It feels like an aeon has passed since we watched our beloved Green Machine run out to the final fateful 80 minutes of NRL football in 2019. To say that a lot of stuff has happened, both football and non-football related, since then is an understatement.
The Raiders enter 2020 with a squad which while not starting at max capacity, and missing some notable names, still retains the core framework that made it such a viable side in 2019. Dan has covered lots of this in his off-season pieces, but there’s not a lot for me to write about in detail before the first game is played.
If there’s one mantra that should govern all NRL teams moving into this decade it’s “defence is king”. Sides can no longer rely on being the better of the two in a point-scoring arms race, something that previous incarnations of the Raiders relied on way too much. In fact it’s no coincidence that the Raider’s lowest average scoring season in recent memory fed directly into their high-end defensive stats and onwards to the grand final.
If there’s one specific defensive stat apart from “points conceded” that I’d like to see them replicate in 2020 it’s opponents held scoreless. Three times in 2019 they shut out their opposition, a feat that no other side was able to match across the year. Not only does it help the bottom line in terms of points differential but it also demonstrates that the team has faith in the defensive platform that they’ve built, a trait that is especially critical come the finals.
George Williams is still an almost completely unquantified unit in terms of NRL capability. Can he run? Can he pass? Can he kick? We were shown glimpses during the Raiders sole trial match, but the true unveiling is this first clash against the Titans. If Hodgson can get the forwards rolling either side of the ruck I’m hoping to see George pop up in a gap and either take the ball through himself or release a quicker man on the outside.
Speaking of the outside, all eyes will be on the new the right side, especially in defence. Corey Horsburgh’s first big game as a backrower, the new combination of the Red Horse, G.Williams, Curtis Scott and Nic Cotric’s tight tee will no doubt be tested by the Titans.
Between them Jarrod Croker and Josh Papalii boast 20 years of service for the Raiders. Croker celebrated a decade in top grade Green last year, while Papa’s ten year anniversary is next year in ’21. We’ve watched both of them grow and mature in this time and along with Sam Williams they remain enduring juniors of the region. While Croker may not ever get the rep accolades that Papa has had it’s pretty fair to say that their presence in a Raiders 17 leaves everyone feeling a lot better.
The old hands of Michael Oldfield have found their way into the 17. This is largely due to unavailability of a swathe of forward options. It will be interesting if he is used how Bailey Simonsson was in 2019, or if he’s just cover.
Can CNK maintain his high-flying reliability in his second year in green? The humble Kiwi won the hearts of fans in 2019, but he needs to show it wasn’t a one off event. Too many NRL breakout stars flame out in their second year and Raiders fans will be keen to see CNK back up his initial showing with another solid season as custodian.
As Dan wrote, one way he can improve is in his ball-playing on those sweeping movements. I’d counter that he’s most useful as a support player up the middle, particularly given the creative power have on their edges.
THE VAUNTED OPPOSITION
Look I say vaunted but it must be a pretty miserable time being a Titans fan. Permanently on the brink of financial collapse, plagued by scandals and sponsors who choose extremely weird hills to die on, the Titans carry on the proud Gold Coast tradition of somehow always having one of the youngest yet most unviable clubs around. Having said that the Titans have somehow managed to outlive all of their regional ancestors (not hard when the average lifespan of those clubs was 4 years) but find themselves entering the 2020 comp with no Ryan James (injured) and Jai Arrow starting his last year with the side. This has been made worse by the fact that the Titans will he missing Shannon Boyd.
Update: Brimson and Fotuaika have both been named on the bench in what appears to be a comical attempt at shenanigans
These two teams are at the extreme ends of the NRL spectrum from last year, with the Raiders going to the big game while the Titans copped the spoon for their lacklustre efforts across the year.
Having said that, all reports are that new coach Justin Holbrook very much knows what he’s doing. A revitalised Ash Taylor, a better structured forward pack, some young talent and the beautiful freedom of low expectations should present a challenge.
There’s something warming about the arrival of footy. Even as the cold and darkness of Winter closes in around us we can survive by huddling around the warm glow of our TVs each week hoping the Raiders can keep the good times rolling.
Raiders by 20!