Raiders (season) Review Part I: Building Resilience

BY DAN

This is a multipart thing because I’m broken like that. Check back for part two in a couple of days.

The Canberra Raiders 2020 season was a success. No, they didn’t win the grand final, and they didn’t repeat the heroics of 2019. What they did prove was that they had constructed a side capable of competing beyond 2020 by building resilience in three facets. Firstly as a function of attitude, secondly in roster depth, and finally as a foundation of adaptability to the changing game. They may not have progressed as far as they would like, but they have confirmed a foundation from which to launch attempts in the future.

The Canberra Raiders came into the 2020 season with a weight of expectations. They’d gone so close in 2019; for many success would be measured by their ability to go as far again, if not further. Prior to the ‘rona break, there was enough there to suggest they were well placed to compete again. Two easy wins against teams thought to be the bottom of the competition and the Raiders weren’t so much away, but where everyone assumed they would be.

Then the Covid break happened and the whole game got turned on its head. The break not only interrupted the momentum the Milk had built over the first two weeks, it meant that their home ground was now Campbelltown. One day your kid (or grandkid) is going to ask you about 2020 and Campbelltown and you’ll have to say “it sorta made sense at the time” even though it very much didn’t. The Milk suddenly were travelling three hours on a bus to a home game. They eventually came back to Canbera but when they went away, it was always a long trip. For a team that historically had struggled with travelling (though, notably, not this particular vintage) this could have been the death knell of the season. For most teams this amount of travel would have been. Instead they showed a resilience, in attitude and willingness to avoid excuses, to win wherever life took them.

This was the attitudinal resilience. They hung in enough games with the big clubs during their horror run between round 3 and round 11 when they played the Storm twice, the Roosters, Eels, Knights, Bunnies, as well as the Tigers and Manly at the heights of their respective seasons. It was huge in the context of the season, and by the time they got to the ‘easy’ part of their draw, they had a more developed plan to deal with the new way of playing, and more consistent performances from their pack in doing so.

They were never out of a game. Canberra scored first in 8 games all season, losing precisely zero of those. But more often they fell behind, and most importantly never panicked. Sometimes they left it way longer than most fans would have liked to turn a game (the Sharks final springs to mind), but more often than not, they did, and you felt silly that you were ever worried, such was the ferocity with which they took the game back. Many games they lost after trailing for much of the game still were close (such as losing to the Eels in golden point in round 7). Even in their biggest losses they made runs in the second half and made you think maybe they could bridge a gap.

Another variable thrown in to the mix was the introduction of the ruck infraction set restart. When you think about the relatively small size of the Canberra pack it’s strange to say the rule changes didn’t really suit the Raiders, but it felt like they took time to adjust, even after they bamboozled the Storm the first week back. Jason Oliver at Statsinsider is often a fan of pointing out the biggest predictor of success is metres made. The Raiders finished 9th in average metres per game. In the nine game ‘horror-draw’ period after the break, they only won the metre battle with their opposition twice (the Tigers and the second Storm game). It’s worst losses (the Knights, the Eels and the Storm prelim) came when the Green Machine’s engine room got rolled. That they managed to win so many games while losing the position battle was a minor miracle. But the Raiders persevered, adapting with a game-plan to wear down teams early, before rolling over them like a tank at the back end of games.

Of course injuries played a huge part in the season, and another sphere that the Milk needed to show resilience in. Bateman and Young were out early, which is just crazy given how important they were both were to the side by the end of the season. Horsburgh and Guler, ready for breakout years were watching the season by round 10, and then Josh Hodgson joined them.

This is where they built the second facet of resilience. Instead of budding new stars growing big before our eyes, the Raiders had to turn to their depth. Ryan Sutton became a crucial component. Siliva Havili, who like Sutton, hadn’t played in the 2019 finals, earned two cheques, one as the starting hooker, and another as a crucial bench forward. Dunamis Lui, who until had earned the ire of many Canberra fans for having a case of the dropsies, suddenly became critical to forward movement, and he delivered. Hudson Young returned, first as a critical edge replacement for Bateman and Tapine, then as one of the most reliable middle forwards in the pack. Along the way they discovered that developmental forwards like Kai O’Donnell and Darby Medlyn weren’t as far away from playing proper first grade than was thought at the beginning of the season.

Injuries didn’t just build the resilience of the pack. Curtis Scott’s form, and then injury, opened up options in the backline too. Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Timoko, and Semi Valemei all got minutes in first grade, and none disappointed. Valemei in particular developed at a rapid rate and became a stalwart in the top side. By the end of the season the Raiders could replace any position across the back five without a substantial drop-off.

No better was an example of this depth than the emergence of Tom Starling. An afterthought for the entire competition coming into the season, by the finals he was playing big minutes at hooker, a critical part of the rotation, and often a key to unleashing the middle forwards around the ruck. By the end of the season he had the third most try-assists, the 5th most line-break assists, with the same amount of try causes as Hudson Young. In the moment he was a find that was a huge part of the success of the Milk. For the future he is insurance for Josh Hodgson’s knees, and potentially beyond.

Starling’s emergence was also critical in the development of George Williams. The Englishman adapted impressively from the get-go in first grade, and after Josh Hodgson was injured, took on an even bigger role in organising the side, as well as often playing first receiver on both sides of the ruck. Less volume was required from Wighton, allowing him to operate with efficiency and start the process of building a structured attack on the left side, something that repeatedly bore fruit over the season.

Finally, the Raiders have also constructed a side resilient to further change in the game. Given how much the game has changed in the last 18 months, this is a necessity. Canberra went from having a massive pack, to a tiny one, to one that was relatively small, but in line with the trajectory of the game. Some of this was driven by pro-active strategy, but also it was a reaction to the rapidly changing game. Give set-restarts came from nowhere in the Covid break, it’s smart roster management to be ready for more changes. And the Raiders have nailed this.

The spine is most obvious place it has happened; Starling’s improvement provides a weapon off the bench that allows the Raiders to bring on ruck pace if the game continues to trend towards taking advantage of forwards tired from the increased time of ball-in-play. They can deploy Starling as they fit, as a ‘change of pace’, or a development player able to take his physical gifts and continue to development his ball player under a hooker with unending class. Or, as team’s adapt to this year’s changes through next year’s pre-season, and are less tired, Hodgson and Starling will provide insurance for whatever results.

Similarly, Young, Tapine and Harawira-Naera are critical multi-style players, able to be part of ‘big’ packs with Papalii, Horsburgh, Guler and Sutton, or part of a ‘pace and space’ pack, able to dial up the pace through the middle, potentially as part of a back-of-the-half rotation ready to roll through tired oppositions. Canberra can go big or small. In their backline Rapana, Simonsson, and Smith-Shields can fill any position across the back, Scott, Valemei and Timoko provide size and punch at the edges and Croker still has the best hands of a full-time centre.

They’re prepared for whatever the game looks like next year. But they’re not infallible. In part II of the season review we’ll look at the key questions facing the Raiders in 2021.

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