This has been epic, but if you feel like starting with Part 1 and Part 2 you really should. This builds on many of the ideas in those pieces. Also if you’ve read the other parts, and are here again, you are a good person and if you ever meet me in real life I will hug you…if you want.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Every side starts the season full of hope that maybe, finally, this year will be their year. Then at some point they get smacked in the mouth. Some teams grin and ask for more – see, for example, the North Queensland Cowboys. Some teams though never get back up. The Raiders spent all 2017 like a wobbling fighter, unable to stand up to the expectations placed on them, unwilling to get into the fight.
As it will be for every side not named Melbourne 2018 is a new day. In March Canberra’s autumn sun will be warm enough to make the locals wonder if they should wear shorts to the footy. The stands will fill up – though less full than the first game of 2017. Some Canberrans can be a bit fickle. A ball will be placed on a tee, kicked, and the Raiders will discover if they can make 2018 something to cheer about.
Whether the men in green are ready in that moment will depend on several adjustments they will need to make for 2018. That most of these are face-numbingly obvious says as much as the Raiders 2017 as anything. With a number of stars up for new contracts this may be the last run-around for this group. 2018 is a chance to show 2017’s failures were an important lesson. In 2018 they can do 2017, just this time more intelligently.
Win the middle
Saying you want to win the middle is like saying that you need to eat better. Sure it’s a noble idea but then you have a bit of a rough day and all of sudden there’s a beer and a cheeseburger in your hand. It takes discipline to earn the middle (and to not eat the cheeseburger – stay with that BJ!). In 2018 the Raiders need more big boys averaging more than 100 metres a game, instead of just Paulo and Papalii. In 2017 only 4 other sides had less than 4 forwards averaging over 100 metres a game.
The first step to winning the middle is to give Josh Hodgson control over the direction of the offence early in sets. As we said in Part 2, in 2017 Hodson was too willing to let Austin and Sezer direct the attack. It’s no coincidence he had his best games in the Raiders best wins of the season. Do you remember the victory over the Sharks? That heady time when we thought a late season run was coming? Hodgson was a dynamo that night. 1 try, 1 try assist, 2 line break assists and 3 tackle busts is an impressive line, but still understates the impact he had on that game. He controlled the attack more, he ran the ball more and the men in green benefited.
Giving the reigns to Hodgson means more completed sets because it’s simpler footy. More importantly it means the best ball-player has the ball more often. It means that the backs will get more space to operate because the defence will focus on the middle. They won’t have to push passes to try and create momentum. In short, it means the foundation the Raiders need. You might question whether they have the horses to dominate the middle, but Hodgson can bring out the best play of these forwards.
The Raiders need to stick with the backrow they stumbled onto at the end of the season. Starting Jo Tapine, Josh Papalii as the two edge forwards and Elliot Whitehead as the 80 minute workhorse in the middle of the park is the best structure. Tapine and Papalii are devastating edge-runners, and give Hodgson and the halves brutal face-ball options when they run at the line. Whitehead’s ball-playing ability, and his link with BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana is limited by moving him full-time to the middle of the park, but it is there that his running style can best be suited, working with Hodgson around the ruck.
That would also make four forwards that can play the full 80 minutes. This would mean less reliance on the bench, a big weakness in 2017. Luke Bateman and Charlie Gubb would be fighting for minutes alongside Sia Soliola off the bench. Kurt Baptiste would no longer be necessary and there may be space for younger players to be blooded off the bench – Erin Clark seems likely to be one.
More aggression in defence
Getting more out of the bench may help the other big problem in the middle: getting rolled. Line speed, lack of physicality, and defensive errors plagued this season. Line speed was part attitudinal and part weight of possession. They showed early in the season that they could muster line speed when needed. This manifested in impressive goal line defence in early losses against the Cowboys and the Broncos. As the season wore on the Raiders found it difficult to hold out in the face of disparate possession. With a little more ball and with a better attitude, more effort can be mustered to hold the line.
This won’t fix the poor reads close to the line. Almost the entirety of the backline was guilty of such an error throughout the season. Wighton’s positional play will be improved by better defence from his colleagues. So often this season he was forced to make a try-saving tackle on the goal line, only to have to haul it to the other side of the ground to cover a kick. Sometimes he didn’t make it. But better line speed means improved field position and less sets starting as attacking for the opposition. This will reduce the opportunities for errors. And for the Raiders that is a big part of the battle.
Let Aidan Sezer be the halfback
If the Raiders can control the middle then most of the battle is won. But they still need to decide once and for all how to incorporate the play of their mercurial halves pairing. The best way to achieve this is to make Sezer the yin to Hodgson’s yang. Whereas Hodgson can control the early set attack, Sezer should control the back end, directing the last tackles of sets when the defensive line has been dragged into the middle. Sezer can run the set plays best, and is a better kicker. A bit more consistency in his short game and the Green Machine may be able to earn more repeat sets than they managed in 2017.
This would also allow Blake Austin the freedom to exist in his best position – second receiver. Austin should embrace what makes him a first grade footballer. He’s devastating with space when he’s running at the defensive line. He’s not a ‘modern’ half and should not be forced to organise a side. He should instead operate in tandem with Wighton as secondary ball-players. The Raiders were best served in 2017 when Austin and Wighton both played as half five-eighth, hall fullbacks. Both have the capacity to play as the second receiver, best suited to making the decision to either pass or run, rather than having to create themselves.
This doesn’t mean that Austin doesn’t need to improve. He remains an enigma, too often turning his body to run at angles that mean he is unable to connect with anyone inside or outside of him. But the improvement required to be a capable secondary ball-player is much less than requiring him to be a ‘proper’ half.
Regardless, there is little money to change anything about their starting line-up in 2017. Short of Erin Clark being the second coming they will be stuck with their current halves. Any conception of this as a premiership level spine requires the Raiders to stop thinking of Austin and Wighton as a traditional five eighth and fullback and instead as two halves of the same coin.
Ask less from the backs
From there they can unleash a backline that needs no fixing. The back five should remain the same throughout this era. Each player is a devastating ballrunner capable of turning oppositions into mush. So often they did the hard work of bringing the ball out of danger. Often they were asked to make up for the halves lack of coherence or plan, creating points from nothing. Sometimes they erred. Removing the pressure on them to create from nothing will reduce the errors, and the consequential defence played. Defensive reads must improve, but these mistakes don’t need to be fixed as much as opportunities to make them reduced.
For the Raiders success in 2018 can be built on simple formula. They need to stake a claim in the middle of the park. This must happen in defence as well as in attack. The connections in the halves, sanctifying the quiet reshuffle that occurred during the 2017 season, will then have more influence.
Enduring questions remain. Can they learn the lesson of 2017 and refocus around the middle? Is the pack capable of the effort required? Can Austin embrace the fact he is not a modern half? Is Ricky Stuart capable of the subtle changes he will need to make each week to continue to evolve the side? The Raiders have another opportunity in 2018, perhaps the last this version of the side will have. Whether they succeed will come down to whether they approach 2018 more intelligently.
 shouts to Mike Tyson
 If you read this after the GF and the Storm didn’t win how rad was Jason Taumalolo how did he do that all by himself?
 Silly us they only come in even years.