Part 1 of our 2017 Season Review outlined that the Raiders had not met expectations in 2017. Further, they had not even reached their potential win expectation. We continue our Season Review with Part 2 in which we seek to understand what went wrong. FYI – it’s not a happy read.
If you need to catch Part 1 again you can read it here.
“We lacked any professionalism with the football and we were very, very poor…” Ricky Stuart
This sentence, ostensibly about the Raiders 31-18 loss to North Queensland in June, could have been about many moments in the Raiders snakes-and-ladders (but mostly snakes) 2017. At the heart of the Raiders failed 2017 was a lack of discipline with the ball, and effort and physicality in defence. These core problems pervaded everything all through the season.
Handling errors were both a symptom and a cause of the Raiders problems. They were 15th in total completion percentage (74) and had the 5th highest number of errors. When they completed more than 75 per cent of their sets they were 11-2. In the past we have written that possession percentage is a better predictor of success. The Raiders had the 11th worst possession percentage in the competition. Of the sides in the top 8, seven of them had higher possession percentages than the Raiders. In games where they had the majority of the ball they went 7-2.
Too often the Raiders forward pack was pounded into submission, reluctant to do the hard work to control the middle of the park. This was a bad combination with poor ball security which tired them through extra defence. The Raiders went from fourth in total all-run metres for 2016 to 13th in 2017. The Raiders best forwards – Junior Paulo (142.7m per game) and Josh Papalii (138.8m per game) – were 34th and 39th in the NRL in all-run-metres. No other Raiders forward averaged more than 100 metres per game. Unlike previous years, the starting forward pack was not supported by the rotation forwards. In 2017 Paul Vaughan (116.0m per game in 2016) and Shaun Fensom were gone, Jo Tapine was lost to the starting line-up and Luke Bateman’s metres-per-game dropped from the 80s into the 60s. Dave Taylor’s inspirational contribution at the end of the season was not enough to offset this.
In addition to poor ball security and lack of forward depth, the weak middle was also attributable to (and a contributor to) Josh Hodgson’s quieter season. In 2016 Hodgson had been a top 5 player in the competition, the clear successor to Cameron Smith as the best rake in the game. He was still excellent this season, using his brilliant creativity around the ruck to good effec. But he ceded too much control to the halves, and at times lacked aggression. He ran the ball less, averaging 50.1 metres per game, down from 68.4 in 2016.
His deceptive ball play didn’t disappear, but the Raiders utilised this talent less in the redzone. Previously Hodgson sending forwards at the posts was option one and two of any Raiders attacking set. His 16 try assists in 2016 were the most for any Raider or any forward, and good for 10th in the NRL. In 2017 he had 9. The pet play of sending two-forwards on either side of a defender disappeared as the Raiders’ impatience chased quick points wider out. Raiders forwards scored 37 tries in 2016. In 2017 they scored 19.
Poor ball security and less patience to work in the middle meant the ball went wider earlier, creating riskier play and more errors. It also meant that Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer drove the Raiders attack. In 2017 Austin continued his bumpy development as an organiser and creator. These are not his strengths. His decision making often sees him give too little or too late ball to the men on his outside. When his run is directed at the corner post he doesn’t see any passes inside him and the Raiders become easy to corral. More often than not his focus drifted wider and the Raiders sputtered. Austin started the season gifted his own side of the field to organise. As a result the sparkling early season form of BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana quickly transformed into frustration due to a lack of ball.
Austin had his best moments since 2015 playing predominantly as a second receiver. This was most successful in in the victory over the Bunnies in round 21. Critical here was the directness of his running lines, finding ball-runners on either side of him. On this night his straight up play provided an idea of what could’ve been, and what still could.
For his part Sezer was often the brunt of fans frustration due to his inability or unwillingness to stamp himself as the controller of the Raiders wide men. He is the only Raiders half than can organise set movements on either side of the ruck. He plays much straighter in attack, and often made good choices to run the ball. Later in the season Austin began to play more as a secondary receiver and Sezer took control of much of the Raiders direction. The side benefited immensely.
No member of the spine kicked well this year. The inability to earn repeat sets was devastating to the Raiders capacity for patience in attack. Hodgson kicked into legs around the ruck too much, Sezer’s grubbers lacked depth, and Austin rarely attempted them. The cross field bomb was the the Raiders most effective weapon off the boot, alongside Sezer’s long kicking game.
Despite a less fluid attack, despite all the errors, and despite the sometimes poor direction, the Raiders still managed to be the third most prolific point-scorers in 2017. The individual backline was important in this. Nic Cotric is a rare jewel the Raiders need to involve as much as possible. BJ Leilua was a mere mortal but with Jordan Rapana remained a formidable duo on the right edge. Their mistakes grew with their frustration. This matched their desire to almost single-handedly keep the Raiders in games.
In defence the Raiders never matched the physicality or aggression necessary to dominate sides with their defence. They simply did not have enough ball to do so. That they were in the bottom half of the competition for missed tackles – i.e. that they missed less than most – suggests that technically they are quite capable defenders. But they simply could not stand up to the weight of possession they faced. Early in the season the goal-line defence was impressive, and in the losses to the Cowboys in round 1 and the Broncos in round 4 they showed that they had the capacity to sustain impressive defence for long periods. But as the season went so did their aggression, the line speed returning to more pedestrian levels.
The Raiders never had an answer to this ill discipline in 2017 and it proved insidious. Their profligacy with the ball and lack of aggression pervaded everything they did. The good news is that such a fundamental cause of the Raiders problem was easy to identify. Part 3 will address just how that can be done.
 One of those two losses was in golden point to Manly. The other was when Penrith scored twice in the last two minutes to win.
 Both of those losses were to the Panthers. Do you remember them? They weren’t heart-wrenching. Not at all.
 For those playing at home Shannon Boyd averaged only 93.4 metres per game, Jo Tapine 88 and and Elliot Whitehead only 83.9.