It’s a weird time to be a Raiders fan. By now most sane people have had it, preferring to treat this season like a family secret: better endured than spoken about. But here we are, crazy (in love) and desperate to see if Canberra can squeeze in to the finals.
And that’s the confusing bit. The Raiders basically have their fortunes in their own hands. Win some games and they’re in. They’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately, but even that’s been confusing. The took wins from Manly (sans Trbojevics), beat the then top four Eels, lost to a fairly mediocre Knights team, handled a terrible Dragons team while playing relatively poorly, then went toe-to-toe with the rampaging Storm, giving it all, which wasn’t enough, but was more than most expected. And while it seemed they were getting the most wholesome and wonderful of reinforcement in the form of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (I presume in the form of trust-fall-based hugs), they’ve also seen Tom Starling and Corey Harawira-Naera’s seasons practically end. It’s like watching an indi film. Every time something nice happens it’s paired with something equally bad to bash you over the head with the point that you can’t have nice things.
But have they improved? What’s going differently about this side? Nothing in the last few weeks has given us a concrete idea. The statistics paint a mixed picture. Over the past six weeks, Canberra’s scoring is up to 24 points a game, much higher than any other set of games this year. For example while George Williams was the starting halfback this year, the Raiders averaged only 18 points a game (that’s no shot at Georgie boy, more a useful timeframe to consider). But this sample size is so small, that even a few tries here and there (like the one of Moses Suli’s head six weeks ago) shift it between that and closer to 20 points a game and we’re back where we started.
That becomes more pronounced when you notice Canberra’s line breaks per set ratio over the last six games is the lowest it has been all season. Here’s some periods for you.
I chose those periods based on who was the halves/hooker pairing. Rounds 1-6 is Hodgson/George. Then Starling/George in rounds 7-11. Then Hodgson and Sam Williams in rounds 12-15 (remember when we were begging Sticky to bring Tom on before the 73rd minute?), and finally the most recent grouping of the floating Hodgson/Starling combination. I don’t know what you can take from this, other than that the Raiders haven’t actually been creating many line breaks – i.e. opportunities to score. Maybe they’re taking better advantage of the breaks they make, maybe it’s Sticky’s much vaunted bounce of the ball. Either way it’s down recently, and that suggests that any attacking improvement is more circumstantial than systemic.
I think more positive things can be said about the defence. We’ve kept a team averaging 35 to 26 points. We kept a team averaging 24 to 10. Another team averaging 30 plus to 16. Maybe that’s where the improvement has been? We see that replicated in a range of numbers. For starters, over the last six rounds the Raiders have been averaging 19 points conceded, which doesn’t sound good until you realise that they’ve averaged near 24 points conceded this season, with periods of over 30 (while Caleb Aekins was fullback) and 27 (while Bailey Simonsson was fullback and primarily because of the Titans debacle). We touched on this recently, but the Green Machine’s best periods have been elite in terms of points conceded per set (such as the period early in the season with Charnze in charge). You can see below a graph we used earlier in the week where we break out the season average of teams, verse the averages for Canberra split out by who was at fullback. You can see the Nicoll-Klokstad period is the most elite.
But also in the last six rounds with Rapana (and Xavier Savaage at the back) Canberra’s 0.48 points conceded per set is broadly equivalent to the season average of the Roosters (0.47) and the Eels (0.46). Outside it’s period of capitulation through the middle of the season, it seems the Raiders defence has actually been good. I also have a data-less suspicion that the referees have put the whistle away in recent weeks, making set restarts less critical in determining the outcomes of games. Perhaps this reversion to a pre-2021 refereeing style (that I may have made up in my head) is helping.
Regardless, it seems Canberra hasn’t so much improved as stabilised in attack, and reverted to type in defence. Whether or not this matters at this stage of the season is a fair point. The Milk have dug themselves such a hole that there’s no time for the natural variance to work itself out. They may in fact be better than their record suggests, but there’s no longer any room for error, and they’re facing a tough draw to prove themselves. Whether they’re good enough to do so remains to be seen.