It’s just passed the middle of the season and the Canberra Raiders sit in fourth position. Anyone who told you that’s where they thought they would be before the season started is possibly a witch or whatever dude witches are called. The Raiders have built this improvement on their defence, the performance of pack and the rapid development of Jack Wighton. But as cracks emerged as the Raiders headed into the bye, we look at whether those successes are sustainable.
At this stage in their last three seasons, the Raiders had won six, six, and seven (2016, blessed be that year) games. So nine. Nine I can dig. There’s a couple of reasons for this improvement. Most would instinctively say the Raiders have been better in close games. This is partially true. After going a combined 7-19-1 between 2016 and 2018 in results decided by six or less, the Green Machine has gone a resounding 3-5-0 in 2019. It’s better, but hardly call the cops stuff. The real story of 2019 is that the Raiders have been in every game they’ve played. They’ve only had one loss of more than six points, and that was an early season loss to the Storm that we classified as surprisingly heartening, a harbinger of what was to come this season.
A huge part of why Canberra has had success is their unquestionably better defence in 2019. They’ve been more aggressive, quicker in line-speed, willing and able to trap teams in their own half. For the first time in recent memory they’ve played edge defence with the competency of the rest of the competition. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, this defence hasn’t been perfect. In back to back weeks they got rolled by the Eels and Sharks for huge parts of each game.
I posited in the review of the Parramatta loss that perhaps the undersized pack is beginning to feel the wear and tear of constantly having to fight for equality. Outside of Josh Papalii they should all be well-rested after the bye week. Recently Joe Tapine and Corey Horsburgh returned from injury, and Hudson Young’s suspension ends in the near future. Tapine in particular should be given every opportunity to take the ball in the middle – he has quick feet and power to match that needs to be unleashed. But the challenge is immense. The Dragons, Roosters, Sharks and Storm are all in the future. The pack will have no excuses.
Apart from their defence and the oversized performance of their undersized pack, the Raiders have exceeded expectations largely due to the performance of Jack Wighton. In short he’s been a revelation at six, operating the left side of attack, giving it direction, and adding a surprisingly adept and mature kicking game.
The challenge here is transferring Jack’s success across the park. Against the Eels and the Sharks the Raiders were frankly uninterested in heading right. Partly this is because Josh Hodgson and Jack Wighton seem to be at the cusp of a rich love affair, partly because Aidan Sezer is not Jack Wighton. Things got so dire in the Eels game that Sezer didn’t touch the ball in attack until he swung across the first receiver on the left.
Outside Hodgson, Wighton is the Raiders primary ball-hander, and that shouldn’t change. But the Raiders need to find a more balanced attack. Teams simply have to look for Jack to know where the ball is going, and it means his occasional forays onto the right are met with a shift in defence. Aidan Sezer isn’t the only option on the right, and there’s no reason that John Bateman can’t jump in occasionally at first receiver. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad needs to get to the pass earlier on some occasions when operating as the second ball-player on the right. Early ball for Nic Cotric, who should return for the Dragons match is always a good idea. The traditional block play is fine, but with the troops the Raiders have on that side, I’d be tempted to get let Sezer get early ball to Bateman and Cotric and otherwise run it more. There’s plenty of points there, and Canberra can’t go deep in September playing one side of the field.
Of course these are not the only reasons for the Raiders success. The depth of the squad, and the performance of players that started the season on the periphery has been huge. But it shows how Canberra need performances across the park. The Raiders have missed Hudson Young in the last few weeks, and he’d never played first grade before this season. Corey Horsburgh’s performance against the Eels was his worst in first grade and it mattered in that game. That Nicoll-Klokstad is being asked to do more merely shows how far he has come. That Simonsson has filled in so admirably is incredible given how little high-level league he has played. There’s the smallest possibility of a return by BJ Leilua, and that would be beyond huge. But the Raiders are well-placed to handle his absence is stunning.
The Raiders are essentially at full strength. They’ve had a week off and they should be ready to roll. They’ve shown through the first 15 weeks of 2019 that their formula will bring success if they can implement it. The successes – a brilliant defence, and over-performing pack and an attack led by Jack Wighton – can continue to deliver.
But they need to be better than they have been in recent weeks. The defence has to match up physically in a way it didn’t for periods against the Sharks and Eels. This falls heavily on a pack that is hopefully ready to roll in the back half of the competition. And more points are needed, with more chances taken by a right side attack that can’t rely on Jack Wighton to create for them.
The expectations have changed. Now simply making the finals isn’t enough. Canberra is looking at top four and the weeks of late September. There’s only nine games left before the finals. The Raiders need to start building now.