The Canberra Raiders are not strangers to this situation.
To get into a position to snag the last spot in the finals they’ll need to win at least six of their last eight matches. That doesn’t sound too hard until you realise that includes home-and-away against the premiership favourite Melbourne Storm and a game against the defending premier Cronulla Sharks.
The Raiders walk a narrow path along a cliff. Slipping may not result in something untimely but I wouldn’t want to try it out.
Loyal Raiders fans will point out they’ve been here before. And not just last year. The Terry Campese Raiders sides had a biennial tradition of turning on the jets at the back end of the season, making finals runs in 2008, 2010 and 2012 despite the odds not so much being stacked but rather set in concrete with hardy foundations.
In 2008 they had lost Todd Carney for the last time because he couldn’t behave. They won seven of their last nine games. In 2010 it was eight of their last nine, and were that Jarrod Croker penalty goal (and if we’re being honest, a Terry Campese knee) away from a preliminary final. By 2012 that Campese knee had combined with a groin but that didn’t bother those Raiders, who won eight of their last ten before Sammy Williams played so well it made Ray Warren beg for mercy. And that doesn’t even mention the 1991 side that dragged it’s barely functioning collective body through hell to win ten of their last eleven games before losing the 1991 Grand Final in a heartbreaker.
A bye this weekend brings a moment for reflection. Things haven’t gone right in recent weeks and it would take a hardy fan to suggest they can turn it around. We’ve spent a lot of time in these pages telling you exactly what has gone wrong. So we wanted to provide some positive direction for how the Raiders might replicate the achievements of late runs past.
- Josh Hodgson is in charge now
Last season Josh Hodgson played one of the greatest seasons of football you will see from a dummy-half. He was creative and devastating, directing the attack from the middle of the ruck with well-placed and well-organised combinations with his forwards and halves.
Through a combination of the halves desire to have more control of the Raiders attack and more mortal form from the rake, Hodgson has been less effective and less influential in the Raiders attack.
After the first bye of the Raiders season though, Hodgson looked back to his best form early in the Broncos game, darting in and around the ruck, sending forwards into gaps and creating points by creating advantage of the Raiders forwards to exploit. Unfortunately he was out last week with a calf injury. If he’s back in time for the St George game, he needs to find Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin and tell them he’s in charge.
- Line speed in defence
Poor line speed has been a harbinger of doom for the Raiders. When they don’t get off their line teams take plenty of metres against them. Early in the season poor line speed through the middle of the park was offset by rapid pace off the goal-line. In the last four weeks this too has gone missing.
Fixing line speed is hard because it appears to be either a fitness or attitude problem, so right in the ‘easy to say, harder to do’ way of things. But last year they found a way to switch it on, startlingly the competition with their suffocating defence against Melbourne late in the season, something they had only intermittently shown earlier in the season. Maybe they could listen to Al Pacino’s speech in ‘Any Given Sunday’ to get fired up?
- Get the right early ball. Run set pieces on the left.
The curious thing about the Raiders has been their inability to do many of the things that worked for them last year. A shortage of ball in good position has meant that their pet plays that operate off the fulcrum of Sezer and Josh Papalii on the left haven’t been utilised enough. These set plays are effective, often resulting in points, or at worst the kind of broken defensive lines that allow halfbacks to kick from advantage to earn repeat sets…*cough*.
Meanwhile on the right BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana resorted to coming inside half Blake Austin in order to get the ball in space. Leilua has often even played as a third prop, taking early set hit-ups in sets normally reserved for the forwards. Defences are rushing up on Austin to stop him getting the ball to the outside.
The way to get the ball wider is twofold. Firstly, Austin needs to utilise second rower Elliot Whitehead more as a second ball-player. Whitehead is much better than Austin in passing in closed space. Which is unfortunate given Austin is meant to be a ball-player.
- Get Austin outside of Sezer
The second way more space can be created for Leilua and Rapana is if Austin plays at second receiver rather than first – this gets Austin the ball further from the defensive line, meaning more space to the men outside him before the line. Now if he’ll just pass them the ball.
- Move Boyd to the bench
Moving Boyd to the bench could do two things – firstly it would put Sia Soliola or Dave Taylor on the field earlier, and longer. Secondly it might give a bit of power to the back end of halves for the Raiders, an area in which the Green Machine are sorely lacking. Combining with Dave Taylor in the back end of the first half might be the start of a beautiful friendship. Or it might mean the end of the Raiders defence.
Oh, and get Nic Cotric the ball more.