Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, the best thing to do is to sleep it off. Everything looks better in the light of a new day right?
The Canberra Raiders loss Saturday may be the exception to that rule. A loss in a very winnable game against a bottom 8 side was bad enough. Extending their losing streak to three, or four in their last five depending on how you cut it, was depressing. Then comes injury and origin, which look like putting even further strain on a rapidly thinning roster. Today I am much sadder than I was after the game.
So let’s take stock.
Already missing was BJ Leilua, Jordan Rapana and John Bateman. Joining them on the sidelines will be Josh Hodgson for at least six weeks – almost perfectly the entire origin period. Whereas the Raiders were meant to be somewhat origin-proof because of their heavy international contingent, suddenly they are going to be without an irreplaceable player for the entire period. Add to that the importance of Rapana to so much the Raiders do (gawd we are missing that yardage work). Then consider that the weeks that we desperately need people that can fill holes will be the weeks we will be without the human spak-filler of John Bateman. It’s cruel timing.
This has been compounded by the Green Machine losing their next best three players to Origin. Congratulations to Jack Wighton, Josh Papalii and Nic Cotric – your selection is well deserved. I am happy for you and devastated for the Raiders. As you’ve noticed, Canberra will go forth in round 12 with arguably their best seven players not available.
They may desperately need a victory this weekend, but more than that they need to be able to stay afloat through the Origin period. They don’t play another of the big three until Easts in round 21. One might see that as a good thing – a chance to sneak some victories against weaker sides while the stars are out.
But it increases the importance of these next six weeks. Games against the Sharks, Tigers, Eels and Dragons mean that the Raiders can either put distance between themselves and the peleton, or fall off the back. If they can squeeze out to 9-8 or 10-7 over this period they’ll be well suited to make a serious run into September. But 7-10 or 8-9 would make any serious run at the end of the year that much harder.
Can they win enough to stay in touch with the big three? Bringing Aidan Sezer in to partner Sam Williams should be relatively seamless. They’ve played plenty of football together in recent years. If Joe Tapine can play a bigger role in Papalii’s absence than he did last weekend it will be welcome. Havili is willing to test ruck defenders with the run and from what I saw in the trial games so is Tom Starling. Neither is the player that Hodgson is, but between the two of them I’m confident they’ll perform adequately.
From there the answers get a bit murkier. Sebastian Kris will likely get a show at centre (either starting or, if you’re feeling creative, off the bench behind Smelly). I don’t know if he’s good. You might. Please let me know if you have an opinion.
Leaving aside selection quandaries, it becomes less clear how the Raiders can replicate their early season form with this 17. As we said ad nauseum as the halfback civil war raged, the Raiders points in 2019 were going to come from three places. Josh Hodgson, Jack Wighton and Leipana. Those options are not available, and Canberra will have to find another way to manufacture points. That was hard enough in the second half of the Cowboys game with Wighton. Suddenly the game plan must change.
It’s obvious that Williams and Sezer will have to play big roles to do this. Coming up from reserve grade to (hopefully) play a massive role is a lot to ask of Aidan. I suspect he’ll play on the left, a straight swap for Jack. That means he’ll likely be playing with Young, Simonsson and Croker. He has little familiarity with anyone but the captain.
Expecting Williams to do ‘more’ than he already does is a fools errand. Sam is a steady organiser, a beta blocker for a team that can run hot and cold. If he tries to do more he may actually achieve less. My hope is that Elliot Whitehead has the energy to do more in attack, becoming a second creator on that edge. Bateman has played a similar role there before he was injured. Smelly won’t have the advantage of Leilua or Rapana to set free though.
Finding a way to manufacture points over the next few weeks is going to be critical because there’s no way the defence will be as robust. Wighton is a huge plus as an edge defender. Sezer was always solid, but he can’t put the fear of god in the man with the ball like Jack. Papalii has secretly been solid in the middle despite also carrying the can in attack. Sia will stand up in his absence, and depending on where he finds himself, Tapine will need to provide physicality.
Suddenly rookies have to play big roles. Hudson Young, who only became a regular starter in the last month, is a linchpin in our left edge defence. Corey Horsburgh can be a physical presence in the middle, but he can’t afford to give away penalties as he has. Emre Guler and Jack Murchie are going to have to step up and be impact forwards. At least they will be relatively fresh bodies for a middle that looked exhausted last Saturday.
In short these absences mean the Raiders are asking a lot of those left behind.
The next six weeks will be a test of Canberra’s character, and of Coach Stuart’s ability to extract every ounce of performance from those who remain healthy. People are going to have to be better than they have been.
But if Raiders can keep their heads above water during this period it will show they are serious in 2019. A mighty challenge awaits.