It’s one helluva of a mountain to climb again.
When you look back at grand final losers in the National Rugby League era, it’s not the happiest story. Of teams that have lost the grand final, only the Roosters (2000, 2010), the Storm (2006, 2008, 2016) and the Sea-Eagles (2007) have lost a grand final and then won the competition in the next five years. Canterbury (1998, 2012, 2014), Parramatta (2001, 2009), St George-Illawarra (1999), the Warriors (2002, 2011), the Roosters (2003, 2004), the Sea-Eagles (2013), Brisbane (2015*) and North Queensland (2005) lost grand finals and didn’t win the competition within five years. Shit after losing the grand final, the the Dragons (2000), the Roosters (2005), the Cowboys (2006 and 2018), the Eels (2010) and the Warriors (2012) didn’t even make the finals the next season.
Take that in. You’re much more likely to not make the finals than win the competition the season after losing the grand final.
This is a really long way of saying that unless you’re the Storm (until Bellamy/Smith go), the Roosters or the Broncos, your premiership window is always small, and always fragile. Teams focus on you, teams get better, stars return from injury. The competition always evens out (for most). The Raiders have seen how this can lead to variable outcomes between seasons – compare any year from 2016 on. It’s always a surprise when they do well. It’s always a surprise when they don’t. Or maybe there’s no surprises, but that’s a depressing song.
As we said in Part I, the Raiders won because of a specific plan that favoured a robust defence over offence. It was a resounding success. This defence will need to be better in 2020 to have the same effect. Whereas no teams would have spent the 2018-19 off-season game-planning for the Milk, in 2020 they will be prepared. Footage will be perused looking for the smallest gaps. Will they notice John Bateman sometimes over-pursue attackers across the face of his outside of defenders, leaving Canberra vulnerable to switches of play? Will they hammer the Cotric/Croker fringe, the weakest point in the Raiders defence in 2019? Will they decide to focus on pounding the small pack? There’s no guarantee that George Williams will fit into the defensive line as seamlessly as Aidan Sezer did. Bailey Simonsson was outstanding in 2019, but he too will likely be targeted in 2020.
The attack must also improve. We noted in Part II of our season review that this was one of the big gaps between the Raiders and the ultimate glory. They need to be better, particularly in the redzone. No doubt teams will ‘jam’ the Raiders from the edges and the spine needs to be prepared for less space and less time in which to work. Can George Williams offer more on the right than Sezer did in 2019? Is the short kicking game that seems to work in the Super League transferable? The Raiders can always use more repeat sets. They will no longer have the ability to simply hope that Leipana can fix it – BJ will never have the symbiosis with Bailey Simonsson that he had with Jordan Rapana. Papalii played about as well as a prop forward can, and I honestly can’t believe the Green Machine can rely on him to score the most important tries of the season off his own back. They’ll need more help for him in the middle, and not just from Sia Soliola and BJ Leilua, who did so much of that dirty work late in the season. The loss of Rapana will be felt here too – he’s a weapon in attack, but his yardage work, while unsung, has been critical for the Raiders.
Have the surprise packets of 2019 ‘maxed-out’ their potential? Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad offered a strong carry in attack but had yet to develop ball-playing as a secondary option. Bailey Simonsson certainly got a lot of burn in 2019, but will he be prepared for the physical toll a full season will take on his body? Whoever fill the spot at halfback will have to fit between the ball dominance on their left, and the improvisation and creativity on their right. It seems most likely this will be George Williams, but a new halfback – to both the Green Machine and the NRL – means it may take more time to adjust and make this connection.
Facing these challenges is made harder by the fact that an unusually heavy international load will mean less time to work together before 2020 starts. While late additions like Simonsson and Nicoll-Klokstad flourished in 2019, it’s hard to see the Milk gelling so quickly a second time around. They are lucky the additions to their line-up will largely be familiar.
So should we be grateful for 2019 rather than hopeful for 2020?
The Green Machine must be prepared and as good if not better as they were in 2019 in order to succeed in 2020. But there a good reasons to think they can overcome the challenges that have fallen so many others.
As far as continuity goes, the Raiders are bringing back the overwhelming majority of the squad that got them there in 2019. While they’ve lost Rapana and they may lose Aidan Sezer, their replacements are familiar with the Raiders set up. Even the depth players at almost every position were with the club in 2019 (assuming Sam Williams signs on).
There’s no sign existing stars will start sliding. Josh Hodgson only just ticked over to 30, John Bateman is just 26. Josh Papalii is just 27 (seriously). The only proper old guy in the squad is Sia Soliola (turning 34 during next season) but frankly, he seems age to be a construct. None of these players seems to have dipped over 2019 (and you’d think Papa and Bateman are just entering their prime). Hodgson uses his wits more than his athleticism. At some point making 40 plus tackles a game will take it’s toll, but it doesn’t appear to be now.
In fact the Raiders are likely to see a fair bit of individual improvement. Players like Bateman, Papalii and BJ Leilua are hitting their most productive years, where maturity comes but before athleticism leaves. Jack Wighton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad are going to be much better in their second years playing in their current positions. More time will no doubt be spent this off-season working on their combination as well as that of the spine more generally. Simonsson will not be entering foreign territory when he likely starts at wing in 2020. Nic Cotric and Joe Tapine had relatively quiet seasons and will no doubt be keen to show they can meet their potential.
That doesn’t even mention the youth that will really start to put pressure on more established players in the squad. Corey Horsburgh showed he’s more than capable at competing at first grade level. If he continues on his current trajectory, Queensland’s depleted forwards stocks mean he could find himself playing Origin in 2020. Hudson Young’s return from suspension will be welcome, and if he can keep his hands to himself he will be an important part of the Raiders 2020 – providing defence and depth across the entire all forward position (except for hooker obviously). Suddenly Dunamis Lui, Siliva Havili, Emre Guler and Ryan Sutton are trying to fit into two spots, JJ Collins and Jack Murchie are watching from Mounties, while Michael Oldfield and Seb Kris provide depth, and Harley Smith-Shields looks to push his way into consideration.
How they spend their off-season may have a major bearing on 2020. They can ill afford to be complacent about their defence and fitness, and must be even more prepared than they were in 2019 on that side of the ball. But they should also relish the opportunity to build a more nuanced attack in 2020 that can get points more effectively than their inefficient version of this year. George Williams’ fit into the attack will have an influence on 2020, but like Aidan Sezer, he’s unlikely to be the be-all and end-all for the Milk.
So will it be glory in 2020? Right now the Raiders are well placed to succeed. History shows us that going to be very difficult, and that the eye of
Sauron the league will be directed right at Canberra. The Raiders are prepared to take it on though, through a well managed squad and hopefully better prepared attack. 2019’s success felt more sustainable this year, and it should shock no one if the Raiders are just as good in 2020. That doesn’t mean they’ll win the competition, but it seems likely they’ll be playing finals football, and that’s half the battle.
After that, well, it’s a helluva mountain to climb.