The sunsets come sooner these days. Trees across Canberra begin to change their colours, if they have any energy left after a particularly gruelling summer. Before you know it, five and a half months have shot past. The Raiders have quietly sweltered through the off-season, slowly testing their newfound combinations ahead of the season proper.
Two trial games came and went, both won in the most displeasing fashion, the Raiders enacting wins reminiscent of their 2018 losses. From a personal standpoint I’m less than thrilled about the return of football in general – the NRL has a slew of issues that it really needs to get a good footing on.
But from a Raiders standpoint I’m quietly excited. There’s a new spine to organise the play, and the roster currently boasts a surfeit of forwards. There are a few issues, such as key backs still out with injury, but nothing so monumental that the Raiders can’t overcome things for the first few rounds of the year.
Round 1 finds the Green machine facing off against the Gold Coast Titans, who now have the services of former man mountain Shannon Boyd. Boyd left Canberra at the end of 2018, after Raiders footy management identified salary cap strain and a pivot to smaller forwards as a priority moving on. His fellow wrecking ball Junior Paulo returned to Parramatta, meaning that Canberra is now without two of the biggest forward units in the comp. In their place there are now the likes of Sutton, J.Bateman, Guler, Lui and Horsburgh, all of whom either have established form or have shown promise on the way up.
One should never discount Boyd, as he can be a damaging player when at top output and managed properly. Sunday sees him get a starting spot alongside Wallace, Proctor, James and Arrow, a starting pack that could cause some problems for the Raiders if they aren’t contained. The Raiders have also opted to start the game with all their experienced hands on deck, with Soliola lining up alongside Papalii, Whitehead and Tapine.
Defensive ruck speed is key here (something that was lacking during the trials). It’ll take some doing but the Raiders need to get the Titans big men on their backs as much as possible, especially big units like Boyd. The last thing you want is a forward getting a quick play the ball through to Peats and on to Taylor or Roberts.
Offensively the Raiders need to establish rhythm early on. There’s no use in wildly chucking the pill around if you’re not making any headway, although Hodgson’s crafty direction should take care of early metres. It’s then up to Sezer and Wighton to see if they can send players wide of the fringes or cut back in against tiring forwards (the forecast is for rain and temps around 28c)
Head to Head
Josh Hodgson vs Nathan Peats. Hodgson is for me the most intelligent player in the NRL, one whose vision matches and probably surpasses that of Cam Smith by this point. His ability to read more than one play ahead gives the Raiders an almost clairvoyant advantage when they’re all in tune, and he can quickly set up back to back scoring opportunities.
Peats was a rising star when he was at the Eels, before Parra’s salary cap woes ended with him being offloaded to the Titans. He’s still a good hooker, and is probably enjoying life more with the Titans than he would be with the current Eels, but he’s definitely out-matched against Hodgson
Green Star Award
The Raiders staff and players for addressing their 2018 weakness (late game fades) and aggressively training to fix the issue in the off-season. Players were routinely thrown into “70th minute” scenarios where they were charged with
defending a narrow lead. While we don’t yet know if it’s worked at least they’ve acknowledged it.
I reckon the Raiders can jag a win here, but it will require the cliched 80 minutes of Proper Footy™. The Titans are another team trying to claw their way back into the eight, and they won’t give up too easy.
Raiders by 8!