The Hard Road: The Canberra Raiders Season Preview

BY DAN

2020 is going to be a hard year for the Raiders.

We said this back in our 2019 season review, but climbing the mountain after losing the grand final is a tough road. After being so close to winning it all- and the Raiders were damn close – suddenly you’re shunted back to the beginning like none of it ever mattered. You face the same climb as everyone else.

When you think about it like that it’s not hard to see why so many teams struggle the year after nearly reaching the promised land. The expectations are higher, and everyone you play is ready for your best. It’s not so much that what you did in 2019 doesn’t matter, it’s that everyone has planned for that and you have to be better. Some may say the Raiders over-performed in 2019 (not true if you look at the analytics, they even under-performed on their Pythagorean expectation) and they’ll regress in 2020.

In the NRL era, far more teams have missed the finals the year after losing a grand final than have won grand finals in the next five years. Only the Roosters (2000, 2010), the Storm (2006, 2008, 2016) and the Sea-Eagles (2007) have managed to make it back and win. It’s simply not a guaranteed precursor to success. And as any Raiders fan will tell you, sometimes the Raiders have had some trouble following up on what seem like breakout seasons. Like 2017. Or 2009. Or 2004.

That’s not to say the Raiders can’t do it, but damn it’s tough.

The Raiders haven’t been put in the best position to start. John Bateman is injured, and likely to be out for 7-8 weeks of the season. The Raiders were 0-4 without John last season. In the four games he missed, the Milk conceded 23 points a game, which made their defence just as *ahem* “challenged” as it was in 2018 or 2017. With him in the lineup it became the world-beating unit we remember, only allowing 13.74 points a game, according to Cleartheobstruction.com on twitter. The Raiders can ill afford to make a similar regression for the longer time-frame Jonneh will be on the sidelines.

They don’t have Hudson Young to fill the gap like he did quite well in 2019. He’s suspended almost as long as Bateman is expected to be out. The solution so far seems to be Corey Horsburgh, and we’ve made our feelings pretty clear about the risks with that decision. Joe Tapine and Sia Soliola are both options, but the question is how many games is Ricky willing to risk the right edge before he makes a switch? And will it impact Horsburgh’s confidence in the meantime? The Curtis Scott situation just exacerbates the continuity issues on the right, something that Coach Stuart admitted this week.

It’s hard not to see why some may argue the Raiders will struggle to be as good as they were in 2019. Less John Bateman, not-as-much Scott as they hoped, and suddenly it’s easy to fathom a defence that has most of the spark, but not the consistency of last year’s model. The attack, which relied on individual brilliance and broken play to manufacture most of its points will be down two brilliant individual playmakers in Leilua and Rapana. Aidan Sezer wasn’t the god we wanted, but he was a smart footballer – at the moment George Williams just represents risk.

Mashing all these challenges together gives the inkling of a slow start. Integrating Williams and Scott, covering for Bateman and Young; the new combinations that need to build. It feels like the Raiders will build over the year rather than jump out of the blocks.

It’s a tough mountain to climb. But that’s what makes it so worthwhile.

***

The Raiders have greatness in them. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Jack Wighton is poised to continue his development in 2020. The only space for him to improve is simply in the consistency of his ball play, and there’s no doubt to me that more time at the wheel is the best way to do that. George Williams similarly will benefit from time on the field, and when Bateman returns GWilliams will feel like he’s at home playing with Josh and John on each side of him. Concerns that he’s a running half and so doesn’t fit with Wighton ignores that most of the organisation is done by Josh Hodgson. The Raiders need threats to the line after the departure of Leilua and Rapana. That it’s coming from a different place shouldn’t matter. And if Charnze can develop an offering as a secondary ball-player on sideline shifts, the Raiders potentially have more variety to offer than they did in 2019.

The Raiders’ forward pack looks poised to be a real strength. Corey Horsburgh, edge foray aside, looks set to become a representative prop with Josh Papalii this year. Emre Guler looks faster than he did last year. Joe Tapine will break out, I will die on that hill. Add that to the always brilliant Sia Soliola, Elliott Whitehead and returning John Bateman and it looks to have skill, depth and talent. I didn’t even mention Hudson Young, who I’ve written glowingly of recently. I haven’t been this excited about a Raiders pack since Fensom, Thompson and Picker were all emerging together post 2008 NYC trophy.

It’s often said defence is about attitude and that seems right to me, but personnel and structures matter as much. The Raiders have happened on to some quality defenders in recent years and, when healthy should again be an elite unit. Against the insipid attack in their trial game they warmed to the task, and by midway through the first half seemed unlikely to concede points again. It’ll be hard to be as good again, but at least they have the parts.

The Raiders may not be at their best early but they have the kind of draw that may soften the blow. There’s a bunch of winnable games in the opening rounds and it could keep them afloat until they have all their players available. There’ll be plenty of need for resilience while Bateman and others are out, but if there’s one thing they can carry from last year, it’s that they’ve shown an ability to stand tall when things get hard.

If Canberra stays in contact with the top half of the table early on, they can prepare themselves to come on strong through the representative season, something they’ve been structured to avoid. Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii, probably Nic Cotric, and maybe Corey Horsburgh may miss a game or two but the Raiders are well-built to handle a few absences of the non-John variety.

It’s a hard road back to the top. The Raiders aren’t in the best place right now, but they have the roster; the talent, and the resilience to find a way. They’ll be there again come finals time, and then all it takes is Josh Papalii to run over Damian Cook and the Green Machine could have another shot.

Let’s fucking do this.

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