This article is part of our series reviewing the Canberra Raiders 2018 National Rugby League season. You can check out Part I here.
If there is something I can guarantee you, it’s that every Canberra fan had a moment this season where they sat staring at the field or their television and wondered if it was all worth it. Remotes were thrown. Passionate words yelled. Social media posts made. At the heart of it we were all asking a simple question: why does this keep happening?
The why of 2018 is a bit of a story. The Raiders had a ‘Plan A’. It was pretty good too – you don’t score the second most points in the competition without being good at something. But this plan was built on shaky foundations, and whenever a wolf was blowing at the door, the whole house was liable to come down. The only way to surive was to be perfect, and we all know nobody’s perfect.
The Raiders started 2018 with a pretty clear ‘Plan A’. Win the middle with size and let your outside backs use their skill to manufacture points. Hardly rocket science, but one that was forced upon them by losing much of their ruck creativity when Josh Hodgson’s anterior crucial ligament tore.
For a side that had a rambunctious and sometimes audacious attack, they actually moved the ball around much less than other teams – 16.88 per cent less passes than average in general play, and nearly 62 per cent less total ball movement than average.
Despite the central focus of much of the Raiders work, the middle forwards had a pretty mixed year. Josh Papalii was dropped early in the season before a very impressive back half of the season (and to be honest he was the best Raiders’ forward before he was dropped). He was the only Raiders forward to average more than 100 metres per game (he finished with 126m a game). Shannon Boyd had a great start to the season, averaging more than 100 metres a game (despite his limited minutes) through the first ten rounds of the competition. He was much quieter in the back half, perhaps slowed by a calf injury and his impending departure, and only averaged 89 metres per game on the season. Similarly, Junior Paulo slowed in the second half of the season as he came back from a foot injury that kept him out for a substantial period of time.
Papa had a huge year for the Raiders
Around them Elliot Whitehead, Siliva Havili and Sia Soliola held the Raiders together at various points in the season, covering middle forwards, edges, hooker, five-eighth and centres.
Joe Tapine had a stellar year in attack on his edge, and towards the end of the season seemed to discover he was in fact bigger than most of the people he faced. In particular, his rampaging work against the Tigers in round 22 belied the brilliance that he could bring in 2019. Dunamis Lui was the exactly the kind of ‘solid if unspectacular’ performer that forward packs need in the salary cap era. Emre Guler and Jack Murchie had promising starts to their first grade careers, the former in particular showing he is ready for a permanent spot in first grade.
Sidebar: When the Raiders rushed to find a replacement to Josh Hodgson, few could have envisioned just how important Siliva Havili would be for the Raiders. While not the ball player of Hodgson, he was a perfectly adequate replacement at dummy-half – not just a good runner, but great at deciding when to run. When Hodgson returned later in the season, he transitioned to bench utility with aplomb, and is going to be critical forward and hooker depth in 2019.
The mixed performance of the middle meant the Raiders had to look elsewhere for their points. With Havili in the middle early in the season they looked wide of the ruck for their attacking movements. Rather than employing the traditional ‘split halves’ approach that most sides take, the Raiders played split five-eighths. Blake Austin sat outside Aidan Sezer on the right edge, and Jack Wighton was second receiver on the left.
Havili was a find for the Raiders
We outlined just how effective Wighton was as a ballplayer on that edge recently. Safe to say he was up to the challenges of the responsibility. His edge was always dynamic, and it was noticeable how less effective sweeping movements were in the back half of the season after he was suspended.
Austin was less so. He had less try assists and a equal number of line break assists than Wighton in nine more games. For much of the season he was a passenger, and it was only his banishment to the bench that seemed to draw the best out of him. Interestingly, what served him best was the freedom ‘from’ creating (as opposed to the responsibility to create). Against the Bulldogs he could run, and he did just that, making light of Kerrod Holland’s defensive attempts. It became painfully clear that trying to become a proper ball-playing five-eighth had been a step too far for Austin, and that he would be happier elsewhere on the field.
In the middle of this was Aidan Sezer, and later Josh Hodgson. Sezer was victim of expectations that plague all Raiders – and most NRL – halves in this day and age. He was only considered effective when they were winning, even if sometimes it took him dragging them to victory all by himself (as he did in the Raiders first victory of the season). He was entrusted to be the sole first-receiver for much of the year (except the games he shared with Sam Williams), and the Raiders looked best when he was there. They really struggled to conduct any set plays or sweeping movements without him and Wighton late in the season. He’s no star, but he’s a good halfback and good football player.
To be honest I just really love this photo
And then there’s Josh Hodgson. Upon his return we warned against high expectation but he blew that out of the water in his first outing. For a brief moment, the Raiders had their full-first choice spine available, and put 38-0 unanswered points on the good defence of the Wests Tigers. He finished the season with 13 try assists in just 11 games as suddenly the attack revolved around him again. It was a valuable variation of the attack. He seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with Josh Papalii, sending him over 3 times on close to the line runs.
When the middle couldn’t get things done, when Hodgson was injured, or when Sezer couldn’t drag them over the line, the Raiders had one failsafe. They could turn to the back five to make things happen.
The Raiders back five has been an underrated strength for a couple of years now. An oft overlooked part of the Raiders game is the effectiveness of the back five in yardage. The Raiders led the competition in dummy-half runs – almost 28 per cent more than average – and this almost entirely came from their incredible approach to coming off their own line. Simply let Rapana, Cotric, Wighton and Leilua make the running from ruck. It worked because they are elite ball runners, and it was a sight almost every week. Cotric (6.2 tackle busts a game), Leilua (4.1) and Rapana (4.3) broke tackles and made metres. Jarrod Croker was the only member of the back five who didn’t average more than 100 run metres a game.
But more than just yardage, the Green Machine relied on the back five to create something out of nothing. And they did so nearly every week. They manufactured tries unlike any other back five in the competition. The Raiders halves (Sezer, Austin and Williams) had 21 try assists for the year. The back five had 23.
It’s worth pointing out that this is not a sustainable approach. Hoping that your back five can create something from nothing is inherently variable. It doesn’t lead to creating pressure. Elite teams do not do win by hoping their back five can be brilliant. They direct pressure, they target weaknesses and they work out a way through.
When the middle men were stopped, or when possession became scarce the Raiders had to turn to hope. It was the rocks and diamonds stuff we associate with BJ Leilua, writ large. For large part of games the Raiders turned their attack entirely over to hoping talent could trump planning. When Wighton was replaced by Abbey, when Croker or Rapana was replaced by Oldfield, Sia or Whitehead, it just made it that little bit harder for the fail safe to kick in.
So Plan A didn’t always work. Sometimes the Raiders couldn’t dominate the middle. Sometimes their ball-handling or discipline deserted them, or teams were able to swing possession through repeat sets (something that the Raiders halves only managed 20 times during the season – so less than once a game). Invariably good competition was able to stifle an attack that relied on momentum in the middle, or the brilliance of its outside men.
And that meant the Raiders had to turn to their defence.
Part III will come early next week