NFL Executive Mike Lombardi likes to say it’s harder to climb the mountain the second time. This somewhat obtuse saying is meant to outline that teams tend to think they can start the previous season where they finished. That the playoffs are already guaranteed and that the real challenge will come later in the season, when the time comes to try and go one step further than last year. In reality a premiership is built brick-by-brick throughout the season. There are no short cuts.
The Raiders are good. Really good. But this season the Raiders are facing some challenges they’ve not had to face before. Challenges that the usual premiership contenders have been dealing with for years. If the Raiders want to be around deep into September, they’re going to have to find a way to combat the following obstacles.
Any conversation about the Raiders this preseason has revolved around expectations and it’s hard to ignore that the Raiders are walking around with a bulls-eye on their back. From round one teams will be waiting. BJ Leilua will have more attention this season than he did last. Teams will be alert to Josh Hodgson’s deception around the ruck. Blake Austin’s defence on the right side will be tested, as will Nic Cotric under the high ball. For their part the Raiders have seemed relaxed, with Coach Stuart and BJ Leilua insisting that the side is capable of handling these expectations.
But more tangible than narrative based concepts like expectation is the fact that the competition will just be tighter in 2017. The Raiders won’t have the luxury of competition falling by the wayside and teams like the Sydney Roosters and Parramatta Eels won’t be hamstrung by off-field matters like last season. The Roosters are a season removed from absolutely dominating the competition – in 2015 they led the league both in points scored and points against by a lot, and by Pythagorean expectation were the equivalent of a twenty-win team that year. It’s not ridiculous to think their 2016 form was an aberration. The Eels had such a horror 2016 than its impossible to think things could any worse. Despite losing Paulo, Peats and Foran,their defence is solid, and between Corey Norman and Bevan French, have enough talent in their spine to score.
Combine that with the defending premiers, an improved Penrith Panthers (now with extra Tamou), a New Zealand Warriors side that could have the best spine in the competition, the Titans and Tigers watching from the outside, and the presence of the usual suspects from north of the border, it feels tighter than ever at the top of the table.
And this tightness at the top means that the Raiders can ill afford to have bad patches. In 2016 the Raiders muddled through the opening rounds of the competition, thanks in part to unhelpful injuries to both of their halves. They managed to keep their record afloat thanks to some helpful scheduling. They played Penrith before they worked out that James Segeyaro and Jamie Soward were useless. They played the Roosters without Mitchell Pearce. In something of an annual tradition the Raiders were served up to the Broncos and Cowboys during the origin period.
In 2017, they start the season playing in the summer heat of Townsville, following that up with the Sharks in round two, the Broncos away in round four, then the Eels, Titans and Warriors to round out their first seven rounds. The 2016 side could have taken two wins from that run and I wouldn’t have batted an eye-lid. The 2017 challenge is to take four.
For the first time in a generation the State of Origin period might have a negative impact on the Raiders. If BJ Leilua keeps his form of 2016, he will play origin in 2017. So will Josh Papalii. So might Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo. Jack Wighton, Aidan Sezer and Jarrod Croker are just an injury or two and some good form away from being in that conversation also. Of course this is mitigated by the presence of so many foreigners in the Raiders side. Hodgson, Whitehead, Turner, Rapana, Soliola and Tapine may be asked to carry the load through June. Suddenly the origin period is something the Raiders will have to manage rather than benefit from.
Last season the Raiders dominated with the ball leading the competition in scoring. But without the ball, they were inconsistent at best. Late in the season they absolutely throttled the Storm and the Sharks defensively. But along the way they let in thirty or more to the Eels and Sharks (early in the season) and the lowly Sea-Eagles (later in the season). When the Raiders are at their best, it’s because their line-speed is aggressive, and their middle-forwards are physically dominating the ruck. In their first trial match against Newcastle last week, the first-string forward pack was dominated, allowing repeated 70 metre sets from the unheralded, undersized Novacastrian forward pack.
To be frank if the Raiders defence is anything other than what they displayed at the end of 2017 they will not seriously contend.
Last year the Raiders dealt with early injuries to both halves because they had a first grade halfback just chomping at the bit for an opportunity. They were able to rest Josh Hodgson at the end of halves and blow-outs because Kurt Baptiste is almost a first grade quality hooker. They dealt with injuries to Jeff Lima, poor form from Frank-Paul Nuuausala and a weird relationship between Stuart and Paul Vaughan and Shaun Fensom through impressive squad depth in the forwards. All the while they had the strongest New South Wales cup side in the competition, chock full of people raring for a chance to play in the top flight.
This year this depth is already being tested. They’ve lost captain Croker for at least the first four weeks. They’ve let Edrick Lee, Fensom and Vaughan go to their rivals. They squad depth they signed for 2017 (Jordan Turner) is now going to have to be NRL quality from round one. The talented 18 year-old Nic Cotric now will be earning his way with the big boys for the whole season. Kurt Baptiste is out for the year and Adam Clydesdale needs to an effective backup for Josh Hodgson.
The great disappointment of 2016 was that the Raiders halves were just ok. They began the season operating on separate sides of the field and Austin in particular found it hard in 2016 to find the space he needed to utilise his running ability. He is still developing as a playmaker and so relied too heavily on Elliot Whitehead to be the decision maker on the right hand side. The Raiders offensive explosion in the second half of the competition correlated with Austin and Sezer’s shift to the same side of the field.
If the 15 minutes they played together in the trial match is anything they will be spending more time on the same side of the field in 2017. Austin’s playmaking skills have had another year to develop, and they’ll need to be better to avoid relying on BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana creating all their own mischief.
The stakes are higher for the Raiders this year. They won’t be surprising anyone this year. They can’t hope for a series of individuals to carry them to premiership glory. If they can overcome these obstacles they’ll be in with a shot. But they should remember it’s always harder climbing the mountain the second time. Let’s hope they’re ready for the challenge.
 Who ALWAYS play well in Canberra
 And helpful early-year recruitment.
 Correlation is not causation kiddies