I moved to Melbourne just as the Ricky Stuart regime was kicking off.
Being away from Bruce has made the one game we play at AAMI park against Melbourne each year take on more significance. I’ve still gotten back to Canberra for a couple of games (notably the greatest rugby league game ever played by a hooker). However, that game against Melbourne has remained in my mind all year – something to look forward to where hopefully we would be competitive. In 2016 the Raiders had already manhandled the Storm in Canberra before they came to Melbourne for the preliminary final. Sitting in the AAMI stands amongst an invading horde that just refused to be quiet, watching the Green Machine go toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in the competition was one of the best experiences of my football fandom (after this).
Subsequent years have really encapsulated the Raiders seasons. In round 26 of 2017 the Storm thumped a side already out of the finals 32-6. Canberra were still technically alive in round 20 of 2018, but a 44-10 pasting showed just how far off the mark they were.
In round 22, 2019 the Raiders play the Storm at AAMI park. By this stage we’ll know whether Canberra are going to play a serious part in 2019. I hope that when I get on the 96 tram on August 17 that I’m going to see a side ready to go toe-to-toe with the best again.
If you ask the ‘experts’ they’ll almost all tell you the Raiders are also-rans in 2019. They point to the losses of Boyd, Paulo and Austin, the ‘tiny’ forward pack, the Wighton experiment and the Rapana injury and say it’s too big of a mountain to climb. It used to be the Raiders were perennial picks for the wooden spoon; now they just inhabit the space outside the eight like a nosy neighbour looking over the fence at the fun on the other side.
Most of the reasons proffered for such a mediocre performance have more holes in them than the sandy outcrop of Lang Park. Paulo and Boyd have gone, but their styles had sacrifices that came with their benefits (not to mention the money it would have cost to keep them and what that would have done to the Raiders depth). It would have also kept the Raiders big but slow, and that effect had already created more defensive issues than they could handle. Anthony Griffin says you can’t win without size. I assume that’s a shock to the current premiers, who had one of the smallest packs in the competition in 2019.
Blake Austin is gone, but that’s almost addition by subtraction. Austin was an exhilarating ball-runner, but his defence and his involvement of his outside men was never properly developed in Canberra. Bringing Wighton into the line will help address some of those defensive issues; the rest could be addressed by a quicker (see: line speed), more defensive-minded pack.
It reveals more that the punditry don’t actually watch the Raiders unless they absolutely have to. The Raiders have struggled with slow line-speed and poor edge defence in recent years. They have found it hard to finish games. Points have never been an issue. The changes they have made, combined with the presence of Josh Hodgson and Jack Wighton for the full-season could render these lazy assessments moot.
So can the Raiders make the eight in 2019, and (slightly less importantly) make my round 22 experience more enjoyable?
The problem with most assessments of the 2019 Canberra Raiders is that they are based on normative understandings of how football is won. You win with big forwards and a dominant seven. It’s a restrictive way to think about rugby league. This era’s Raiders success will be built differently.
If Canberra is to be successful in 2019 it will be because Josh Hodgson and Jack Wighton succeed. Josh Hodgson was arguably the best player in the NRL in the second half of 2019. He had 13 try assists in 11 matches, a stunning figure for a rake. In a side that looked discombobulated at times, he was serene. His creativity and deception around the ruck could make up for the loss of Paulo and Boyd, and more responsibility in attack may provide him with the opportunities he needs to really dominate. I also look forward to the flexibility that comes with Siliva Havili’s insertion giving him the opportunity to float wider in attack should he choose.
Wighton has also been given an expanded role, but one that will demand less touches than Blake Austin was used to. His role builds on his previous role at the back. In his only trial game he stayed on the left and ran a facsimile of the operations he succeeded running as a fullback last year. If the Raiders keep his job simple, then he will thrive.
This means Aidan Sezer has to bridge the gap between the expanded role of Josh Hodgson, and the slightly smaller role (relative to Blake Austin) of Wighton. Sezer at times has found it hard to be the loudest voice on the ground, but he has acknowledged he needs to fix this. He showed in the first victory of 2018 that he can drag the Raiders to victory with his boot. His burgeoning combination with Jo Tapine on the right edge will be fascinating if it develops to its potential.
The forward pack is the other major point of contention. The smaller pack will have the pace, but can it halt the momentum of bigger forward packs? The truth is that even when the Raiders were large they were prone to being rolled right up the guts. The decision to play small-ball will be blamed whenever that happens, but unless there’s a marked increase in this occurrence then this is just reductive reasoning.
There’s little doubt in my mind that a forward pack that will likely start some mix of John Bateman, Sia Soliola, Luke Bateman and Elliot Whitehead will be effective defensively, but can they regularly win the physical battle with the ball? Josh Papalii is often pointed to as the only ‘tackle buster’ in the pack, but the bench will likely provide plenty of potency in the middle from Emre Guler, Royce Hunt Ryan Sutton and Corey Horsburgh. Jo Tapine is about to have a breakout year running on the right edge, and Elliot Whitehead will create momentum with his ball play on the left. A lot of pressure will be on Josh Hodgson to create space and momentum in sets where his ball-runners can’t, but he’s shown for nigh on five years now that he’s more than capable of that.
The move of Wighton forward, and the injuries to Jordan Rapana and Michael Oldfield are testing the depth of the Raiders backs. Charnze Nicoll-Kolksted was the most impressive of the newcomers and will start at fullback. Bailey Simonnson will likely start on the other wing. He has unquestionable talent but the trials indicated he’s a few steps from first grade.
The real concern here is the weight on Nic Cotric’s shoulders to do the yardage work coming off the Raiders line that Wighton and Rapana have been so good at in recent years. BJ Leilua can expand his workload to help with this. In this past he’s shown himself willing and able to take part, often operating as a third prop in ‘forward’ sets. He will need to be back early on kicks to make similar carries in yardage sets, and avoid Nicoll-Kloksted having to take multiple hit-ups. These yardage sets will prove important, particularly if the Raiders ‘small’ forward pack takes a beating from bigger sides.
So the Raiders can succeed in 2019 by relying on a brilliant hooker, by putting their new six in the space to succeed, through good defence from their forward pack, and by making sure critical backs can do the dirty work that will be missed through the absence of Rapana and Wighton.
I think this is a formula they can make work. This team has addressed the structural flaws of 2018. Wighton is a step up from what Austin offered. Hodgson will be on the field. If the mobile pack can improve the Canberra defence then maybe a few close losses become wins. Given where the Raiders have set in recent years, more wins will likely mean more finals.
And maybe, just maybe, a game that matters in round 22.
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