The 2018 Canberra Raiders are Aidan Sezer’s to control, if he wants to. He is 26, entering his prime, and is the prime ball-player in the absence of Josh Hodgson. 2018 may well define the man. The Raiders’ finals chances rely on Sezer taking the season by the scruff of the neck.
There is no doubting Sezer comes into this season in a challenging position. He is critical to the success of a Hodgson-less Raiders, and playing for a new contract for 2019 and beyond. The Raiders are asking him to not only be a starting half, but play a dual-role in games, spending time at hooker. This challenge is made even more so by the fact he’s playing for a new contract. The Raiders have a short time to work out if they think if Sezer is worth the money he’ll be asking, because suitors will be circling. Rumours abound the Bulldogs already are.
Since he came to the Raiders, Sezer has shown glimpses of the talent that he promises. He is an excellent field-marshall, ball-player and kicker, and an underrated ball-runner. When he arrived at the club he immediately provided an idea of how he would fit into the side, dragging the team to victory in the first round of 2016 despite breaking his fucking face in the game. He kicked brilliantly, organised his backs and scored the game-sealing try when he burst through opposition defence on the left. He did it with a broken cheek bone. It was the complete Sezer package.
He immediately spent five weeks on the sideline as his face worked on being not borked. In the meantime Josh Hodgson was enjoying his breakout season and resigned Sezer to a back seat on that ride as the season crested in a magnificent finals run.
In 2017 he was below his standards early in the year. The same could have been said for much of his brethren as the Raiders cratered through the Origin weeks – the time they were meant to be taking easy victories from teams starved of their quality players.
Sezer, by his own account, was not playing his best football through this time. He turned it around late in the year, winning games for the Raiders with his kicking (e.g against the Dragons in round 19) and ball play (e.g that beautiful ball he threw to Michael Oldfield to seal the win against Souths in round 21). He seemed happier with his play at the end of the season than at the beginning.
If there has been a criticism of Sezer it’s that too often he’s been content to let others direct the Raiders attack. Of the 34 try assists delivered by the Raiders spine in 2017, Sezer only accounted for 8. Josh Hodgson rightly dominated much of the ball and this made Sezer have to work to fit around him. Instead of getting his hands on the ball throughout the set Sezer touched it only at the end. With Hodgson doing much of the organisation Sezer has been just a single voice on one side of the fulcrum.
The other voice calling for it has been Blake Austin. Austin came to Canberra a year earlier, and his (seemingly) dominant 2015 meant that he was already in a position of informal leadership when Sezer joined the side. This means Austin’s calls for the ball late in sets are often indulged, despite Sezer being the superior ball-player and kicking option. In short Sezer hasn’t had the freedom to control the side as he sees fit.
This year Sezer is primed to take on a more ball dominant position. As starting half in a Hodgson-less team he will get the ball first and foremost. Even the challenge of dummy-half gives him more ball and an opportunity to take control of the Raiders in 2018.
But Sezer’s time is now. Hodgson is out until late 2018, and his replacements do not have the same creativity or gravitas. Austin is not an organiser and if the Raiders learned anything from late 2017 he will play mostly as second receiver as he did from around round 18 onwards. In the trial match against the Bulldogs Austin looked his best when he was running wide of Sezer and Williams.
Spending more time sharing the field with Sam Williams will present another challenge, and curtail Sezer’s control of the side.
In all likelihood Sezer will get to run things his way in 2018. Instead of touching the ball once a set he’ll get it four or five times if he wants to. But does he want to? And what will come of it?
We’re about to find out.