2023 review: Canberra Raiders

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Sam Bourke takes us forward with our 2023 NRL season review series, as we crack into the top eight with the 8th placed Canberra Raiders.

The Green Machine came into the 2023 season as one of the more settled sides in the NRL. Off the back of a superb finish to season 2022, where the Raiders won 8 of their last 10 matches left Raiders fans feeling that while they were not considered marquee contenders by the bookies, the successful addition of halfback Jamal Fogarty to complement superstar Jack Wighton could be the combination to lead a strong forward pack deep into September and perhaps beyond. 

That optimism quickly shifted on the eve of the season, when the Raiders lost young gun Xavier Savage to a broken jaw in a trial game, which led to their resolve being tested early on.  Coach Ricky Stuart played an unexpected hand in giving the custodian role to centre Sebastian Kris and the dynamic effect was unfortunately not immediate. The Raiders started the season slow, only winning one of their first five matches and the red marker was being put through the Milk by most pundits. In Round 6, the Raiders flew north to tackle the resurgent Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, to make matters worse Jack Wighton was ruled out of the game day 17. With their season at the crossroads Ricky's boys stepped up. Not only did they stun the Broncos against the odds, but went onto win 7 of their next 8 matches to find themselves knocking on the door of consecutive finals appearances.

This period culminated in Origin call ups for both Hudson Young (NSW) and Corey Horsburgh (QLD) and a spot even opened up in the Raiders backline for club legend Jarrod Croker to make his long awaited 300###sup

NRL match for the club. Unfortunately this event coincided with where the rollercoaster descended, when Coach Stuart made a somewhat controversial decision to ‘rest' Croker against the last placed Tigers, in order to give their skipper the royal treatment in the nation's capital against the Warriors in Round 15. This saw unwanted attention in the press and led to an embarrassing performance at GIO Stadium where they were belted by New Zealand by 36-14 and then humbled by the Cowboys in their following game. Canberra again managed to rescue their season from Round 17, winning their next three to sit comfortably in the Top 8 before again having fans sweat out the final rounds, after they were thumped 48-6 by Melbourne and then limped into the finals with losses to Brisbane and Cronulla to cling onto 8###sup spot and secure a ticket to finals football.  

Canberra travelled to Newcastle for a sudden death final against Kalyn Ponga's Knights and put up an almighty performance to go down narrowly by 30-28 in a thrilling performance to conclude their rollercoaster of a season.

Turning point

Canberra came into Round 6 on the slide, after being thumped by 41 points at the hands of the defending premiers Penrith the week before and with only one win on the board for the season it looked a mere speed bump for the then undefeated Broncos at Suncorp. To make matters worse, the Raiders then lost their marquee man in Jack Wighton and the mountain became Everest before a ball was kicked. What was glossed over however was that this was the backs to the wall mentality a Ricky Stuart coached side historically thrived on, and from the kick-off the Raiders rocked the highly fancied Broncos pack with veteran Josh Papali'i turning back the clock with some rocking hits. The tone was set and gladly picked up a notch by the Raiders aggressive pack. A double to Jordan Rapana in the first half, followed by a try to Albert Hopoate had the Broncos scrambling and despite a late try to Jesse Arthurs, the Raiders were too good as they held on to a well-deserved 20-14 victory. As mentioned above, the win then triggered a superb run for Canberra and showed on their day they were contenders when the right elements came together.    

What worked

The Raiders forward pack was heralded at the commencement of the 2023 season, however excitingly for Raiders fans the depth they have now built is now very deep. For the past few seasons there has been a reliance on their two internationals in Josh Papali'i and Joseph Tapine whose consistent performances went a long way to ensuring the Green Machine have been in the Top 8. This season saw both Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh play State of Origin for their respective states but even more importantly a plethora of young talent in the engine room are now pushing for starting spots, leaving mainstays likes Elliott Whitehead and Corey Harawira-Naera (whose season was shattered by a nasty head knock) needing big off seasons to guarantee not only a starting spot but a place in the Raiders 17.

What didn't work

The Raiders defence what not at its finest this year as they conceded on average 26 points per game. In a bizarre statistic, Canberra managed to hang on to a Top 8 spot despite having a woeful for and against of -127pts. The big knock on the Raiders in recent seasons is their seemingly inability to close out tight contests, however out of their 13 wins this season, all of them were by 12 points or less, with 9 of those wins being by 6 points or less. Now that they seemingly have a handle on grinding out a win, they desperately need to turn their attention to having some defensive resolve in order to compete with the elite sides come September.

2023 week-by-week

1Mar 4thSat 4:30pmANorth QLDL18-19QLD C B19,85511th
2Mar 11thSat 4:30pmADolphinsL14-20Kayo10,02315th
3Mar 19thSun 6:15pmHCronullaW24-20GIO14,13411th
4Mar 26thSun 4:05pmANewcastleL14-24McD Jones15,10615th
5Mar 31stFri 6:00pmHPenrithL12-53GIO15,33416th
6Apr 8thSat 7:35pmABrisbaneW20-14Suncorp31,96216th
7Apr 16thSun 2:00pmHSt Geo IllaW20-14GIO13,81711th
9Apr 29thSat 3:00pmH*DolphinsW31-30Wagga10,4456th
10May 5thFri 6:00pmACanterburyW34-30Suncorp50,0779th
11May 13thSat 7:35pmHParramattaW26-18GIO17,4148th
12May 21stSun 4:05pmHManlyL14-42GIO14,7309th
13May 27thSat 7:35pmASouthsW33-26Accor12,3825th
14Jun 2ndFri 8:00pmAWests TigersW20-19C'town11,2016th
15Jun 9thFri 6:00pmHWarriorsL14-36GIO21,0826th
17Jun 25thSun 6:15pmASydneyW20-18Allianz13,3267th
18Jul 1stSat 3:00pmHGold CoastW26-22GIO11,6595th
19Jul 7thFri 8:00pmASt Geo IllaW36-26WIN9,3693rd
21Jul 21stFri 8:00pmAWarriorsL20-21Go Media19,1125th
22Jul 29thSat 3:00pmHNewcastleL6-28GIO15,4875th
23Aug 6thSun 4:05pmHWests TigersW22-18GIO12,8415th
24Aug 13thSun 2:00pmAMelbourneL2-48AAMI17,3696th
25Aug 20thSun 4:05pmHCanterburyW36-24GIO12,4026th
26Aug 26thSat 7:35pmHBrisbaneL18-29GIO19,4007th
27Sep 3rdSun 4:05pmACronullaL6-24Pointsbet12,7508th
EFSep 10thSun 4:05pmANewcastleL28-30McD Jones29,548-

Best players

Corey Horsburgh at the start of the season was not a resounding pick in the Raiders starting pack, in fact it wasn't until the Raiders Round 6 upset over the Broncos that saw the fiery red head start and play over 70 minutes.

From there Horsburgh was dominant, making the #13 jersey his own, with this burst of consistent form leading to a maiden Maroons jersey. It was quite the rise for the long-time fan favourite, who was rewarded with a 3 year extension and is now a walk up start for Canberra providing a follow me mentality that would please the coaching staff to no end.   

Matt Timoko was another who impressed for the Green Machine, with the blockbusting centre having a breakout year with 11 tries, 14 line breaks and a massive 118 tackle busts. The Raiders centre's form culminated in his selection for the Kiwi national side.

For those who have been watching closely, they will have noticed that Timoko has been outstanding for his native New Zealand and provided he isn't merely shovelled the ball in desperation and can get quality possession from his inside men, then Timoko has the potential to be one of the NRL's elite centres. 

2023 player list

COTRIC, Nick24133--121-
CROKER, Jarrod3215359-130--
FOGARTY, Jamal2924328270--
FRAWLEY, Matt2883-114--
GULER, Emre25251--4--
HARAWIRA-NAERA, Corey289-2-4--
HOLA, Peter242------
HOPOATE, Albert22208--32--
HORSBURGH, Corey25223--121-
KRIS, Sebastian24217--28-1
LEVI, Danny274------
MARIOTA, Ata21171--4--
MOONEY, Trey2141--4--
PAPALII, Josh31182--8--
PURU, Hohepa-2------
RAPANA, Jordan342111--442-
SAULO, Pasami2522------
SAVAGE, Xavier2111--4--
SCHILLER, James2242--8--
SCHNEIDER, Brad221------
SMITH-SHIELDS, Harley236------
STARLING, Tom25233--121-
STRANGE, Ethan-1------
TAPINE, Joseph29241--4--
TIMOKO, Matthew232511--441-
TREVILYAN, Adrian222------
WHITEHEAD, Elliott34233--12--
WIGHTON, Jack30227--281-
WOOLFORD, Zac2721------
YOUNG, Hudson25249--363

30 players, average age 26.28yrs

Season snapshot

Coach: Ricky Stuart
Captains: Jarrod Croker (14), Elliott Whitehead (10), Joseph Tapine (1)

Biggest home crowd: 21,082 (vs. Warriors in round 15)
Average home crowd: 15,300

Top pointscorer: Jarrod Croker (130)
Top tryscorers: Jordan Rapana, Matthew Timoko (11)

Club award winners

  • Meninga Medal - Joe Tapine
  • NRLW Player of the Year - Simaima Taufa
  • NRL Coaches Award - Sebastian Kris
  • NRLW Coaches Award - Janelle Williams
  • Peter Mulholland NRL Rookie of the Year - Ata Mariota
  • NRLW Rookie of the Year - Cheyelle Robins-Reti
  • Fred Daly Club Person of the Year - Jamal Fogarty
  • Geoff Caldwell Welfare and Education Award - Hohepa Puru
  • NSW Cup Player of the Year - Utuloa Asomua
  • Jersey Flegg Player of the Year - Josh Billing
  • NSW Cup Coaches Award - Brad Morkos
  • Jersey Flegg Coaches Award - Toby Thorburn
  • Gordon McLucas Junior Representative of the Year - Chevy Stewart
  • NRLW Junior Representative of the Year - Georgia Willey

Looking Ahead

The well-publicised loss of Jack Wighton hurts the Raiders heading into 2024 and with the majority of the key components that led the Raiders to a Grand Final in 2019 starting to depart, with Wighton, Jarrod Croker and Josh Hodgson recently finishing their time, they look soon to be joined by Rapana, Whitehead and Papali'i which means the Raiders need some new stars.

Season '24 could see the unearthing of future stars in Chevy Stewart, Ethan Strange, Ata Mariota and Hohepa Puru, but how quick that will take effect is anyone's guess. The fact remains the Raiders have a strong starting pack and enough strike out wide to still be a threat of playing finals football again next season.    

Best 17 for 2024

based on current signings at time of writing

1.     Xavier Savage
2.     Nic Cotric
3.     Matt Timoko
4.     Sebastian Kris
5.     Jordan Rapana
6.     Kaeo Weekes
7.     Jamal Fogarty
8.     Josh Papali'i
9.     Zac Woolford
10.  Joseph Tapine
11.  Hudson Young
12.  Elliott Whitehead
13.  Corey Horsburgh

14.  Tom Starling
15.  Corey Harawira-Naera
16.  Emre Guler
17.  Ata Mariota