The 2019 Canberra Raiders season was a rare gift. It started on a high – a 21-0 whitewash of the Gold Coast Titans – and continued that way through 24 blissful rounds, two finals and precisely 72 minutes of the grand final. It didn’t end how any of us wanted, but given where we started it can only be considered a rampant success.
In the past the prospect of the season review was more cathartic than anything. In recent years I’ve done them in early September rather than late October, and they were a chance to get off my chest all those things that had annoyed me throughout the year (here’s Part I from last year for reference).
As per usual we split this into three parts – the good, the bad and the future. Unlike previous years, there’s more good than bad, and that bodes well for the future.
But first, what went right?
In 2019 the Canberra Raiders came with a simple plan. The Green Machine was going to win with robust defence. Line speed in the middle, physical edge defenders. Halves would kick to corners, and kick chases smashing whoever brought the ball back into submission. The resulting field position would allow the Raiders attack to take advantage of the array of skill players across the park to find points.
It was obviously a success. You know the story. 15 wins in the regular. Beating the Storm at home twice, including in the qualifying final. Beating the bunnies in the prelim in a game that is still a murky kind of heaven in my mind.
The Milk weren’t lucky either. Pythagorean win expectation basically takes the total points scored and conceded and pumps out a number of expected wins (you can see one highly dodgy explanation here). In previous Canberra has comically under-performed their expectation, through a mixture of bad luck and please don’t talk to me about the first three weeks of 2018. This season the were bang on their Pythagorean expectation, and even bang on their win total adjusted for luck, according to the excellent cleartheobstuction.com.
Sidebar. You can get their brilliant views on twitter too @CTObstruction). Just follow them. It’s like a good salad. Tasty and good for you.
Of course this formula would have been pointless without the drastic improvement in the defence. It went from barbaric to civilised in a heartbeat such was the turnaround (or should that be the other way? Look let’s not look to closely at that metaphor). From conceding more than 22 points a game in 2018, the 2019 Green Machine only allowed 15.1 points per game through the city walls (ah, yeah, civilised. Walls and shit). It was third best in the competition. Cleartheobstruction.com’s defence rating had the Raiders third also, and they only conceded 0.39 points per set, the same as the Roosters and just behind the Storm.
This happened for a range of reasons. Much has been made about the fact the Raiders worked their asses of in pre-season to improve their defence and fitness. Andrew McFadden has undoubtedly played a role. Line speed wasn’t the best in the competition, but it was no longer the Achilles heal it had been. The Raiders conceded the 4th fewest metres per game which indicates an ability to get up and reduce the space available to the opposition.
Sidebar: Of course it doesn’t just show that but work with me here, publicly available rugby league stat are sparse
But the biggest change here was personnel. For years Canberra persisted with Blake Austin’s “will-he-won’t-he” defensive approach on the edge. It put the men around him constantly in poor position, struggling to make tackles they shouldn’t have had to make. His unpredictability in jumping up or back peddling (or sometimes standing dead still which broke my brain) meant BJ Leilua and Elliot Whitehead had to make perfect decisions. You saw how this went. It made Whitehead seem like a below average defender (per CTOs edge efficiency stats) when anyone eyes knew that he was a plus defender.
Sezer’s insertion on the right was addition by substraction. Aidan is strong for his size – see his try/game saver against the Tigers in the round 18 victory. He added a player those around him could trust to be in the right place more often than not, and make a tackle when he got there. He saw plenty of attention – the smallest guy in the line always will, but he held his own with only a few mistakes (usually driven by a desire to get off his line quick, picking the wrong person and creating a hole).
And of course there was John Bateman. Bateman’s skill as a defender comes not only from his rare mix of pace and power but also his intelligence. He reads the play as it develops and ascertain where the ball is going. It puts him in incredible positions to help out on both his inside and outside. He also appeared to communicate very well with Sezer, and he admitted as much in an interview with the ABC’s Winning Starts on Monday.
On the other edge Jack Wighton’s success as a five-eighth gave the Raiders another plus defender in the line. Now teamed up with Elliot Whitehead, the edge was air tight, and after Jack put a hurting on some edge runners early in the season, downright scary.
This defensive improvement was notable at the two extremes on the field. The Raiders goal line was almost impenetrable. There were many games where they had a possession and position deficit but were able to stay in the game solely through their goal line defence. Ask the Panthers, who in round 19 were tackled more than FIFTY times in the Canberra twenty and had no way through. Ask the Bunnies who in the preliminary final had repeat set after repeat set on the Raiders line and were flummoxed. This was a weapon and the Raiders utilised it to great effect.
At the other end of the field the Raiders took pleasure in trapping teams in their own red-zones. Kick to the corner, chase in numbers and then comes the fun bit: smash ‘em. Wighton in particular seemed to relish chasing his own kicks, but he was hardly alone. It was mostly he an Sezer that would kick to the corners, Wighton through little stabs that would find the grass between the fullback and the winger, Sezer through high kicks designed to hang in the air long enough to allow the chase to arrive and make a plentiful return impossible. The kicking game was a huge part of making this work and while it wasn’t perfect – Wighton still has a hilarious mis-kick in him – it worked more than any year I can remember in recent history. It was a big part of allowing the Raiders attack to play footy in good field position.
The engine room
Of course the back three and the big men were also a huge part of this. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was third in the completion in total metres (4552m), only behind Tuivasa-Sheck and Tedesco. Many of these can be attributed to his enthusiastic kick return, but as much as that his yardage work was incredible. A team leading 85 tackle breaks no doubt contributed. Combined with Cotric, Rapana, Simonsson and Leilua, the Raiders were always able to find their way out of trouble with one-out, low-risk dummy runs coming off their own line. This platform meant the forwards could remain aggressive in defence in the knowledge that the load would subsidised by their back three brethren. This support was always going to be needed by a pack that gave up size to almost every team in the competition.
They may have been undersized, but the forward pack still managed to have a banner season. It’s hard to talk about Josh Papalii without wanting to drive to Canberra, knock on his door and go full Wayne’s World on him (“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!). His year was beyond good. The stats are nice – 147 metres a game and 3830 total metres, the second best number for a forward behind Payne Haas. But they understate the degree of difficulty Papa was operating from. So often Papa had to turn dead sets into live action through his strength and nimble feet. He did what he did with people in his face all the time; no better is this demonstrated than by the fact that he had the fifth most post contact metres in the competition (1374). His was always a tough job. There was no threat like him in the Raiders pack (no other Raiders middle man averaged over 100 metres per game) and so teams made every carry for him hard. It barely bothered him.
Sidebar: Best big papa moments were both him just refusing to be taken down by goal line defence. The try against the Storm to cap one of the greatest comebacks in Canberra history left me literally shaking in the stands. The try to seal the preliminary was so stunning. Not just because at that point it was clearly the Raiders best (maybe only) option (sitting right in front of it I was yelling to Rob “Where’s Papa? Where’s Papa? They have to run him at the posts – spoiler: they did) – but also because the pandemonium at Bruce when he scored is something that will be ingrained in my brain forever and ever.
He was ably supported by Sia Soliola who did all that could be asked of him and more. Corey Horsburgh was excellent in his first foray into first grade, and Emre Guler and Ryan Sutton showed they weren’t out of place. BJ Leilua may as well have been a middle forward when he played, such was the necessity and ferocity of his ‘third-prop’ carries. Hudson Young showed he can play on both the edge and in the middle and is a future star if he can keep his fingers to himself. Joe Tapine’s injury marred season didn’t dull the light of his promise. Combine that with the always solid performances by Dunamis Lui, and the Raiders suddenly had a host of middle man that could compete.
Luke Bateman, a relative mainstay of previous years, never saw the field. Siliva Havili, who had been a critical utility through 2017 and 2018 was relegated to the reserves. It was a position the Raiders hadn’t been in a long time. Until this season Jack Murchie’s development seemed critical to the packs’ long term competitiveness. Now he’s just a ‘nice to have’. Partly this is possible because between Elliot Whitehead and John Bateman provide 80 minutes of elite performance at each of the the edge positions. It frees up Joe Tapine and Hudson Young to play in the middle.
These forwards laid a platform for the skill players to take advantage of.
The Milk didn’t develop the slick backline movements of the Roosters or Storm. Instead they relied on the sheer talent of individual players. What resulted was a bit less organised, a tad stilted and occasionally insipid. It wasn’t the “points on tap” offence of previous years but the overall result was minimal change. The Raiders points per game only dropped from a smidge above 22 to 21.8. Hardly a disaster.
The advanced metrics paint a similar picture. Cleartheobstruction.com’s offensive rating had the Raiders as the 4th best attack in the competition. Their 0.56 points per set was well behind the Roosters (0.70) and the Storm (0.68) but just behind the Bunnies (0.58).
The Raiders weren’t your typical attack. While Josh Hodgson was central to their functioning, they had creators across the park, each operating as a fulcrum in non-traditional ways.
Hodgson was obviously the most important. He was the conductor of the sometimes ramshackle symphony. Jack’s relative newness, and the changes that occurred between Sam Williams and Aidan Sezer meant that Hodgson was the most prominent and consistent voice throughout the season. He was also the most effective source of creativity and it showed in his 16 try assists (per Fox sports).
So often Hodgson worked with the big men in the middle, and it was Canberra’s best attack close to the line (NB: it shouldn’t be). Either working crash balls with Josh Papalii (I’d wager each of Papalii’s six tries came from a Hodgson pass) or through the run-around built off the crash-ball fake. Even when it wasn’t successful it created space for the attack on the outside, but it required possession and patience to work.
The Raiders unconventional approach also consisted of a new five-eighth who used running rather than passing/kicking to make his way. Jack Wighton had a frankly stunning season. Given he started in a new position, one that would put more pressure on him as a ball player and more responsibility as an organiser, it’s incredible what he achieved. His running game (he averaged over 108 metres per game) made his passing game easier; the threat that he’d take it himself meant defenders couldn’t slide out safely, meaning that he rarely had options removed by outside defence. That he had as many line breaks (10 per fox sports) as try assists, and 72 tackle breaks shows that his running game was a huge part of his success. While his try assists weren’t massive, the space his running game created meant you could safely put responsibility for a couple of Elliot Whitehead’s seven and Jarrod Croker’s four try-assists in Jack’s column.
While Jack (and Smelly) created on the left, the Raiders used often used John Bateman as the creative focal point on the right. Sezer was steady, but like Wighton looked best running the ball, and leaving space to create to Bateman. Given a moments space he could jump out and find space for Leilua, Cotric and Rapana. His brains and quick feet are rarely seen in a second rower (at least in recent years), and teams were ill-prepared to defend such a non traditional player. Ask Kalyn Ponga how it felt to have his ankle’s broken by a second rower. It wasn’t the last time Bateman would turn an inch of space into a mile.
Ultimately the Raiders built success in 2019 on the back of a well-thought out plan that relied on defence at the expense of its offence. After so many reasons in which the balance had skewed the other way, the change of heart (and results) was encouraging. The Raiders went the distance with the best, and it was based on the execution of this plan perfectly, combining well structured defence with unconventional offence.
Unfortunately this improvisational offence was also a big part of why they fell just short in 2019.
Come back on Wednesday for Part II, where we look at where the Raiders can improve.