Raiders (Season) Review Part II: The Bad and the Future

BY DAN

Have you read Part I yet? Why are you hurting me like this? Do it for your old mate.

When you get 8 minutes from winning the whole damn thing you didn’t do many things wrong. Unlike previous years, where we’ve had a long list of grievances to be aired, this year we have a much smaller list. Just two things.

Unfortunately, it was these two issues that were the difference between Canberra dancing in champagne and me sadly drinking a warm mid-strength beer in the nosebleeds at Homebush and muttering again and again “he called six again” (possibly a more safe for work version that reality).

The major problem the Raiders had in 2019 was they never sorted out their attack. Yes they managed to score points, and as we pointed out in part 1 it was roughly at the same level as previous seasons. But unlike previous seasons, and unlike the Roosters and the Storm, the Raiders never developed a set functional and effective back-line movements. There was no set play for the Milk to go to when they absolutely needed a try, no sweeping movement that could guarantee an overlap. The Green Machine lived and died by the talent they had being able to outmatch whoever stood opposite. In the last thirty minutes of the grand final, against the best the competition had to offer, they were unable to find a way through.

When you think back to many of the Raiders losses in 2019 they ended in the same way – Canberra parked on the opposition line, hurriedly and haphazardly trying to piece together points as time disappeared. Most noteworthy were the losses to the Roosters and the Sea-Eagles late in the season, where the opposition edges were able to take away any space for Canberra’s talented players outside the middle third to create. Suddenly if Hodgson didn’t do it, it didn’t happen.

In a sense this is to be expected, given the Raiders added two new players to the spine, one as the season started, and reportedly didn’t practice their attack all pre-season. The results were worth it on the field, providing ballast to the old trusim that defence wins games. But it did leave them without a limited arsenal at their disposal when they needed points.

In previous years the Raiders displayed an array of variations on sweeping movements, particularly on the left in how they used Jack Wighton coming inside or outside Jarrod Croker and Elliot Whithead or Sia Solioa on those edges. This year, there was more reliance on Wighton playing short or long. He was rarely given an runner on his inside shoulder, nor was Croker or Whitehead. Cotric did come off the left wing to run under lines, and I wish they’d gone to this more, but they didn’t go back to that well.

On the other side, so much relied on Sezer’s boot or Bateman’s creativity. It meant that when Cotric moved to centre after Leilua’s injury he disappeared. This wasn’t because of his lack of skill, but because so much of what transpired was improvisational, and Cotric sometimes struggled to fit in with that approach. I felt like he would have benefited from more structure.

In the end, it was a small problem, and one that the Raiders dealt with all season with little issue. But when push came to shove, and they needed a try, sometimes they lacked the structure. While this was enough for so much of the season, it was a big part of the reason they didn’t end the big game holding the Cup.

The other negative, though not necessarily the Raiders fault, was that they lead the competition in penalties conceded.

Now before you start talking about referees, I’m not here to tell you that the Raiders got screwed by the men in yellow. Even if they did, they still are going to get the same treatment next year. There’s little point looking for systemic bias, and it’s more productive to find why this was the case.

Sidebar: Having said that the six again call in the grand final on the other hand was the biggest error by a referee in a game of that magnitude. You can’t escape that. It may not have been a result of bias, and it may not have solely won the game for the Roosters, but it was a big part. You can’t talk about that game without noting that error (and we didn’t try). It’s in the “Ben Hunt dropping the kick-off/Garry Jack dropping the kick” level of grand final errors.

So why did Canberra struggle with discipline?

It was noted ad nauseam (Latin! So fancy!) that Green Machine’s engine room was a smaller model than previous years. This meant against almost every side the Raiders pack had to battle teams with bigger men to a standstill. Sometimes they simply couldn’t – Jason Taumalolo’s performance in the Milk’s loss to the Cows in round 10 is a great example. They simply couldn’t get those tanks masquerading as legs down.

So the Raiders had to scrap. And sometimes that meant in order to get control of the ruck they did what they had to do to slow things down. That meant hands on the ball, a bit of extra wrestle, which the refs picked it up occasionally.

It’s not something that necessarily needs fixing. The Raiders shouldn’t go back to their old, bigger packs. They should stick with the guys they have, and that means that this is a problem they’re likely to always have.

That’s fine. They have shown in 2019 that they can overcome that, but they need to be aware that they’ll face it again in 2020.

Again, these a minor quibbles. One they can fix with time spent together, the other they may not need to even address, other than to be ready for it again.

But should they? What is the approach the Green Machine need to take in 2020 to go a step further? Come back for Part III soon.

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