The next 10 days will tell us a lot about the 2021 Canberra Raiders.
After what can only be described as a soul destroying loss on Saturday evening, the Green Machine has hit its lowest point in over two years. The last time they were out of the eight it was 2018. I didn’t know who Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was, let alone that I would be pronouncing his name wrong. Jack Wighton wasn’t even a five-eighth, let alone a Clive Churchill, Dally-M winning five-eighth. Raiders fans were arguing about whether Sam Williams or Aidan Sezer was the best option at halfback. It was a simpler time. Sorta.
For the first time since round 4 of that year Coach Stuart has publicly questioned the commitment of his players. In 2018 it came following three of the most horrible losses a football team will ever have (giving up late leads to the Titans, Warriors and Knights), and then an emotional collapse at Manly. Sticky said then they weren’t fit to wear the jumper. Similar words came out his mouth on Saturday night. Sia Soliola has asked the squad to look at themselves and find a way out of this mess. He even used fair dinkum. Shit just got real.
Those losses were so upsetting because they exposed a fragility to Canberra’s success that hasn’t been around a while (coincidentally the whole time Charnze has been here). It wasn’t that they most. It’s that’s the characteristic resilience that carried the Raiders through 2019 and 2020 had disappeared. People were looking around for someone to do it all when previously they’d done it themselves. Suddenly it’s all feeling like closing windows and missed chances.
So yeah, it’s dark right now and hell is hot. I don’t think it’s gloomy as it feels right now. Canberra aren’t as far off as the last two losses suggest. They faded in both games as injuries and poorly managed rotations caught up with them. Defence in the middle needs improvement, but it’s the one place there’s an unending supply of labour. These may seem like small things, but they’ve had major implications in all three losses. For all the bluster about the attack, there’s been plenty to like – Canberra’s first half on Saturday was some better execution away from 4 or so tries. Against the Panthers a proper grounding and Canberra have 12 points in twenty minutes against a team that had barely leaked 12 points in the season. The Milk can make points. What has made them great is their resilience to their oppositions efforts. They can find that again.
Coach Stuart has promised changes. To the side and to himself. I don’t know what these changes will be, other than Seb Kris will be in the 17. I make no demands or suggestions to Sticky other than one I’ve made relatively repeatedly. The Raiders need to carry someone who can cover edge defence should another back, or backrower, go down. They also need to have three people on the bench that can rotate through the middle as needed. Those two things can help bring back the resolve and physicality to the defence that has been key in Canberra’s demise over the last two weeks. Apart from that I’m hoping that he broadly keeps the same 17. This team is good enough, it just needs to execute better than it has recently. If it’s better supported and prepared to do so by the roster I’m sure it can find a way.
More than that, the urgency of the next ten days mean there’s no time to test new ideas. Canberra have two games in that period and neither is a gimme. First the always challenging Saturday night trip to Townsville, followed by a tough home game against Souths. This is not the time to be trying new things. You gotta dance with them what brung ya now.
By the end of this ten days Canberra could be back on track. It simply must take these next two games. If they can, it will validate the past fortnight as an aberration, and show that they have the basis of something real that can be pursued for the rest of the season.
It may not seem like it now, but I think they have it. We’re about to find out if I’m right.