The Canberra Raiders have an odd fluke of tradition. Since their first grand final appearance in 1987, the Green Machine has rolled into the finals in every ‘even’ year outside of 1992 and 2014. It’s a strange statistical fluke that stood up in the good times and the *cough* less good times. It’s no surprise they made the finals in nearly all the ‘even’ years between 1987 and 1999 because the only year they missed the finals was 1992. The trend is a bit more surprising in the 2000s. The Raiders have only made the finals one (1) time in an odd year (2003) this millennium and only missed the finals in 2014 in ‘even’ seasons.
It’s a pretty dumb pattern and could have any litany of explanations ranging from inconsistency, short-term thinking and plain old chance. Any of these are more convincing than any numerology quackery, but the consistency of this phenomenon is a fascinating one.
The 2018 Canberra Raiders present a nice little test case of this pattern. If something could go wrong this year, it has. They’ve lost heartbreakers on heartbreakers. They’ve lost key players to injury for sustained periods. The Raiders have been about as a consistent as a Jackson Pollack painting, and just as confusing.
But then Josh Hodgson returned and put an ordinary Tigers to the sword and all of sudden the Raiders are sexy again. Shit, even Phil Gould thinks they’re about to take the competition by storm.
All this groupthink is enough to make you anxious.
You can see how the people got there. The Raiders have lost an incredible amount of 50/50 games this year. They’re about six points from being in the top 4. Despite sitting outside the finals, the Raiders have the sixth best points differential in the competition. They’ve got their star playmaker and mojo back, and god knows we all enjoy a bit of recency bias when it comes to how football teams are performing.
Equally, there’s plenty of reason to doubt that the biennial tradition will be continued. For starters Josh Hodgson will surprise no one this weekend. That doesn’t mean he can’t dominate, it just ups the degree of difficulty. The Broncos have been inconsistent all year, but there’s not questioning they’re a better side than the Tigers or the Sea Eagles, the only other sides the Raiders have beaten in the last month.
And the Raiders are going to have to do this without Jack Wighton for the foreseeable future.
As we’ve noted a few times recently, Jack has been a critical part of the Raiders attack this year. He’s played as a dedicated second receiver on the left edge, a crucial cog in the attack. His decision to pass short/long or run have been exceptional, and he’s all but removed the errors from his game that have plagued his younger self. That doesn’t even mention the human gap-filler role he plays for the Raiders’ defensive line. Brad Abbey is a useful fill-in, and has reportedly been excellent for the Mounties in a ball-playing role. But it’s asking a lot to expect to him to fill the massive role that Wighton plays for the men in green.
If the Raiders are going to succeed it will take an improved effort from Blake Austin, both in attack and defence. Disciplined attacks like the Broncos and Sharks will target his edge with impunity. He’ll also be called on to provide more ball-playing as a second-receiver than he has been required to this year.
Elliot Whitehead can also step up and play more of role in ball-playing. The return of Hodgson ignited the creativity in his play, and he played a critical role in the attacking movements on the left edge, particularly when Hodgson took the blind side. He may end up doing more of Wighton’s work on that side than Austin.
Whether your an optimist or a pessimist about the Raiders, their likelihood of playing finals footy will be heavily influenced by this weekends’ ‘four-point’ game. If the biennial tradition is to be continued, this weekend is where it either starts or ends.