2018 Review: Canberra Raiders

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In the seventh of our 2018 NRL club reviews, Sam Bourke looks over what was an underachieving season for the Canberra Raiders and where they might improve going into 2019.

The Green Machine came into 2018 without star player Josh Hodgson, the English hooker having been ruled out with a serious knee injury from the Rugby League World Cup until Round 16 at the earliest. With Hodgson considered the conductor to their offense, it sounded alarm bells - and fans and bookies alike had low expectations of a strong start to 2018. However, given the Raiders' lethal backline that had the potential to destroy any team in the NRL on its day, they were rated as a team that could catch fire late in the season should they click.

Ricky Stuart's side have struggled to close out tight games over the past four seasons and the nightmares returned straight away this year. Despite holding solid double figure leads in all opening three games, they still managed to find a way to capitulate late in matches. This was highlighted by a miracle loss to the Warriors in their first home game of the season, where they managed let in a converted try and two field goals in the last four minutes. Following this game, confidence that the Raiders could play out 80 minutes was non-existent.

The Raiders finally got their season going with back to back wins over the struggling Bulldogs and Eels at home during Rounds 5 and 6. However, just as momentum looked to be building, they then were man-handled by the Rabbitohs 42-22 on the Central Coast, a showing that was easily their worst performance of the season. Canberra's big pack had their reputation tainted after all three Burgess brothers had a field day up the middle, which left coach Stuart labelling the performance as ‘not good enough'.

The up and down form was what Raiders fans have been accustomed to for some time and this continued with narrow losses to the Sharks and Dragons until the finally performed under pressure, defeating Manly 21-20 in Round 12 thanks to a field goal in Golden Point by halfback Aidan Sezer. This looked like being a once off however, when they again choked against the Panthers 23-22 in Round 14 - leaving them with just five wins and stuck in a logjam with other clubs in the bottom half of the ladder.

During the Origin period, Hodgson returned and this coincided with the Raiders firing back with their own miracle - led by a Blake Austin spark off the bench - the Green Machine producing a mind-blowing three tries in the last six minutes to stun a dominant Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground. Canberra continued to struggle against top eight sides, before ironically defeating the top two sides on the NRL ladder at the time in the Roosters and Rabbitohs in back-to-back wins at home in Rounds 22 & 23 - but all too late with their season over. Once again, these type of performances left their loyal lime green fan base thinking what might have been if they had the ability to close out tight games with confidence.

Turning point 

Josh Hodgson returned from injury a touch earlier than the Round 16 prediction previously made in the pre-season, and his team had managed to hang around the fringes of the top eightin order  to give them a sniff of making a late charge into the finals. The Raiders travelled to Brisbane and absolutely gave it to the Broncos, racing to a 16-0 halftime lead and for a brief moment the Green Machine had the competition taking notice.

However, no surprises here... they completely bottled it once again, with former Raiders junior Anthony Milford tearing his former side to ribbons to mount a convincing second half comeback, Brisbane running out 26-22 winners. From that point in the season it was going to be too little, too late - fans again tried not to get the calculators out and convince themselves they could win their last eight games against six teams who were currently locked in the top eight.

What worked

The Raiders attack was again their biggest strength finishing third in the competition for tackle busts and fourth in tries scored, with the tries shared across the backline this year, with Joey Leilua (14) Nick Cotric (12) and Jordan Rapana (10) all finding the stripe consistently.

Throw in regular attacking threats in Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton who missed large parts of the backend of 2018, and the fact that they still averaged just below 24 points per game for the season without them, then finding the try line in 2019 shouldn't be a struggle. Canberra's attack is without doubt their most dangerous weapon and what gives them the X-factor to win against any team in the NRL on their day. 

What didn't

Sadly for the Raiders, they just don't play for 80 minutes, with closing out tight games being the Raiders Achilles heel and the previous season's stats paint an alarming picture:

  • 2014 - Lost four matches by six points or less
  • 2015 - Lost seven matches by six points or less
  • 2016 - Lost five matches by six points or less (however did finished 2nd on the ladder before losing in the Preliminary Final to Melbourne)
  • 2017 - Lost eight matches by six points or less (including four losses in Golden Point)
  • 2018 - Lost eleven games by nine points or less (including their opening three matches after leading by 10 points or more)

Being able to ice a game when the pressure is on is what makes good teams great. This is why the halves in particular get paid the big bucks if they are capable of doing this on a consistent basis (i.e. Cooper Cronk at the Roosters). Ricky Stuart must get his spine and his halves combination in particular to take responsibility for turning this aspect around, because excuses are wearing thin when you look at the stats during Stuart's tenor as coach. 

Best players

Nick Cotric was again superb for the Raiders and was extremely close to being handed a NSW Blues jumper throughout the Origin series. The blockbusting winger ranked second in the competition for line breaks and also for tackle busts with 20 and 149 respectively. These are ultra-impressive numbers for a 19 year old in just his second season of First Grade and also considering his side did not make the Finals in 2018. The best thing about Cotric's game is he performs to a high standard every week and looks destined to be playing representative football next year.

Josh Papalii was awarded the club's best and fairest, with the hulking backrower making a huge statement after being demoted to reserve grade early in the season to work on his fitness. Papalii refused to kick stones and took up the challenge to play some of his best football in the lime green and was duly rewarded with selection in the Queensland State of Origin side.    

Rookies

Emre Guler made his debut for club in Round 23 against the Roosters, with the Junior Kangaroos prop showing that he is a solid prospect after banging down the door for a spot in the Game Day 17, following numerous consistent performances for Mounties in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership.

Milton-Ulladulla junior Jack Murchie was another promising forward to make his NRL debut for the club, becoming Raider #352 in their Round 19 loss against Cronulla at Shark Park. Murchie made two appearances for the club and looks destined to add to his tally in 2019. 

Feeder club round-up

The Raiders' feeder club Mounties looked to be one of the teams to beat in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership, sitting in second place by Round 19. However, somehow they fell off the map, rounding out the season with five straight losses to cling onto a finals spot - and despite winning their first finals match, they were eliminated in Week 2 by the Panthers.

In fairness, their charge to the finals was certainly hampered by call ups to first grade for star fullback Brad Abbey, who replaced the suspended Jack Wighton and then Emre Guler and Liam Knight who were promoted to the Raiders starting 17, while hooker Craig Garvey was granted a release for personal reasons.

The Under 20 Jersey Flegg Cup Mounties side were solid performers as well, finishing fourth and pipping minor premiers Newcastle in their Week 1 Qualifying Final to progress straight to the third week. Unfortunately second-placed Cronulla proved too strong in their preliminary final showdown and they crashed out a week short of glory. Following the conclusion of the campaign, the Raiders announced that they would be re-entering their own team in the Flegg competition.

Looking Ahead

The Raiders simply must perform in 2019, as their premiership window looks to be closing if this current squad can't get it right. The cold hard facts are that the Raiders have now missed the finals for the fifth time in six years and they have massive issues with winning close games when the pressure is on.

Canberra also head into 2019 with some significant losses to their roster, with the departure of five-eighth Blake Austin, along with front-row behemoths Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo also on the way out. Does this present an opportunity to play a faster and more expansive style of football? If they unlock the keys to their devastating backline like they did in 2016, then we all know they can be a force.

But - being threatening on paper doesn't win premierships. It has now been a long 25 years in nation's capital since they have lifted the trophy.

Potential 2019 lineup

based on current signings

1 Jack Wighton
2 Nick Cotric
3 Jarrod Croker (c)
4 Joey Leilua
5 Jordan Rapana
6 Aidan Sezer
7 Sam Williams
8 Ryan Sutton
9 Josh Hodgson
10 Josh Papalii
11 Joseph Tapine
12 Elliott Whitehead
13 Iosia Soliola

14 Ata Hingano
15 John Bateman 
16 Dunamis Lui
17 Emre Guler

2018 Results

1
Gold Coast Titans 30
Canberra Raiders 28
L
2
Canberra Raiders 28
Newcastle Knights 30
L
3
Canberra Raiders 19
Warriors 20
L
4
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 32
Canberra Raiders 16
L
5
Canberra Raiders 26
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 10
W
6
Canberra Raiders 18
Parramatta Eels 2
W
7
South Sydney Rabbitohs 42
Canberra Raiders 22
L
8
North Queensland Cowboys 8
Canberra Raiders 18
W
9
Canberra Raiders 32
Gold Coast Titans 18
W
10
Canberra Raiders 16
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 24
L
11
St George Illawarra Dragons 25
Canberra Raiders 18
L
12
Canberra Raiders 21
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 20
W
13
Canberra Raiders 0
BYE
14
Canberra Raiders 22
Penrith Panthers 23
L
15
Wests Tigers 12
Canberra Raiders 48
W
16
Brisbane Broncos 26
Canberra Raiders 22
L
17
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 28
Canberra Raiders 32
W
18
Canberra Raiders 38
North Queensland Cowboys 12
W
19
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 28
Canberra Raiders 24
L
20
Melbourne Storm 44
Canberra Raiders 10
L
21
Penrith Panthers 40
Canberra Raiders 31
L
22
Canberra Raiders 20
Wests Tigers 22
L
23
Canberra Raiders 14
Sydney Roosters 12
W
24
Canberra Raiders 24
South Sydney Rabbitohs 12
W
25
Warriors 20
Canberra Raiders 16
L

By the Stats

22
Competition Points
10
Matches Won
0
Matches Drawn
14
Matches Lost
563
Points Scored
540
Points Conceded