Recently people have begun to ask questions as to whether the Canberra Raiders can replicate last year’s run to the grand final.
Primarily this has been the exasperated kind of questioning. The Raiders have made an artform of letting inferior sides get ahead of the game, before corralling, and then overtaking, them in a rapid flourish of points, usually in the second half. Just in the last six rounds they’ve been behind to the Titans (9th), Broncos (16th), Dragons (13th), Warriors (12th) and the Bulldogs (15th). They’ve still beaten those teams by an average of 17 points, twice turning around deficits without a full complement of players on the field.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of it. Are they starting slowly by design? Do they need a kick in the pants? Was their first half performance against the Roosters, when they went toe-to-toe with arguably the premiership favourite, a data point to trust? If so, then why did the Panthers game fail so spectacularly in the opening stanza? Is *all this* what we should be worried about? Are the Raiders poised for another run and just holding their cards to their chest? Or are they flatlining with nowhere to go when the things get real?
Part of the story of course is that the Raiders are starting slow by design. Well not entirely, but they definitely play with a degree of conservatism in the early going of games. I had initially thought this was a function of Siliva Havili’s style of ruck play, but even with Tom Starling in that role they’ve still pushed closely around the ruck, rarely playing with width of second phase play. They’ve certainly tired out oppositions, and consistently the forwards have been dominate in the second stanza (except the Roosters game when Papalii didn’t return).
Strategy aside, it’s hard not to think the Raiders have had their eyes focused on the finals for a while now. Their draw was so lopsided this year – heavy early, light late – that once they got through the tough stuff well ensconced in the the eight, it’s not unreasonable to think their focus moved to their only two big games. While they didn’t score first in either game, they weren’t off the pace either. Against the Panthers they spent the first 10 minutes on the opposition line, unable to crack it but earning repeat sets to keep the pressure on. It obviously didn’t work out, but there was no question of the Raiders being up for the game. Similar, their first half performance against the Roosters was perhaps one of their best forty minute stanzas this year.
The truth is, in a sense, the Raiders are as well placed as they were this time last season. Last year they dropped a last round game to the Warriors, and with the comeback victory of the Storm as their only victory against a top four side. This year they’ve beaten the Roosters and the Storm and run the Eels to golden point. In 2019 they beat three top eight sides across the season (the Storm, the Broncos and the Eels). In 2020 they’ve beaten the Storm, Roosters, Bunnies, and hoopefully the Sharks. In 2019 they entered the finals with a 62 per cent win percentage (15 wins 9 losses). If they beat the Sharks this weekend they’ll end up with a win percentage of 70 across the season. This season the defence has conceded 15.2 points on average, compared to 15.6 last season, while the attack has mustered 21.4 points a game, just a smidge under last seasons 21.8. The similarities between last season and this season are impressive given the injury toll suffered by the Raiders.
This is not to say the Raiders are poised to repeat last year’s heroics. There’s a big difference between finishing 4th and 5th; namely the possibility of a home preliminary final. While they’ll be on the Eels side of the draw – which is undoubtedly a better path to a prelim than the loser of the Storm and the Roosters, it’s still a top four side at their home ground. And all that painfully assumes that we’ll take care of the Sharks in round one. If you think things always work out for Canberra they way they should, then you’re new here. Further, the competition this year is wider. The Panthers, Roosters and the Storm remain a class above the tier where Canberra resides, and while the Raiders beat both the Roosters and the Storm, they lack the ‘signature’ win that ‘Once Upon A Time In Melbourne’ gave them.
And maybe that’s what’s worrying everyone. This time last year we held that game as proof we could get it done against the best teams. The Raiders only had two opportunities in the second half of the season, got rolled in one and lost their way without Josh Papalii in the other. Would these slow starts against substandard teams matter if the Raiders held the scalp of Easts? I doubt it.
Regardless, it seems to me the Raiders have established the foundations they need to make a push into the backend of the season. Their defence, and increasingly coordinated and cohesive attack, place them well for big games. Their resilience, and confidence to overcome any obstacle, is the kind of stuff that finals games are built on. Their ability to find points outside their spine means they can adjust their game to suit whatever strengths or weaknesses they face. While they’re not the best team in the competition, there’s no team they will face that they will fear.
Now if they could only start quickly….