his own end zone for the second Safety of the game, bringing the score to 7-4.
In the second half, the momentum shifted towards the Raiders. Their experience came into play as they moved the ball well in the second stanza. Gastarov led his boys down the field to a 2nd & Goal on NSW’s 4-yard line. Gastarov dropped back into the pocket and looked to hit WR Blake Marklew on a quick slant for the score. This was quickly stopped by NSW LB Daniel Pearson who picked the ball inside his own end zone. Pearson, with the help of an entire blue shirt convoy, ran the ball back for a 100-yard pick 6; very James Harrison-esque. And if anyone was on the WA sideline, they would have heard the HUGE block by Timmy Clulow who absolutely blew up WA RT AJ Wright (who was hauling ass after Pearson, props for an O-Lineman!) and helped NSW score. A completely unnecessary flag for excessive celebration and a missed PAT later, the Wolfpack led the Raiders 13-4.
This must have really fired up the Raiders O, as they came out guns blazing in the next series. Gastarov utilized deep passes to move the ball well and get his boys down the field, before finding WR Luke Hegney on a seam pass. Hegney took the catch and was able to bring the score to within 3. Hegney was the hero again on the PAT, which brought the score to within 1 point. Some strong D by the Raiders kept the Wolfpack at bay, and going into the final quarter, the Raiders had some momentum behind them.
WA’s final scoring series was short, sharp, but sweet. A good punt return by Daniel Strickland set up the Raiders on their own 45-yard line. With only 1:40 to play, the Wolfpack secondary expected Gastarov to go for broke. DB Joey Donaghy dropped back deep to cover any go routes, while the WA receivers lined up in a stack set. Luke Hegney used this space to his advantage, running a quick 3-yard hitch route and running the ball out on the NSW 24-yard line. The NSW D held strong in the following 3 downs, forcing the Raiders to decide to attempt a 34-yard Field Goal or try to convert a 4th and 10. Blake Marklew stepped up for his state and slotted an extremely contested FG, getting the first lead in the entire game for his Raiders and making the next 90 seconds a highly tense one.
NSW came out in their final series and attempted to move the ball on the ground and get the ball out so they can manage the clock. Unfortunately for them, an incredibly strong WA D kept the Wolfpack inside the field of play and forced HC Jason Ray to use all 3 of his remaining time outs. The final play came down to QB Jordan Nikora, coming in under centre to find a blue shirt in amongst the sea of black, to get a first down and put NSW in a position to score. In all fairness, Nikora could have done that and won the game for NSW, but a very fast and powerful Raiders D Line penetrated the pocket and forced Nikora to get rid of the ball a lot quicker than he anticipated. The ball floated up towards a crowd of players but WA DB and savior Luke Middleton picked the pass off and ran the ball out to close out the contest.
All in all, what a cracker of an opening game for the AGL. Congrats to the Raiders and commiserations to my boys at the Wolfpack. This weekend, the Wolfpack travels to South Australia to take on the Sharks, whilst the Raiders will enjoy a week off and prepare for the Sharks in the following week. Stay tuned for my recap of the Victoria Eagles vs South Australia Sharks game tomorrow.