On Friday this week the Canberra Raiders play their third preliminary final in the last five years.
It’s the most sustained period of success the Milk have had since they wore Milk jerseys. Back then (and just before), they played preliminary finals in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995 and 1997 (depending on how you feel about Super League). It was called the golden era (ok I think I made that up but you agree, I can tell). Now three in five isn’t *counts on fingers* seven in eleven, but given the twenty-odd years between the two eras, you can understand a man getting excited.
There are few that would have predicted this at the end of 2018, possibly one of the most painful seasons in recent memory. At that point the success of 2016 had felt like a flash in the pan; a brief foray into brilliance before retreating back to the familiar ups and downs of frustrating mediocrity. Canberra had done little but suffer over 2017 and 2018, failing to live up to their promise, trying to succeed by outscoring teams and managing a roster with a talent, but inflexible roster.
But instead of reverting to the mean of over the last two years the Raiders have become remarkably consistent and resilient. Instead of giving up painful leads like Bathurst *throws salt over his shoulder*, the Green Machine have instead become able to fight their way to victory. Last Friday is a case in point. In a former life, when a 16-0 lead become 16-12, or when 22–12 became 22-18, the pang of inevitability would have crawled up the spine of Raiders fans world wide (shouts to the French fans of the Green Machine, you’ve had a big week). What we got wasn’t perfect, but it was preceding enough to beat one of the great teams of this era.
A huge part of this sustained success has been a change in strategy. The shift in the team’s way-of-life shifted so dramatically between the 2018 and 2019 seasons that I wouldn’t argue with you if you said we had to consider the 2016 era separate to this one. In 2018 they allowed 22.5 points a game, had the 2nd best attack in the competition and finished 10th. In subsquent years they’ve scored less points, let less in, and been roundly more successful.
Of course a huge part of that change in defence has been in recruitment and personnel. Jack Wighton moving from the back to the front, John Bateman’s arrival, Charze Nicoll-Klokstad’s arrival and flourishment all added up. Improving the roster has been critical in success beyond just improving defence. Up until now, the Milk have always been one injury from disaster.In 2017, when Dave Taylor joined the squad – the enigmatic genius was suddenly a crucial part of whether the Raiders would succeed. In 2018 when Josh Hodgson was out injured, Siliva Havili manned the hooker position alongside the out-of-position Aidan Sezer.
The current roster is as resilient as the Raiders attitude. You know the 2020 injury list; the Milk have been tested to the extremities of their roster and continued to find a way. There’s far more depth than ever before, but there’s also flexibility in that list. Joe Tapine has had a breakout year after filling in on the edge early. Hudson Young has similarly flourished, covering middle and edge minutes. Jordan Rapana has played four different spots across the back five. Even when George Williams and Jack Wighton were injured and sin-binned in round 19, Canberra were able to fashion a functional attack from the wiles of Elliott Whitehead. Within the depth there’s an array of options, with fringe players like Harley Smith-Shields able to cover a range of positions and roles as needed. So much kudos must go out to Peter Mulholland and Coach Stuart.
Though less provable, a corollary of this is that Coach Stuart also has more trust in this team than he had in earlier versions. When Josh Hodgson was injured mid-season it was simply next man up. Tom Starling has been a revelation, but he was trusted with a version of the same role from the get go. There was no question from Sticky (at least, Starling gave no reason to question him). Similarly when Semi Valemei was given the time he needed to acclimatise. Even players like Hudson Young have been entrusted to roles beyond their levels of experience. Even before this year, Sticky knew that Jack could handle a bigger load as five-eighth than almost anyone else did. This is so far from pushing Aidan Sezer to hooker, post match complaints about lack of talent at the club, and
Of course, we wrote earlier this year that the departure of John Bateman (and Nic Cotric) this offseason may be the end of an era. I don’t want to understate this: John Bateman is a transformational talent, and virtually irreplaceable. While they were 0-4 in 2019 without Bateman, they’ve been much less reliant on him in 2020, won plenty of games without him (including over the Storm and the Roosters) and even already have a positional battle on their hands in filling this position.
So even without considering what might come this season, the Raiders seem well-placed to pursue success into the future. They’ve got the defence, the roster, the flexibility and Sticky’s trust.
But first they’ve got a grand final to make.
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