This is Part II of our season review. You can read Part I here.
In Part I of this season review we made the case that the Canberra Raiders had established a resiliancy and adaptability in their attitude, roster management and playing style that would future-proof them over the next few years.
So much of 2020 was finding a way to pursue two tracks at once. While they were obivously chasing the ultimate prize, injuries and the changing game, meant some tough decisions had to be made. The reverberations of 2020 haven’t gone away, and there are questions and issues remaining that need to be resolved in order for greater success in 2021.
Question 1: The forward mix
One of these tensions is the performance of the forward pack. Often ignored (though not in these pages) was the difficulty the Raiders pack had through the first half of the competition. Even before the mass injuries occurred, the Milk were not winning the middle as much as they should have. They got rolled by bigger packs (see the round 4 Knights loss) and they got rolled by more mobile packs (see the round 6 Manly loss). In 8 of their 10 games after the Covid break they ran for less yardage than their opposition. In their finals against the Sharks and the Storm they were outgained (they battled the Roosters to practically even). Running metres are one of the most effective predictors of rugby league success (for obvious reasons) (as shown by Jason Oliver at statsinsider.com). Too often Canberra simply were not gaining enough metres, and allowing their opposition too many. The forward pack is the major contributor.
As we said earlier in the year, this put the Raiders in a difficult position. It meant they had to play perfect footy to win games. When you’re bringing the ball off your line all the time, any error is costly. And then that means to get down the field you need your opposition to help you, either with errors or penalties. Canberra rarely won when the error counts were not in their favour – in fact it wasn’t until round 16 against the Bulldogs that they achieved that feat.
For 2022 the Raiders have a wealth of forward depth at their fingertips, and will have to make some interesting decisions to work out what their best pack looks like. The only positions certain are Papalii at one prop, with Tapine another middle (either as a prop or a nominal lock). After that there’s a ton of talent, experience, size and pace. It just depends on the best way to deploy it.
Question 2: The Hodgson fit
I wrote on this is more detail here, but in short, the Raiders will have a challenge in integrating captain and star hooker Josh Hodgson. Much was made in 2020 about Hodgson’s form. This was exacerbated by the changing nature of ruck play and the increasing emphasis on speed around the ruck. Hodgson and halfback George Williams’ connection wasn’t at his best.
Hodgson’s ability to manipulate the ruck will he at more of a premium than it was in 2020. The introduction of the six-again rule out the blue tested the fitness of defenders, and made pace in the ruck the only thing that mattered. Get it and go became the mantra, and the only manipulation needed was a run-pass decision. Markers weren’t even on-side for many rucks. But in 2021 players will have a full pre-season to prepare. The premium will be put on fitness, and getting in place for defence in 2021. The space and pace gains of 2020 may be less prominent, and suddenly the ability to find less obvious ways forward will be important again.
Hodgson’s return will also allow Williams to play wider on the right should he see fit, opening up the Raiders attack. Canberrra scored 45 per cent of their tries down the left, but only 25 per cent on the other edge. Only the Knights scored less on that side of the field. Hodgson’s ability to send passes 25m across field to either edge can help develop more variety, and a more balanced attack for the Milk.
Working out how Starling fits in is a corollary of this. Canberra may utilise Hodgson and Williams off the ruck for periods for even more variety. Hodgson has played as a sort of ball-playing lock before for the Milk. It’s not his strength, but in the right circumstances an extra ball-player may be an advantage. We’ve recently seen extra ball-players used to great affect in a range of circumstances – including State of Origin no less. Canberra have a shown a willignness to try unconventional approaches to accomdate the talent at their disposal – like when Wighton and Blake Austin effectively operated as ‘split five-eights’ in 2018. How about Starling at 9, Hodgson and Williams one pass either side of the ruck (split half-backs – insert shrug emoji)? A concern would be pushing Wighton a pass wider than he needs to be, but Jack barely moves off the left tram line. As long as he stays there, and the rest don’t get crammed for space, it may be worth pursuing to keep Starling active.
Question 3: Centres of attention
There’s been a lot of discussion about almost every aspect of the Raiders’ edges going forward. The only position that is settled at the moment is Elliott Whitehead. Jarrod Croker outside him his injured, and his spot may be filled by Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Timoko or Bailey Simonsson. On the right John Bateman has left for Wigan, Jordan Rapana is unsigned, and Curtis Scott is returning from a sputtering start to the season. Hudson Young was excellent replacing Bateman when he was injured, and Corey Harawira-Naera is the clubhouse leader to be permanent right edge.
Croker’s absence in particular could have flow on effets for the Raider’s attack. The left side has been the source of most structured play by the Milk, and Croker’s quick hands and synchronicity with Jack Wighton and Elliott Whitehead is a big part of this. Indeed, Wighton’s willingness to cede creative play, and risk the run on the last comes mostly of his trust that Whitehaed and Croker will see the same thing he does.
The issue here isn’t options. There are a litany of options, some of which I’ve canvassed elsewhere. Hudson Young should start at right second-row for example (more detail here). Harley-Smith Shields could start at left centre. It would make sense, no matter which option you pursue.
The challenge here facing the Raiders is finding certainty. No option is perfect; every challenger has a weakness. But allowing players to understand their roles, develop their play and connections will build a cohesion that is a foundational part of any successful club. Following this path might see Semi Valemei and Jordan Rapana should start on the wings, Jarrod Croker (if healthy) and Curtis Scott at centre. Even this relatively conservative approach isn’t perfect. Croker may not be healthy, Rapana isn’t even signed yet (hey…wait..what’s going on there?). But pursuing too much change will not allow the development of connections and cohesion need for these new edges to thrive.
This is of course is further complicated by the lack of clarity surrounding the Raiders pathways next year. No partnership in NSW or QLD (so far) means that in all likelihood we’ll have to watch players develop in fits and starts before our eyes, just like Valemei was forced to do in 2020. This is hardly ideal, but we should wait and see how this resolves before panicking.
Whatever decision that is made the key is that the talent is already in the squad. The pieces is all there, it’s just whether can piece them together (and keep the defence in tact).
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