Squad lists are in for the Semi Finals of #RLWC2017
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Expectations were high for the Green Machine heading into 2017, on the back of the club's most successful season since the Raiders last lifted the premiership trophy back in 1994.
Canberra entered 2017 on the second line of betting for the premiership and were favoured to really give this year's competition an almighty shake.
It has been a long time between drinks in the Nation's Capital and spirits were high, with the club's membership hitting a record high at 19,000 members. With the Raiders exciting and flashy brand of football putting bums on seats, the Raiders were primed to be a premiership force with strike power out wide to match any side try for try, complemented with one of the most physical forward packs in the NRL. Ricky Stuart's side looked on paper and on form to finally end the drought for their long suffering supporters.
However 2017 just didn't happen for the Raiders, in a season mixed with bad luck and poor execution when it mattered, Canberra just couldn't replicate their late season fire from 2016, to finish a disappointing 10th in 2017 and despite a minor revival late in the season, they never really threatened the chief contenders.
In many ways the Raiders Round 1 Golden Point loss to the Cowboys seemed to perfectly sum up the their season, with the side going on to lose an incredible four matches in Golden Point. Ricky Stuart's men worked hard and were right in the game with the scores locked at fulltime, when the Raiders Achilles heel, Golden Point reared its ugly head. The Cowboys charged into prime field position and the mercurial Jonathan Thurston takes a shot at field goal, which hits the crossbar, with the ball then failing to trickle over the dead-ball line and laying prone inches inside the field of play. The Raiders players didn't react quick enough and Cowboys second rower Gavin Cooper dives on the ball to score! It was a heartbreaking way to start the season, but the bounce of the ball continued to fall negatively for the Raiders throughout the season when things got tight.
Canberra struggled to get going early in the season, only managing to register their first win over the Tigers 42-10 in Round 3, before three consecutive wins helped them sit just on the edge of the Top 8, then followed three consecutive losses including a disappointing 34-20 loss to NRL wooden spooners' Newcastle in Round 10 having their fans on edge as they headed into the Origin period. This period proved to be a killer, with the side winning just three of their next eight matches and it seemed that the club were still relying on the red hot form of 2016 to re-emerge, with fans waiting for the Green Machine to start a late season run at the Top 8. Again they put on another string of three wins together late in the season, including a very impressive thrashing in Round 22 of the defending premiers the Sharks by 30-12 in their own backyard to keep their slim hopes alive. However the giant killing run never came, with Canberra slumping to another crucial home defeat to the Panthers in Round 24 to effectively halt their late revival.
The Raiders suffered one of the most remarkable losses in recent memory, when in their Round 14 at Carrington Park, Bathurst they let an eight point lead with 90 seconds left slip against the Panthers. Canberra were cruising to victory when the unthinkable happened, when the elusive Panthers lead by skipper Matt Moylan who managed to lay on two miracle tries to snatch an incredible victory in the dying seconds. The loss proved heartbreaking for the Green Machine's season, and with the loss in Bathurst coming off the back of their second Golden Point loss of the season to Manly, the Raiders went on a four game losing streak which left them with too much ground to make up to make the finals series in 2017.
Despite a poor season, the attack that saw them such a force was again there for all to see in 2017, with the Raiders still managing to finish fourth in the NRL in attack, managing 95 tries for the year. Try scoring was again dominated by Jordan Rapana (21) and Jarrod Croker (18), while Dally M Rookie of the Year, Nick Cotric (16) was also sensational, with the three outside backs combining for 52% of the teams' four pointers.
Before their breakout season last year, the Raiders had almost identical issues in 2015, where they lost seven matches by six points or less and their home record was below average. In 2017, they fell back into this trap, losing eight matches by six points or less, including four matches in Golden Point. They also only won 50% of the matches at GIO Stadium, with the majority of these matches played at night in freezing conditions. What clearly isn't working is their ability to close out tight matches and this role ultimately falls on the halves ability to control the plays at crucial times. If the Raiders are to emerge again in 2018 as a premiership force it will be imperative that Aidan Sezer, Blake Austin and Josh Hodgson make the right plays in attack, as most sides in the NRL can't match the Green Machine when it comes to their offence.
Jordan Rapana backed up his stellar 2016 season to rank as one of the best wingers in the NRL, with the Kiwi international scoring 21 tries and 24 line breaks, averaging a total of 144m per game. Rapana scored 2 tries or more on six occasions for the Raiders on the right wing, averaging 7 tackle busts per match. Rapana has now scored an incredible 44 tries in his last two seasons, ranking him among the most deadly finishers in the game.
Nick Cotric was named Dally M Rookie of the Year and rightly so. The Erindale College product was a breakout star for the Green Machine and their most devastating rookie player since Anthony Milford burst onto the scene in 2013. Just one year out of school, the 18 year old played every match for the Raiders in his debut season, ranking second in the NRL for tackle busts with 121, scoring 16 tries with 17 line breaks to boot, and all at an average of 108m per game. Cotric's statistics were outrageous for a debutant, firmly stamping himself as the next Raiders superstar and the youngster looks certain to be a future rep player of the future.
As mentioned the Raiders inability to close out close games ultimately falls back to their halves to control the games at crucial times. This is why the spine of your team is so important and why the halves in particular get paid the big bucks if they are capable of doing this on a consistent basis. Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer both had mixed seasons and with the return of local junior Sam Williams to the club, the pressure will be well and truly be on these two players in particular heading into 2018. They simply must take this team forward if they are to be contenders, and as history will show, you simply cannot win a premiership without at least one quality half running the show.
Cotric was obviously the standout rookie by the length of the straight in 2017. However there were also some good signs for the club moving forward with Royce Hunt making his debut in the top grade after some strong performances for Mounties in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership. The Bulldogs junior fits the frame of the Raiders' sizable pack and managed to make his debut against the Panthers in Round 14.
Canberra's feeder club Mounties finished fifth on the ISP ladder at the end of the regulation season but were bundled out of the finals in the first week by Illawarra 30-26. After losing the Grand Final in 2016 by a solitary point, Mounties lost a host of first grade talent for the 2017 season, including Paul Vaughan (Dragons), Shaun Fensom (Cowboys) and Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), however strong performances from Scott Sorensen and Royce Hunt saw those men handed an opportunity in the top grade during the year.
The Raiders' Holden Cup side had a disappointing season to round out their Under 20's campaign finishing in 12th position, three wins outside of a top eight berth. Backrower Jack Murchie was named in the NYC Team of the Year, scoring 8 tries and averaging 119m per game for the Raiders in 2017. Both Murchie and New Zealand juniors Erin Clark and Paul Roache will push for a spot in the top 30 squad for 2018.
The Raiders will again have a chance to contend for a premiership in 2018. With the bulk of Ricky Stuart's squad entering their third year playing together, anything less than a return to the Top 4 would be considered a disappointment. Canberra have the cattle, the experience and should they improve their execution when the tough gets going, then there is no reason why this squad can't break the club's 24 year premiership drought:
1. Jack Wighton 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Blake Austin 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Junior Paulo 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Shannon Boyd 11. Josh Papalii 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Iosia Soliola
14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Luke Bateman 16. Dunamis Lui 17. Joseph Tapine