Four losses in a row is not where you build premiership seasons. Even in 1989, where the Raiders dropped as low as 12th they avoided that fate (though they did lose six from eight midway through the season). Safe to say it’s rare to see season-success after such a lull. The Raiders have plenty of improvement in them, but where to start?
Before we fix things it’s worth pointing out that four on the trot is not a death knell. In the NRL era teams have not only succeeded after having such patches, but they’ve out-and-out dominated. The 2005 Tigers won it all after losing every game rounds 6 through 9. The 2006 Broncos had every star you can think of from that era, lost five on the trot between rounds 18 and 23, and still won it all. The 2002 Roosters lost rounds 2 to 5 before beating the Warriors in the big game. The 2001 Knights lost rounds 14 to 17 and blasted the greatest team to not win a chip (the ’01 Eels) off the park in the grand final.
Some teams didn’t win the whole thing but went damn close. The 2017 Cowboys also lost rounds 21 to 24 and still made the grand final. The 2014 Bulldogs lost rounds 19 to 22 and made it just as far. The also did the same in 1998 having lost rounds 2 through 5. The 2011 New Zealand Warriors lost rounds 13 to 16 and still made it to the last game of the season. The 2009 Parramatta Eels lost it all between rounds 4 and 7, won just three games between rounds 4 and 18 and were in 14th place at the end of that run. It can be done.
It’s hard to say what the Raiders can take from those sides. Some of those squads were so stacked it seems silly they ever lost multiple games in a row let alone four (the ‘02 Roosters, ‘06 Broncos or ‘01 Knights being prime examples). Some of those teams that made the grand final captured lightening, and running around with a empty milk bottle trying to repeat the dose actually sounds metaphorically as hard as it would be literally.
Taking specific lessons seems silly. But knowing it’s possible should provide succour for anyone contemplating drawing a line through the season. I still think Canberra has a roster than can compete for a premiership, but when you’re looking at historical outliers as examples of how you’re not screwed yet it should tell you a lot about where you are. But the key is improving, and rapidly. Luckily there are easy fixes.
Play your best 17
Call me crazy, but the time has come to stop trying to teach players lessons, or to rotate players in order to preserve them for the back end of the season, or building experience for future seasons. There’s no longer the margin to test and trial. This is about picking the best 17 available to win next weekend.
Call this is caveat and corollary of the above. There’s no point picking people if you’re not going to play them. The Milk have shown on the regular this season that they simply do not have the endurance to match sides for the full 80 minutes. Their defence has collapsed in second halves under weight of position and possession.
This has been exacerbated by Sticky’s rotations, which to paraphrase Ms Tapine, have been inconsistent and difficult to understand. Players that can play big minutes are playing small minutes. Players that start the game aren’t being seen again. It’s just not sustainable in this version of the game. In particular, the Raiders need a way to insert energy in the middle twenty minutes of the game. Rather than save a hooker rotation for the end of the game, it should be used earlier. Rather than let players like Ryan Sutton and Emre Guler play 55 plus minutes each week, those minutes need to be spread amongst the bench forwards.
In each of these four losses Canberra has gotten into an staring competition in the second half and blinked. The moments that they’ve lost control have been because of handling errors, and penalties. Canberra are currently the worst the competition in error count (according to Fox Sports). Such errors are often influenced by fatigue, so the above point is relevant here.
Canberra is also getting the balance all wrong when it comes to penalties/set restarts. Last week they gave away seven penalties and to date they’ve conceded the sixth most penalties in the competition. They gave away zero set restarts. Unfortunately in V’Landys ball, these two infractions are not created equal. Giving away set restarts is often how teams control the pace of the game. That’s why you see so many set restarts on the first tackle, and why so many good teams give a bunch of them away (like the Bunnies conceded 7 to Canberra). Hold the man down, reset the defensive line, and control the set. Penalties just march the other side into scoring range.
Jack First and at First
In the last few weeks Canberra’s attack has had a few high points of fluidity. Many point to other reasons, but the absolute key to me has been the return to ‘split halves’ that the Raiders had for much of 2019 and 2020. Early this season George Williams was playing both sides of the ruck. This meant he touched the ball before Jack, meaning the five-eighth only ever got the ball out wide with limited space. There’s been a greater emphasis on Jack playing first receiver since the Parramatta game. This basically shifted the proportion of possession from Williams to Wighton. It’s also given Wighton more opportunity with the before the line. This looked promising if clunky in the Eels game as the Raiders shifted left well but kept making errors. It has looked increasingly fluid since, climaxing with Wighton’s exciting, but ultimately unsuccessful, flurry at the end of the Bunnies game.
It’s good to see Canberra’s attack turning back towards Jack. This weighting of possession between the halves should be retained over the season.
All of these are low-hanging fruit when it comes to implementable changes. They require little from the players other than a better orientation of what they’re already doing. But the potential impact is substantial. Given Canberra needs to get started winning now, there a good place to start. After all, the list of teams that have lost five in a row and still won the premiership is even shorter.