A good night for the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys in Townsville, outlasting the Vodafone Warriors...
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The 2011 season began with a bang for the Canberra Raiders. Spirits were the highest they'd been in years following the successful 2010 campaign (equal fifth) - and the Raiders had made a few key signings in the off season to strengthen their roster. Star five eighth Terry Campese was to miss the first twelve rounds with an injury sustained in 2010, but there was still a wave of optimism amongst supporters following their Round One 40-12 thrashing of the Cronulla Sharks.
The Raiders would not taste victory for another two months after a horror eight match losing streak floored their season before it had even really started. Amongst these losses was a crucial Round Four defeat by the Gold Coast Titans. The Raiders led by six points with a minute to go, and only had to retain possession from their scrum feed to close out the game and get back to a 2-2 record. Halfback Matt Orford knocked on at the base of the scrum and the Titans scored from the ensuing turnover. The Titans then kicked a field goal in golden point to send the Raiders crashing to a demoralising loss.
Following the Raiders eight match losing streak they managed to upset the star studded Melbourne Storm. It was the Raiders first win in Melbourne since 2000 - and one of the high points of the season for the side. Promising winger Blake Ferguson scored a miracle chip and chase try down the sideline late in the match to seal the unlikely win - and end the Raiders losing streak at eight matches.
A brief midseason resurgence saw the Raiders move from the foot of the ladder for a brief period. Terry Campese returned from injury in Round Thirteen for all of ten minutes before suffering a season ending groin injury, capping a shocking season on the injury front for the Raiders. A stunning last minute victory against the St George Dragons was the highlight - with Josh Dugan scoring on the last play of the game to snatch the win.
As the season wound down the Raiders put in several forgettable performances to send off retiring captain Alan Tongue on a six match losing streak. The Raiders narrowly avoided their first wooden spoon since their inaugural season in 1982, finishing ahead of the Titans solely on for and against.
The Raiders horror injury toll managed to give several young players a chance in first grade that they wouldn't have seen in a typical season. Nathan Massey, Josh Papalii and Sam Williams all impressed at stages in their first season in the top grade. All three look set to enjoy long NRL careers.
The Raiders poor performance at home was the biggest disappointment of 2011. Even in their leanest years Canberra Stadium was seen as one of the toughest road trips in the NRL. In 2011 the Raiders stumbled to a 4-8 record at home - the first time they have failed to win at least half their home games since 2001. The Raiders also endured a horror run of injuries - with Campese, Dugan, Shillington and Learoyd-Lahrs all missing large portions of the season.
Shaun Fensom led the way for the Raiders in 2012 - clocking up 1135 tackles over the season and proving a steady ball runner in attack. He continues to look like a future captain in the making. Josh McCrone was among the Raiders best in every match they competed in - if he can improve his consistency in 2012 it will be a massive boost for the squad. Brett White also finished the year strongly in his first season with the Raiders.
Sam Williams and Josh Papalii were the standout rookies for the Raiders in 2011. Young halfback Williams started with a bang in the big Round One win against the Sharks. With the injuries to Campese and Orford he played the majority of the season in first grade. Williams struggled at times with the step up to first grade - but given he is only twenty years old that was to be expected. Papalii is a promising second rower who impressed with his early appearances and even managed to land a spot in the Kiwis train on squad for the Four Nations. He looks a certainty to play for the Kiwis in the near future.
2012 is very much a make or break season for the Raiders current setup. Another underperforming year will see pressure coming from all corners on coach David Furner.
With the sole signing of Shaun Berrigan being the extent of the Raiders recruitment they will be relying on Terry Campese to hit the ground running on return from injury. That Campese will improve the Raiders is a given - it's just a matter of how much his influence can rub off on the rest of the squad.
An official review of the Raiders took place over August and September with the goal of developing a high performance culture at the club, 2012 will show if this first steps in this endeavour has been successful. Realistically a finish in or around the fringes of the top eight will be seen as a success following the dire 2011 campaign.
Best Line-up for 2012
1 - Josh Dugan, 2 - Blake Ferguson, 3 - Jarrod Croker, 4 - Shaun Berrigan, 5 - Reece Robinson, 6 - Terry Campese (c), 7 - Josh McCrone, 8 - Brett White, 9 - Glen Buttriss, 10 - David Shillington, 11 - Josh Papalii, 12 - Bronson Harrison, 13 - Shaun Fensom
Interchange: 14 - Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, 15 - Dane Tilse, 16 - Joel Thompson, 17 - Travis Waddell