The Canberra Raiders done pretty much everything you can in rugby league in recent times short of winning it all. Three preliminary finals and a grand final in five seasons. Beating the Roosters at home in a final. Winning in Melbourne with a regularity it makes the rest of the competition jealous. They’ve seen celebration and heartbreak and made me feel emotions I thought had been beaten out of my ageing bones by the vagaries of existence.
But none of it is quite winning a premiership.
It’s been a weird couple of years to be a Canberra fan. The shift from middle-of-the-pack to competition heavyweight has been so sudden that I’m sometimes worried it will get taken away just as quick. Every slow start to a game, every loss, every difficult period; sometimes it’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop. 2020 could have been that moment. The Raiders were presented an opportunity for everything to go back to pre-2019 ways. They lost half their pack, arguably their most critical ball-player, and had to patch together a backline from out-of-position veterans and rookies. Another era of Green Machine may have capitulated. But they didn’t. They didn’t win the competition but they won respect. They showed that whatever this (gesticulates in the direction of FOOTBALL) amounts to, they’re going to make the most of it.
So here comes another shot. They’ve got a whole bunch of talent back on the park that was missing in 2020, and they still fought their way to a preliminary final. It’s simple maths – they should be better than last year right?
The Raiders will be there and thereabouts come September, though they sit below a “big four” in the view of bookies. This group is the Panthers, Bunnies, Storm and Roosters. The Panthers theoretically will be better for last year’s experience; though as we pointed out last year, in the NRL era is anything to go by, they’re more likely to miss the finals that win the big one. The Bunnies added Jai Arrow, Josh Mansour and Benji Marshall to a team that’s played in every goddamn preliminary final since the Kaiser tried to steal them in nineteen-dickity. The Roosters were just tired last year, and the return of Victor Radley will add another point of attack to a team stacked with them. And the Storm are the T-1000; even without Cam Smith they’ll have one of the best hooker rotations in the competition to go with practically the same side that just won the competition.
It could all be too much for Canberra, and it’s worth noting the advanced stats people keep pointing to the Raiders being a step below (see this from Statinsider, this from Pythago NRL, and this from ClearTheObstruction). It’s one thing when one smart person is sounding the alarm; when three are telling you pretty much the same thing it should make you take notice. You’ve watched Chernobyl. Don’t ignore the warnings.
Most of the reason the numbers and the gamblers have Canberra below the big four is to do with their back five. We’ve talked about the mismatch of certainty and experience across that unit. We won’t know whether the young players are ready, and whether the older players have enough petrol in the tank, until it’s too late. There’s plenty of talent there, but it seems unlikely anyone outside Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will be lining up at the spot they ended 2020 in. Cohesion is a big part of edge defence, and change is abundant on the right side which goes it’s third renovation in as many years. And while the middle depth chart is long, having good players on the bench doesn’t stop the Green Machine from getting overwhelmed as it has been prone to, and putting more and more pressure on the inexperienced edges to solve problems. Oh, and the small matter of Josh Hodgson returning and the Raiders having to work out how to use one ball between three elite ball players. It can be done, but it’s a challenge that has to be overcome.
So many questions, so many reasons to doubt. But yet I feel a bit of sunshine on my face. The game is changing, rapidly, and it’s hard to tell week to week what the rules might be. As they are right now, they might just suit the Raiders. As the Rugby League Eye Test pointed out, the game is getting tighter around the ruck, and that should suit the Milk to a tee. Hodgson can create around the ruck, supported by Starling, setting the unending list of dominant middles on the Canberra list between tiring defenders. Jack and George get to be set free, hopefully getting early ball in space from Hodgson, allowing them to test retreating edge defence with both their feet as well as their hands. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has shown the briefest flickers that he might be a more developed ball-playing option in 2021. I even think Starling and Hodgson can work in tandem (keep an eye out for that article tomorrow). The questions about the backs are point-in-time stuff. Curtis Scott had a sword dangling over his head most of 2020. Bailey Simonsson was injured. Jordan Rapana got no preparation, then played hurt and out of position half the year. There weren’t many other options. But Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko look ready, and Semi Valemei has proven his case for more first grade. In the rear vision this may be the year they kick off. The stats can’t count what hasn’t happened yet.
Perhaps the best bit is the Raiders roster is set up with such depth that if any aspect doesn’t go right, there’s always another option. This is sometimes a curse – if there isn’t a clear option, that means there’s heaps of bad ones. And it doesn’t matter how good your extended bench (*extreme Tim Gore voice*) is in a final. But I think the charm of Canberra’s roster is appropriately stratified in both the back and the front, and (hopefully) the only reason there will be equivocation is that talent outside the top 17 proves irresistable. Even moreso, it provides a chance to rotate players throughout the season, hopefully keeping some petrol in the tank come finals.
So look, maybe the numbers and the gamblers don’t quite have us in the top four. That shouldn’t be how expectations are set. Indeed the Milk got an eye on the next step. As Josh Papalii told David Polkinghorne and Caden Helmers from The Canberra Times:
I know what we have here is special. We’ll be a chance to take it all the way to the final game. If i’m thinking less than the grand final this year there’s no point being here.Josh Papalii to the Canberra Times.
The Raiders have seen it all in recent years. Three preliminary finals and a grand final. They’ve seen darkness and sunshine. Fire and rain and everything in between. In the words of the immortal Jake Taylor, there’s only one thing left to do.