How much the world has changed.
When we wrote our season preview in early March our biggest worries were how the team would respond to the hardship and interruption caused by a bushfire season. We were anxious as to whether Curtis Scott would even start the season with the side, let alone build a combination with Nic Cotric and George Williams. We looked at the injury to John Bateman and pontificated that the proposed solution of Corey Horsburgh was a non-starter. It was clear the Raiders had a soft draw early and needed to bank points because anything could happen in the coming months.
It turns anything was everything.
Given the disaster the coronavirus had wrought across the world the bushfires, and the recovery and rebuild from them has been pushed off the front pages. The interruption it caused the Raiders – they had to bugger off to the Gold Coast to train – almost seems quaint given the fact that players have spent much of the last two months training by themselves. Curtis Scott’s case still isn’t resolved – his lawyer is having a one-way public negotiation with the police – and while his case is meant to be heard in July, it’s hard to know whether that will occur given the backlog in court procedures at the moment. His lawyer is suggesting he may get through most of this season without having his case heard. John Bateman’s injury has gone from an 8-12 game injury to a 2-3 game injury, and it’s likely he’ll be back very shortly. And the red rocket never started a game in the back row, with Joe Tapine filling the edge instead.
The Raiders banked two wins we thought were important but we didn’t realise just how. With an adjusted draw those early points become a buffer between them and their more difficult immediate draw. Melbourne in Melbourne is a far greater challenge at the moment than St George in Canberra. The Knights following them will be another test; with David Furner guiding their offence they are going to build into a formidable attack. Furner is oft-lamented as a coach but he has always been capable of building an effective attack, even with limited cattle. The Furner-era Raiders were always potent – just sometimes their defence and discipline wasn’t ideal. Similarly the time he spent as an attacking assistant at Souths correlated with them unleashing a blistering attack, which dissipated over 2019 under Bennett. It’s hard to know how much of a role he had there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the year the Knights start to work out how to get more out of Kalyn Ponga. And we haven’t even mentioned the addition of rested Tyson Frizell to plug the main gap in the Novacastrians forward pack.
The Raiders will need some points from these two games because lord knows what’s following that. At writing the NRL hadn’t finalised the draw yet, mostly due to Peter V’Landys’ comically inept handling of the television rights. It’ll be done as soon as he’s found something else he can sacrifice to channel 9 in order to take less money from them. The Sydney Morning Herald speculated the Raiders playing the Roosters twice in the coming rounds, along with the Tigers who will be massively improved by the presence of Harry Grant. We’ll see if that plays out.
What is definite about the draw is the evaporation of some of Canberra’s comparative advantage. They’ll be playing out of Campbelltown in the medium term, meaning no cold winter games in Canberra. They were relatively mediocre at home in 2019, with losses to Manly, Melbourne, the Cowboys, the Warriors and the Roosters there, but I’m certain they’d have benefitted from playing in the winter cold of Canberra, even if there were no crowds. Don Furner will be desperate to get games back in Canberra as soon as possible (and he’s said as much), so this may not be permanent, Covid willing.
The other advantage that has disappeared for the Milk occurs over Origin. The Raiders’ international contingent would have otherwise given them a relatively stable side over the six weeks that origin usually occurs mid-season. Yes they’d lose Papalii, Wighton and maybe Cotric and Horsburgh, but the guaranteed presence of rep-caliber players like Hodgson, Whitehead, Bateman, Williams, Whitehead, Tapine, Nicoll-Klokstad and Rapana would have provided the Green Machine with an advantage to more locally based squads through that period. Alas one of the only things guaranteed in the new draw is that Origin will occur post-season rather than mid.
There’s a temptation to say that the Raiders will learn a lot of themselves given the quality of opposition they’re playing in the first two weeks. I think that’s overstating the fact. While it will be unquestionably better if they win games, I’d be really hesitant to take too much from the early games given the lay-off and general uncertainty. Some teams will take time to build, be it fitness or connections. It definitely feels like the kind of season where a late-season run that squeezes a team into the finals can translate to a very deep run. That inherent uncertainty seems built into this season, and that was before Peter V’Landys decided to play Trump and re-create his anemoia in the face of logic, proper process and decency. In fact, the mere assumption that we’ll be playing games on May 28 and onwards feels like a leap of faith.
The Raiders, however, are well placed to be a part of this at the deep end. They’re not short on talent and a cohesion built over recent years. Jack Wighton has plenty of improvement in his game as we noted in the pre-season, and while his first two games weren’t an improvement on 2019 (he still made errors in his playmaking decisions on the left), it indicated that the floor in his game is still excellent. Josh Hodgson will quietly pull the strings, though I remain highly sceptical of Ricky Stuart’s belief that the changes to refereeing will benefit him. Josh Papalii will rampage, and the young up-and-comers are ready.
They’ll have John Bateman back shortly and that will mean a robust defence. In a season where attacking combinations will take time to develop, a hard-nosed defence will go a long way. The only bit that needs building – the right hand side – will be strengthened by Bateman’s return, his familiarity with George Williams. If the progress made over the first two rounds in the connection between Georgie boy, Scott and Cotric, that weakness could be a strength that marks an improvement on the 2019 version of the side.
Jordan Rapana’s return means they’ve got the depth in all the right places in the squad. It always felt like they might be a outside back short, particularly if Scott’s legal troubles actualise. Luke Bateman’s departure is sad, but he was well down the depth chart after the emergence of Hudson Young, Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh.
So here we go for a second time. We said earlier in the year that this season would be the hard road for the Raiders. Little did we know that would apply to everyone. Here’s hoping we get through a full season. For my sake, for your sake, for the players’ sake. I think the Raiders will be busy come finals time; how deep they go remains to be seen. The Raiders’ road isn’t easy in 2020, but then nobodies is.
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