When you climb the mountain again, you still have to start at the bottom
The Raiders started 2017 as one of the select group considered likely to be playing in the last weekend in September. A top 4 finish was considered almost inevitable by most commentators. The Raiders had achieved so much in 2016, beating both eventual grand finalists and sending a scare through the competition with their fluid attack and sometimes physical defence. How hard was it, most reasoned, to win one or two more games in 2017?
Where you stand on whether the Canberra Raiders 2017 season was a failure is the mirror of your views of 2016. Since Ricky Stuart took over as Raiders coach in 2014 the Raiders have won 8, 10, 17 and 11 games. In 2017 the Raiders didn’t meet expectations. For many they outperformed expectations in 2016. Are they a middle-of-the-road side that was masquerading as a contender for one year?
To answer this we must remember the Raiders had two wins and eight losses in games decided by less than six points. They lost 3 games in golden point, including one lost when a failed Jonathon Thurston field goal hit the cross-bar, bounced around in the in-goal for a second-rower to pounce on. The Raiders lost three other games where they led by at least 4 points going into the last ten minutes. How do we account for those games? A bounce here or there can change a season – as the Cowboys, now through to the penultimate week of the finals can attest.
One way to consider 2017 is to assess what the Raiders ‘should’ have won. The table below shows the performance of each side in the top 8 and the Raiders against their Pythagorean Win Expectation. A number in the positive means that side won more games than a team with similar numbers would be expected to win.
|Team||Wins v expectation|
The Raiders were 2.63 wins short of what the numbers expected, while the Roosters and the Eels won 2.8 games extra. The Raiders should have won at least 13 games in 2017, still four less than they did in 2016. Even in their under-performance the green machine disappointed.
The numbers tell a portion of the story. The Raiders failed to meet expectations for a reason. Rather than take it as luck, or that the Raiders are a mediocre side, my preferred view is that the Raiders failed to find a sustainable approach to winning games in 2017. Unquestionably talented, they too often were chasing games, relying on individual excellence to get them into winning positions after failing to play with the discipline, physicality or aggressiveness than their opponent. Take the first golden point loss to the Sea-Eagles. The Raiders were only in that game because of Jordan Rapana’s try-of-the-year candidate put the Raiders into the lead in the 73rd minute of the game. Or the wins against the Eels in round five, which required Nic Cotric’s individual brilliance and a Blake Austin(!) try saver to win the game in the last fifteen minutes.
Simple problems hampered the Raiders all year. In Part II we will show how at the core of their performance was their unwillingness to do the dirty work. And as such a talented side failed to perform. Next season they may learn this lesson and battle their way back to relevance. But there is no short cut. You have to start at the bottom again.