This is the first part of a three part review of the Canberra Raiders’ 2016. Part II can be seen here. And we promise Part III is coming too.
You could hear it in the chants of the away supporters over the celebrations of the winning home fans. Normally losing away supporters trudge off into the dark of the night to find a cave, some dark hole to crawl into and drink until they can’t feel feelings. A loss one game from the grand final; close enough for it really hurt, but the couple-of-thousand supporters couldn’t help but express the pride and the happiness at what they had been gifted.
As those “Raiders” chants bellowed out around AAMI Park most just wanted to express their excitement rather than dwell on the loss. Excitement that, for the first time in a generation, the Raiders have the potential, the talent, and the wherewithal to be genuine contenders.
This season promised a lot from the outset. In previous seasons Coach Stuart had often complained about a lack of talent in Canberra – “you need five or six representatives to compete” was often heard after losses in 2015. Partly this was to hide his young playing group from the pressure of expectation. But starting his third year as head coach, Stuart had assembled the exact mixture of youth and talent he’d held up as a paragon for Raiders fans through two years of disappointing results.
None of this talent was fully formed. Just as many of them had been touted as future stars, they had real questions to be asked about them. What was Wighton’s position? Could Hodgson become a star for a full 80 minutes? How would Sezer and Austin fit together? When would Tapine and Paulo come to town, and who would make way for them? Was Whitehead going to be a bench player or a starter? Had BJ really given up the burgers?
As the season progressed these questions got periodically answered.
Hodgson showed us early that he was the real deal and from round one was playing near enough to 80 minutes a game. From the start of the season it was clear that he was the driving force for the Raiders, both in the middle third but also in connections around the edges.
In round 8 against the Tigers he played one of the great games a rake will ever play. He repeated that dose later in the season against the Sharks, but by this stage the whole rugby league community had woken up to his brilliance.
It was clear early on that BJ had well and truly put in the effort in the offseason. A leaner, meaner man emerged this season – far from the one that had been seen behind play gasping for air in 2015. Instead there was a phenom: part workhorse, part Kraken.
This year’s Leilua was the first one back to take the difficult hit ups coming out of the Raiders dangerzone, and also the first to break the line when a try was needed. So often Austin and Whitehead simply shuffled the ball to him and said “BJ create”.
And he did, to the tune of 14 try assists, 14 line breaks, 130 tackle breaks, and 35 combined tries for him and his running mate Jordan Rapana, equally impressive. He should have joined the New South Wales side in the Origin series. He should have joined Rapana at the Four Nations tournament. Only overly conservative selectors got in his way.
At the back of all this stood Jack Wighton. Many weren’t sure if Jack should be custodian for this side. And early in the season he tended to agree. He made a multitude of errors that legitimately cost the Raiders games. He never seemed quite sure where and when to chime in offence. Then one cool June night against Manly he put it all together. Try-saving tackles. Barnstorming runs. Scything passes finding Croker and Lee on the left wing.
It was gorgeous, and it showed that fullback was the perfect position for him. Just enough involvement as a ball-player that he could show his skills, not enough that he was relied on. The best tackler of any fullback in the competition, something he showed routinely with a physicality that ended breaks with an exclamation point. It was evidence of how important he was to the Raiders that when he was initially cited in the last round, the entire Raiders fan base lost their collective shit – and we include ourselves there.
And of course Captain Croker. Mr Reliable. It’s astounding he’s only in his mid-20s. His ball running is underrated. His defence improved. He should be in the conversation for representative football. But his brand of bending the line every time he gets the ball isn’t sexy enough for the Blues selectors who prefer the dust or diamonds of Michael Jennings, or the bland safety of a Morris brother because….science? Crokers defence belies his size, and he rarely makes errors in reads. And given an inch of space he’ll take a mile.
The Raiders forward also improved as the season progressed. Whitehead was a boon from the beginning – a big running back rower, capable of piling on 40 tackles and two try-assists in the same game.
In some ways he was everything we’d hoped Shaun Fensom would become earlier in his career, before Fensom settled into being The Hardest Working Man In League™. In some ways the arrival of Whitehead brought an end to Fensom’s time in first grade. Why carry a defensive specialist when you can already have one that can put on tries too? By round 3 against Newcastle we realised we were onto yet another find when Whitehead’s beautiful cut-out ball put Rapana down the wing. Not many backrowers can throw that ball.
The rest of the pack rounded into roles as the season went on. Junior Paulo and Jo Tapine joined the squad, and with Shannon Boyd made the Raiders’ middle resemble a Haul Truck, rolling through the middle third of the competition. Josh Papalii had become one of the five best forwards in the competition. In State of Origin he was the best forward on the field in Games One and Two, rampaging off the bench like a truculent rhinoceros. In Game Three the Maroons missed him desperately.
For the Raiders he did it on the edge, showing improved ball-playing skills operating of Aidan Sezer’s left shoulder. Not just content to burst through defensive lines (which he did. Repeatedly), he became an important cog of the Raiders most successful set play – the left side shift. Papalii on the face ball from Sezer, either at the line, or, if given it earlier, to go outside to Croker or inside to Wighton bursting through on an outside-in line.
The play was borne with the former centre Sia Soliola in the same position last year. This year Papalii’s ability to make the decisions of a number six while also threatening to run over his opposition made him borderline unstoppable close to the line.
And after a season of success it’s clear that all the pieces are there. This time last year Ricky Stuart said he needed five of six representative players to be a serious contender. Well Rapana, Boyd, Papalii, Whitehead, Hodgson and Paulo all made their recently announced national sides. And as we said, the fact that Leilua isn’t there either is ridiculous (especially given they happily carried a worn-down Matt Scott for a week and half before he pulled out). Throw in that Croker should also be in consideration, a team locked up for the next year at least and there’s a real opportunity to go even further in 2017.
The Raiders found a whole lot of it this year.