For the most part, the Canberra Raiders season failed not for lack of trying. Like a good kid struggling in year 8 maths they kept trying, but spent much of the the year bumping their heads against mistakes made before the moment, before the game and even before the season. There’s a lot of work for Ricky Stuart to do this off-season to get the setting right, and get the Raiders back to where they need to be.
Canberra had to get a lot of things wrong in order to take a talented squad and turn it into the mess that we saw this season. In hindsight – which you know, it’s a review so of course – their preparation for this year was flawed. They came into 2021 with the wrong settings around power versus endurance. The game plan had been to be brutal through the middle, on both sides of the ball, but when periods of games went against the Green Machine, it was a plan that fell apart because the Milk couldn’t sustain the effort necessary to execute it. Games then followed a similar pattern, where the Raiders would start strong, but as soon as their opposition got some position, possession or any mix of them both, we’d all get *that* feeling. One dropped ball would become a try would become a brace and we’d be bracing for more. Canberra led 28 games (actual number 8) by double digits at halftime and still lost.
It took too long to realise this mistake. When Josh Papalii spent the beginning of the season below his best (though still our best middle forward), despite losing a heap of weight to meet the challenge of boxing
some fuckwit Paul Gallen, it should have had fitness alarm bells ringing. I’m not sure what can be done in season to address that – in the end it seems Papalii addressed it during his suspension lay-off, but other players who spent similar amounts of time out the team appeared to do little. The host of Raiders middles that were meant to be a big part of Canberra’s competitiveness in 2021 all appeared off the pace until much later in the season. This suggested either a failure to act, or a decision to not do so at all, that was only addressed when game time did the work for them. Longtime Head of Physical Performance Nigel Ashley-Jones left the club mid-season.
This lack of fitness meant that the Raiders plan to win games was poorly matched to the times. They wanted to use their unending forward prowess to stomp teams through the centre, unleashing their hard-running halves and allowing them the space to play as they saw fit. Unfortunately Canberra couldn’t consistently win the middle. When they couldn’t, they tried to shift their way to success – the Eels loss stands out in the memory. They pushed wide at every opportunity, wanting to move a pack they couldn’t run over. The changed strategy ended in stilted movements and errors (and Rapana getting taking out at least once). It was a pickle. They didn’t have the physical ability to dominate the middle, and they were chasing their tail to develop the cohesion to play more expansively.
They never solved that issue. The lack of middle dominance meant the halves needed to do more work to create. No starting half they played this season stepped up to that challenge. Both Jack Wighton and George Williams responded to the lack of space by sending the ball wider earlier. It was anodyne because they were incapable of presenting a threat to the defensive line. At the time of his departure Williams had engaged the line on a less regular basis than Lachlan Lewis. Jack could engage the line, but only with a head of steam and no other thought but running in his mind. As a consequence Canberra sent the ball to the edges hoping their second rowers and their centres could beat their opposites one-on-one. It asked a lot of players that hadn’t been ascribed that role before the season, and the results were sometimes brilliant (like Corey Harawira-Naera and Hudson Young tearing the Sharks a new one) but mostly middling.
Faced with a problem so structural and so collective, Sticky instead turned his ire towards individual players. Stuart saw players struggling for form, and put the blame on them, rather than the situation he’d put them in. Hodgson was blamed for Canberra’s middle being slow. When he was pushed out of the side the middle got even slower (and the Raiders scored less points). He blamed Young for edge defence when the issue was middle forwards being too gassed to push across. Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine were blamed for the rest of the pack being so far off the pace – again, a function of the settings of the team rather than of the players. He openly canvassed bringing Matt Dufty, who was being railroaded out of the Dragons and nearly the league, and moving one of the best organising fullbacks in the competition to centre to provide yet another roadblock for Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields. Even his adjustments – like shifting Wighton wider and presenting him with easier pass/run decisions was about solving a situation for a single player, rather than what the squad needed. It was such a brazenly short-term approach to problem solving, but like the one we face in pandemic and the environment, singling out individuals for the fault of a system only obscures the solutions to the problem.
That’s not to say individuals didn’t play poorly. Throw a stone at Raiders HQ and you’ll hit four or five players who had career worst seasons. Jack Wighton’s ascension since 2019’s shift to five-eighth stagnated. His lack of development suggested a player who’s game hadn’t developed alongside his increasing responsibility. His success has been as much about allowing him to do the same things in a new position – the next step needs to be doing more. Josh Hodgson found himself at the centre of the storm more than he would have liked this season, sometimes at his fault, sometimes at others. His play was inconsistent, and it seems the fault in his game – that he sometimes tries to much – wore out its welcome with the fan base and the coaching staff. He lost confidence in his game style and by end of season was ‘English Josh’ the nine that played under Wayne Bennett for England, just shifting the ball side to side out of 9. Other established players, like Elliott Whitehead, Jarrod Croker, Sia Soliola, and Dunamis Lui all began to show the end of the line was closer than many of us thought. Change is coming, if not next year, then soon.
The next generation of forwards didn’t quite pan out as we hoped. Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh were disappointing again. Horsburgh has fought injury and fitness for too long now. His offload is such a weapon, his passing through the middle third as a link man so critical, it becomes infuriating that he can’t stay on the field. Guler, who I’ve always had a soft spot for, seems to play like a half waiting for the game to come him. That’s not what you need from a hopefully starting forward. Ryan Sutton took another step forward, and at moments seems like he was the ‘third’ to the Tapine and Papalii show. But Canberra’s middle players were meant to be more.
The infection of game day by the structural issues plaguing the side was not limited to individual performance. The Raiders started carrying a big bench, which wasn’t a perfect solution but was better than the three hooker rotation they soon adopted. They rarely managed to find a space for a spare back on the bench, despite finding themselves routinely troubled by the lack of one throughout the season, and it took way longer than it should have for the obvious idea to get Hodgson and Starling on the field together to be adopted in any meaningful sense. Regardless of who was picked they were often not used correctly, or enough, and it exacerbated the issues of fitness and structure we highlighted earlier. Way too often bench middles played less than 20 minutes in a game. When Canberra’s middle couldn’t hold up physically, this was calamitous.
And well, that’s how we got here, watching the finals from the outside.
This can be turned around. Coach Stuart does his best work in the off-season and pre-season rather than in-season. His failure to adjust as 2021 continued is balanced by the fact that in the past he’s shown an honesty of what has worked and what hasn’t, and a willingness to adapt through the summer.
There are good signs already. Before the 2019 off-season there were stories of assistant coach Andrew McFadden making such a deal of fitness during off-season that he drew the ire of players. I am desperate to hear these stories again this offseason. The Raiders need to be fitter, and more mobile, especially in the forwards. Papalii, Tapine, Sutton and Horsburgh are a top notch middle rotation, but there needs to be more of the game where only two of them share the field. They need to be able to carry a third middle forward that plays with pace at the line – a Corey Harawira-Naera, a Hudson Young, or even a Seb Kris. Movement has been made on the coaching front, with the introduction of high performance manager Jeremy Hickmans, the man who kept Wayne Bennett’s teams fit from 2006 through 2019 (and reportedly only wasn’t brought to the Bunnies due to condition of Bennett’s bunnies deal being that he couldn’t bring his own conditioning staff).
Getting fitter and faster is one thing. But the Milk need to also find fluidity in attack. They need to do this in two ways; through planning and through structure. Another promising move was made in returning Mick Crawley, the Raiders former attacking coach, to his position at the club. Crawley would be best known to you as being a big part of Canberra’s most recent period of sparkling attack between 2015 and 2018. Crawley will be tasked with providing a more covid-friendly approach to footy. Canberra need a clear idea of how they’re trying to score. So often in 2021 they seemed stuck between wanting to be more expansive and not being very good at it. There was no patience to their attack; a reflection of the terror they seemed to feel that their defensive resilience could only go so far. They’d shift without earning because other teams did, not recognising that that constant shifting only worked because runners across the park were winning rucks. Canberra weren’t, so when they shifted it felt like it was because it felt less embarrassing to fail going sideways than heading towards the line.
There is a solid base to build on. The Raiders need to find a starting quality seven, and sort out how they plan to use Josh Hodsgon (if he’s at the club), but apart from that there’s plenty of talent and sustainability in a well-built roster. In a dramatic shift from this time last year, the best back five available to the Milk is clear. As we noted ad nauseum this season, the light-and-day change that occurs between Canberra’s defence with and without Charnze should quieten any ideas about moving him to centre. The differing dynamisms of Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Timoko and Xavier Savage should be embraced and unleashed around the stabilising talents of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Jordan Rapana. There will be competition in the backline with Bailey Simonsson, Seb Kris, Semi Valemei and Jarrod Croker waiting in the wings, but for the first time since 2019 it’s clear who the best back five are. In particular Simonsson is unlikely to relinquish his position without a fight, and even if he does, would be a useful utility back if Sticky continues to ignore the true calling of Seb Kris as a Vlandoball utility.
The forward pack is a mix of young talent and old heads. Papalii and Tapine were the best Raiders forwards, and better as the season wore on. With the always improving Ryan Sutton they’ll form the majority of the Canberra middle rotation. Corey Horsbugh should be given a chance to prove he’s fit enough to play, and Trey Mooney and Harry Rushton will be pushing for major minutes next season. Hudson Young should own the left edge position from now until eternity. I’ll be curious how Corey Harawira-Naera’s sometimes brilliance is marked against Elliott Whitehead’s consistency going forward.
The key thing that roster allows, and that Canberra will need plenty of in 2022, is flexibility. There’s a tendency to assume the game is only going to get quicker, because we are subject to the idiotic tyranny of Vlandoball. The Raiders need to be prepared for that, and it’s seemed all their decisions so far this offseason have been geared at that. No more Lui, Havili or James means no spare middle minutes for hard runners who aren’t mobile, or don’t have an offload or the ability to play massive minutes. Coaches set on opening up the offence and making sure the side has the motor to match. These are all promising signs for the style of footy that we all assume is coming, and a sign again that Sticky does his best work before a ball is kicked next year.
That needs to be taken with a mark of wariness however. In the last months of the season referees put away the set-restart whistle and started blowing penalties again. It’s hardly worth noting as a trend. It’s proximity to the end of the season, and a host of other factors, mean this observation is operating of such a minor sample size that it’s almost meaningless. It does, however, suggest that the game can be wrestled back from the V’Landys menace without rule changes. That V’Landys’ hero Phil Gould was demanding change to the rules at the end of the season is just another input to consider when wondering what footy will look like in 2022. It’s not likely, but the Milk do need to be prepared for footy to change, and maybe not in the direction they’re thinking. The lack of certainty may make it hard to prepare for 2022, but well, Peter V’Landys doesn’t give a fuck about your preparation. He just wants to make sure rugby league retains the interest of the voices in his head.
And so that’s it. After a season or so in the sunshine Canberra have to earn their way back. 2021 showed the Raiders were far off the pace of being relevant, let alone a contender. Time to wash off the stink of 2021 and embrace to possibility of fixing this mess. The work has already begun.