Because it’s January and most rugby league outlets have nothing to write about they instead turn to making the kind of proclamations that me and you (used to?) make in the pub. Here’s who the best 17 is for a team. Here’s how that person that you’d forgotten about is resurrecting their career at the team you’d forgotten they’d gone to. Here’s where that veteran might shift position to (for three weeks, then back to his original position). And of course, everyone’s favourite: predicting the ladder two months out from the season.
I have to admit it’s a bit of fun when you see them roll around. I can barely predict what i’m going eat for lunch let alone what’s going to have in a complex competition with an unending number of variables, a virus that might upturn games at a whim, and the usual churn that occurs between good, bad and in-between on a year-to-year basis. But rugby league journalists need clicks, and twitter accounts like to fun. Here’s Buzz. Here’s Jamie Soward. Get on the timeline. There’s an unending stream. It’s easy content. It riles up the blood and the clicks. And no one actually cares once a ball is kicked.
One thing that all these predictions have in common, be it social media or paid professional, is that no one thinks the Canberra Raiders, god’s chosen rugby league football team, will be playing finals footy this season. I’ve seen a a heap on twitter. I’ve seen them in papers. The highest I’ve seen for the Milk is 10th, the lowest 12th. It seems everyone agrees that Green Machine is stuck in third gear as the competition hurtles past.
In a sense you can see how they would get there. 2021 was not a season that most Canberra fans would care to relive. Injuries, behind-the-scenes chaos, physical unpreparedness unseen in professional sport since Boonie and Swervin’ Mervyn graced the metaphorical stage. The Raiders lost in an array of ways, looked generally lost and nearly tore themselves apart. And yet, they finished 10th. Or equal 8th, with points differential driving them out of the finals.
So to recap. Everything went wrong for Canberra in 2021. And they nearly made the finals.
You don’t do that by accident. You need a bit of of talent, a smidge of nouse, and plenty of spirit.
Of course there’s more to it than “they were bad last year”. There’s a bit of this prediction that recognises a bit of turnover in the roster. Out is the admittedly very good Jorge Williams. In addition to him Sia Soliola, Dunamis Lui, Siliva Havili and Ryan James all had their final year at the club (well, on the field anyway). But these need to be weighed against the future captain Jamal Fogarty, the return of the prodigal son Nic Cotric, and the venga bus himself, Adam Elliott.
Of course, the rest of the competition will improve, and many of the teams tipped to finish above the Green Machine are teams that most tip to take a step forward in 2022. The Broncos, the Bulldogs, the Warriors. Most consider these teams ‘on the rise’, in comparison to the Raiders fading glory (such as it was. Take me back to 2019).
This argument, even with all three parts isn’t the most convincing to me. Things going poorly in 2021 shouldn’t be a definitive explanation for 2022. The Raiders were so unprepared for the pace of 2022, in both the fitness of their middle forwards, the style of play required to win, and the type of personnel they needed to do well. Their focus for this season has been on a different type of fitness, one less focused on medium intensity over a long time, and more focused on dynamic shifts in effort. Instead of running repeat 800 metre efforts, they’re doing more short form work. Jeremy Hickmans is about as experienced as it gets when it comes to fitness, and while it won’t be the only thing that could improve the fatigued defensive efforts, it will go a long way.
They’ll also be more prepared with the ball. Mick Crawley is bringing more structure, Jamal Fogarty will bring on-field leadership, and the duo of Tom Starling and Josh Hodgson (at least, until he’s shipped elsewhere) will man the middle. Concerns about Hodgson ‘over playing his hand’ (something we always felt was overblown) will likely dissipate in a more structured offence (there’s no surprise they didn’t exist when Crawley was previously with the side). Set play and structure will return, which may unlock the potential of Wighton (by removing the requirement to create off his own back and instead provide a more decision-tree), seeing him in something closer to his 2020 role than his disappointing 2021 effort.
The roster changes that Canberra experienced are about better preparing them for 2022. Most of the change was old forwards going out the door to provide space for a younger more mobile pack (something that I note Jamie Soward hasn’t noticed, but alas). Papalii, Tapine and Ryan Sutton are the stalwarts, but in the middle a ‘contract year’ Corey Horsburgh, a ‘playing for his career’ Adam Elliott, and emerging players like Peter Hola, Trey Mooney, Caleb Esera and JJ Clarkson, will provide more minutes, metres and be better suited to the new style than the old guard last year. Hudson Young is going to be so good. Just trust me on that. In addition, while the Raiders didn’t pick up free agents, last year meant they were able to get critical experience into Matt Timoko, Harley Smith-Shields, and Xavier Savage. Instead of nothing but questions going into 2021 they’ve got nothing but talent.
In fact this internal development is a good explainer for why many are excited about other teams’ roster improvement as opposed to Canberra. Much of the change will come from inside Raiders HQ (with the noted exceptions of Jamal, Nic and Adam). Teams like the Broncos/Dogs/Warriors have signed big name free-agents. It will no doubt improve those teams, but there’s a tendency to overweigh the affect of those players before a ball is kicked, and assume fixing one problem will solve others. In particular Adam Reynolds is going to hear it if the Broncos struggle early if he can’t fix the Broncos porous middle defence from halfback.
I’m not here to tell you to put your mortgage on this. But in short, while on the field things can still go terribly (hello, we’re all Raiders fans here) the Milk are in better shape to perform better than 2021. There’s still plenty of uncertainty of what Coronavirus will mean for the competition, and for Canberra. While some things that sit in the strength column (depth, a less covid-heavy home environment) there are plenty that are are weaknesses (like fear of life-saving vaccinations for example). And while the Green Machine may be better placed to succeed, that doesn’t mean they will – after all 2021 looked wonderful until it wasn’t.
But the pretence that Canberra are a sure thing to miss the 8 is just that. When the hive mind of the rugby league media decides on something, chances are they are just as likely to be wrong as right. These aren’t Australia’s finest after all. There’s enough reasons to suggest the Raiders are as likely to improve as they are to decline, and that no one has found it in their brains to work that out says more about how most rugby league media think than it does about the actual team.
For Canberra fans, ‘no one believes in us’ feel so comfortable it may as well as be made from that mesh they make basketball shorts from (related: I am wearing basketball shorts right now). So I don’t feel angry, and to be honest it’s a better position for this side to be in. They can do their work without the glare of the Sydney media baring down on them. They can quietly go about building something functional, and unleash it on the competition in March. No one will see it coming.
Because no one else is looking.