This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the Canberra Raiders 2016 season. For the (sunnier) Part 1 start here. Seriously. Read it first.
Historians often insist that there is one word that can never be use when telling the story of events.
When viewing affairs from the sunny-side of an event, we tend to assume that what occurred was always going to occur. And this can be dangerous, because it can lead us to thinking that presented with the same circumstances, that will occur again. This is as true with war as it is with all facets of life, including sport.
What was built this season by the Raiders was not inevitable. This season had its negatives too. Contrary to popular opinion, not everything that Coach Stuart touched turned to gold.
For starters, despite the side being the most successful attacking side in the competition, the Raiders spine never quite worked out how to fit together . Early in the season many commentators had considered Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer contenders for the six and seven in the New South Wales side – this was clearly a step too far, even after an impressive opening round performance against the Panthers. Any hope they could spend some time developing a rapport was ended by early season injuries. Austin never looked entirely comfortable as a modern ‘split’ half, finding the responsibility of playmaking at first receiver provided him less space to run than he would have preferred.
Some may consider that Austin hasn’t been the answer at six. I prefer to think it’s a development process for him. Up until 2015 he had no position on the field and then all of a sudden he did, and no one could tackle him. But teams learned that the dummy outside was only ever that, and adjusted accordingly. It will be up to him to continue to improve his ball playing – his passing reminds of Josh McCrone sometimes (and that’s not a compliment). In a way the further development of Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead may reduce the need for Austin to play as a ‘ball-player’. In fact, Coach Stuart may have stumbled on effectively ‘two-full-back’ attack, in which Austin and Wighton split the field and pop up as second-phase ball players rather than proper halves.
The spine did reach a necessary détente as the season went on, Austin mostly operating outside Sezer, giving the former more responsibility for decision making and the latter more room to move and run the ball. Hodgson was left to control the middle third as his own fiefdom. But they were nowhere near their best. A full-offseason awaits them to remedy this.
Despite the admittedly excellent recruitment that saw Junior Paulo and Jo Tapine join the squad, Stuart also failed to develop some of the talent already on the roster. Presented with a three-headed hydra of props when Junior Paulo arrived from Parramatta, Stuart instead pushed Paul Vaughan out of the first grade side for the unproven Clay Priest and eventually into the arms of the St George Dragons. The approximately 600k it took to lure Vaughan away suggests the decision was made as much for cap-related reasons – i.e. keeping this side together in the long term – as it was for performance related issues. Regardless, the Raiders let a rare talent walk out the door for the privilege of paying and playing honest toilers such as Priest.
It was also sad to see Shaun Fensom spend so much time out of the first grade side. As we mentioned in part 1, his skill set had been made redundant by Elliot Whitehead’s success. With Siolola and now Tapine capable of covering the middle, and Papalii and Whitehead both playing 80 minutes each game, there just was no point in short minutes for a man whose best skill was that he doesn’t get tired. He may provide important depth next year, but it seems likely he’ll start next year in the Mounties, if indeed he stays with the Raiders. Regardless, Stuart has a plethora of adequate forward depth available to him in the form of Jeff Lima, Rhys and Jarryd Kennedy, and that’s even including the short-term lifeline offered to Dave Taylor this week.
This forward depth makes the decision to play star Josh Hodgson as a lock so often this season even more confusing. Back-up hooker Kurt Baptitse provided relief for Hodgson but the Raiders are better if Hodgson is at nine. Shifting Hodgson to play as a half made sense to provide another option for the Raiders attack, but was redundant given the ballplayers stalking across the Raiders backs and forwards. It was even more confusing when Stuart started Hodgson off the bench.
Further, most often when Baptise pushed Hodgson out from nine, Hodgson became a running forward, not a ball-player. This needlessly risked injury to the Raiders best player, making him play a position that is not only a waste of his talents, but a waste of the rest of the roster.
But the main problem for the Raiders this year was their defence. 7th best in the competition sounds good, particularly when compared to previous seasons, but it remains their most noticeable weakness in comparison to the other elite teams.
Early in the season the Raiders had some abhorrent habits, such as sliding on their goal-line, or sliding before the ball passed them (Aidan Sezer I’m looking at you). Often this created the impression that errors were being made either at the wings or in the middle when the real issue was the edges moving outwards before the ball did. Regardless, it resulted in points too often.
Throughout the season the middle was also vulnerable, with the big forwards in the middle third unable to control the ruck in defence. Early in the season this made for some forgetful outings – most noticeably when they allowed the Eels and the Sharks to exploit this weakness so thoroughly. Largely borne from poor line speed from the ABC defenders on each side of the ruck, it stood out starkly when the Raiders showed more enthusiasm, most noticeably in the late season victory against the Melbourne Storm, or the semi-final victory over the Panthers. In the latter game, Sia Soliola and Josh Papalii almost single-handedly sped-up the line by rushing up from the ‘A’ position; a defensive structure shouldn’t so easily be manipulated by the attitude of one player.
As the season wore on the Raiders showed greater commitment in defence, and became adept at scrambling to cover for their errors. And they surely improved. But they are no match with the competition leaders. It remains unclear if the potential departure of defensive coordinator Dean Pay to take the top job at the Bulldogs will hurt. Is he to blame for the Raiders poor structures? Or is he to congratulate for the (possibly unsustainable) resolution of the raiders defensive issues?
The fact that the Raiders never got the spine to fully-click, nor their defence to consistently dominate makes their success this season even more impressive. Most teams’ success starts with a functional spine and a solid defence – the Raiders almost built outside in. To go further next year, the Raiders will need to improve even more. After all, even though their trajectory seems unquestionably upwards, nothing is inevitable.