Normally this time of year you’ll find plenty of opportunities to read about the year that was. Unfortunately 2017 was about as fun as passing a kidney stone for Raiders fans. You’ve heard that story for the best part of the year. The Raiders were meant to be contenders. They underperformed. Then like the cherry on the shit sundae, my hero and yours, Josh Hodgson hurt his knee and won’t be seen until about round 16 of 2018.
So today we’re looking forward. What are the things that we’ll be looking for when the Raiders take the field in 2018.
1. The Return of Leipana
2017 was a mixed bag for the dominant right-side combination in the competition. A slight come-down from 2016’s world beaters, Jordan Rapana and BJ Leilua still produced 31 tries, 30 line breaks, 265 tackle breaks and 11 try assists between them. Leaving try assists aside, they accounted for over a fifth of the Raiders points in 2017.
After a offseason in which it seemed at any moment that BJ Leilua was about to be moved (something his coach seemed at best lukewarm about) it seems that everything has settled down. Leilua will be standing inside his good mate Rapana at the Raiders next year.
They’ll be needed even more in 2018 as the Raiders search for points absent Josh Hodgson.
2. The fix of the Raiders defence
The Stuart era Raiders have often seemed confused on defence. Outside their finals run in 2016, they’ve lacked line-speed and aggression. Their philosophies have been unclear – are they an ‘up-and-in’ defence or are they defending their outside shoulders? In 2017 they slid on their goal-line, made critical individual errors and showed about as much enthusiasm for the task as I do for the treadmill.
The good thing is that Coach Ricky Stuart agrees and wants to fix this. If Stuart is up to the task the Raiders will debut a much improved defence in 2018. We can’t wait.
3. The endurance of the backrow.
The Raiders lacked forward depth in 2017. But luckily they won’t need it as much in 2018. Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii and Elliot Whitehead present coach Stuart with three versatile players to fill out the backrow for the full 80 minutes of the game. Not only does this get the Raiders best forwards on the park for the whole game, but it frees up interchange rotations for the front row.
Joe Tapine is ready to play 80 minutes on an edge. He showed this at the back end of last season, and then again as the lone star in an otherwise dark universe of New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. He averaged 8.98m over the advantage line, the second best Raiders forward after Papalii (9.74m). Elliot Whitehead’s ball-playing is suddenly needed in the middle to add some pizazz in the absence of Josh Hodgson. And Papalii is hopefully less full of World Cup cheer as he was in November.
4. The Coming of Aidan Sezer
I have to admit I’m an Aidan Sezer apologist. I see a good ball player able to organise and direct the side to where it needs to get on the field. I see a man most capable of choosing and running the Raiders set attack pieces, who has formed an excellent link with fullback Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker on the left. The only criticism I have of Sezer is his inexplicable willingness to let Blake Austin run the show. Austin is not an organiser, and is best served playing outside dominant ball-players like Sezer and Josh Hodgson (did I mention Hodgson is injured?).
2018 should be the season that Sezer takes control of the team. There should be no confusion about who runs the show here.
5. The Consistency of Jack Wighton
Jack is an exceptional defender but he spends so much time cleaning up defensive mistakes that he’s often out of position. Should the Raiders improve their defence it will help him reach his potential because he will actually only have to defend as a fullback, rather than in the Raiders line.
Another thing that will improve is Wighton’s ball play. By the end of the season he’d had 35 errors, down from 44 in 2016 and a significant reduction over the second half of the season. The reduction in his error rate coincided with improved ball play. As a second receiver he’s shown a good ability to make decisions on the run, whether that be to go short, long or take on the line. Per the Greenhouse he was in the top 5 fullbacks for try involvements (25) and try assists (9) for the year.
In 2018 look for Wighton to continue his form of the second half of 2017.
6. The development of Nic Cotric
Nic Cotric was the big glass of Lagavulin for 2017: the tonic that made life bearable. For a 19 year old he showed skill, strength but most importantly maturity. He learnt from his early mistakes (often he was taken into touch early in the season) and handled the move not only to first grade but to a new position with aplomb.
He is already a quality winger, and will play representative football, perhaps as early as this year. The sky is the limit for Cotric if he continues to improve at the rate he did in 2017.
7. The return of Hodgson
Round 16. I’m already counting.