Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Me, I’m almost always pessimistic. It’s mostly protective. If I’m prepared for the worst then it can’t hurt me. In theory. It works for some stuff; minor inconveniences can be prepared for, and on occasion avoided. Hope for the best, expect the worst. That’s your boy. An optimist doesn’t prepare for the worst. It’s a waste of time and energy. The sun will come up again tomorrow. Time to move forward and find a new way. Screw your ants and your hoarding for the winter. I want to be like that.
For a brief moment before last season I, like many Raiders fans, let their hopes get ahead of where the team was. How were we to know that the off-season conditioning wasn’t properly targeted? How were we to know Stuart’s relationship with his captain would collapse or that he’d end up severing a relationship with his halfback which apparently had been on the fritz throughout the season and even before? If anything those of us that got uncharacteristically carried away with two whole years of success should have been more circumspect with our hopes and their relative “upness”.
Thinking about the 2022 season shapes as the test of where your heart lies (or anxieties sit). Which is the real Raiders? The 2019 and 2020 versions, or the 2021 team? Was the clearout of Canberra middles that followed last season enough to change their fortunes with Vlandoball, and what impact will the rule changes have with that (something we started to address here). Is Elliott Whitehead, key decision-maker, an inspired restructure or too much weight (physically and metaphorically) for the captain to bare. Is Jamal Fogarty in the same orbit as George Williams and Aidan Sezer, or is he only a slight upgrade on Sam Williams? Sometimes it’s asking your head to overrule your heart, or vice versa, and frankly, that’s not very rugby league if you ask me.
So rather than having decide on or the other, let’s just have a look at the good and the bad and work out where we lie.
The Canberra Raiders are undoubtedly better prepped for 2022 than they were last season. It’s been a relatively quiet off-season (knocks on wood, throws salt over shoulder, thumbs rosary beads and prays to Mal Meninga). Sure the Raiders still reportedly have two players unvaccinated, and Tom Starling’s legal situation is outstanding (as in unresolved rather than tops), but they somehow managed to get through the off-season without anyone getting arrested (OK except for Rapa blowing a DUI). Ok maybe this wasn’t as quiet as I thought, but it does feel much more settled than the past two off-seasons.
While the off-field may be a little bumpy, the work done by the Raiders with their supporting crew hopefully has allowed them to be better prepared for the season. Much was made late last year of the change in program that new conditioning coach Jeremy Hickmans had brought to the club, and from what we’ve seen in the trials there’s a suggestion that fitness isn’t an issue. In the second game against Manly, Canberra absorbed a heap of pressure before taking control of the game between the 30 and 60 minute marks. That they did it against the self-proclaimed “fastest team in the competition” is a very good sign.
Meanwhile Mick Crawley, who engineered not just the electric offence of 2016, but also the Campese purple patch, is back and hopefully ready to alleviate all the issues of a misdirected and inefficient offence that has plagued the club in recent years (even when they’ve been good). Again the initial signs are good. The new structure, focusing around key decisions being made by ballplaying forwards one-pass wide of the ruck, has added width and options to the Canberra attack. It’s made it less reliant on the spine to create from nothing, and key decisions about the direction of the attack will be made at first receiver rather than rake. The Raiders certainly have the horses for it. Elliott Whitehead and Josh Hodgson in particular figure to play a big role at first receiver. That experience will be useful in the expanded role of the ball-playing middle. The risk obviously is getting enamoured with the width and failing to earn to right to play wide, or test defences around the bigger defenders, but as key players showed in the trial, is a decision-tree they’re capable of assessing and adapting to.
Speaking of back, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is (hopefully) back for the long haul at the back. We know Xavier Savage is coming, and we’ve written our feelings on his fit both in the short-term and long-term (you can read them here). He’ll get his chance. Nicoll-Klokstad’s return at the back will sure up a defence that was atrocious without him, and elite (as in, as good as the top 4) with him. Rapana, Cotric and Nicoll-Klokstad may well be the best back three in the competition in terms of yardage, and will mean the forwards will rarely have to trot back past the 40 before they’re back in the line. There will still be plenty of opportunities for Savage (like Rapana’s opening round suspensions, and the inevitable ‘rona issues). In the meantime Charnze will be a critical addition.
Another important change has been the clean out of the middle. The Raiders pushed out their massive pack, and brought in younger, more mobile options to fill out the guts of the roster. Adam Elliott, Harry Rushton and Trey Mooney now complement the big units of Papalii, Sutton and Horsburgh. Whitehead in the middle brings a bustle to the middle that makes it feel like a lot is happening even when it isn’t. Tapine is now considered a prop, which is mostly meaningless for him, but given it means the Raiders have played former edge forwards like Smelly and Harry Rushton, alongside him, it means he’s no longer the “change of pace” but now the norm.
They’ve also added organisation. Experts, punters, and even the coach, have acknowledged the addition of Jamal Fogarty will take pressure of Jack Wighton and allow him to express himself with more freedom of the footy field. I’d still like to see Jack get the ball closer to the ruck on occasion, but it does mean if he wants to take on the line, there’s little worry about what will happen on the next set.
And while it’s not acknowledged by most media, the Raiders are probably better placed in terms of the depth of their roster. Even with the injury to Harley Smith-Shields they have plenty of youth earning and pushing for starting spots (Savage, Timoko, Mooney, and Rusthon amongst others). This will be critical to handle the ramifications of that effing virus. But also, for the first time in a while, the Raiders feel like they have a bunch of uber talented game-changers to saddle up in addition to more established stars. It might not be today, but soon they may be able to look beyond Jack or Josh to turn a game.
It’s all well and good to have all these improvements to roster and preparation but the Raiders aren’t operating in a vacuum. Everyone is getting fitter. Everyone will be better prepared, and a lot of those teams are coming off a higher base than the Milk. The Roosters, for example, had a horror injury run in 2021 and still made the finals. They’ll have Luke Keary back, and almost certainly will be better. The Broncos, the Bulldogs and the Tigers are similarly marked for improvement. While some teams might drop off (my guesses are the Bunnies and Manly), the clamber of monkeys up the ladder is beset by enemies on all sides.
The Raiders have plenty of questions over their team makeup, at least from a public eye. Their edges are the most prominent questions. Will he allow Hudson Young the time to develop and flourish into the representative left edge forward we know he can be. Is Corey Harawira-Naera’s potential departure and defensive lapses enough to have him struck off the right edge? Will Elliott Whitehead return to his previous best or was the toll of 2021 permanent? How long will his body survive in the middle? Where do Adam Elliott and Trey Mooney fit in this? We’ve often harped on this, but as outlined by Gain Line Analytics, success is driven by cohesion built over time. Without a clear approach the Milk could risk the chop-and-change of 2021 that made their edges less robust in defence, and less potent in attack.
While their revamped forward pack will be younger, and probably better suited to the style of game coming down the pipe, they’ve also seen a wealth of experience walk out the door. Sia Soliola, Ryan James, Dunamis Lui and Siliva Havili were critical parts of the club the differing extents over the last few years. I’m not convinced the Milk will necessarily miss them on the field, but if things wobble like they did last year, there’s even less leadership around this year to steady the ship. While the Milk never fixed the mess last year, they kept trying to the end. Do they have the right people with clear minds navigating troubled waters this year?
Nowhere is this more worrying than the right edge. As we noted, Semi Valemei might well be a long term answer but right now his game needs development. Seb Kris is a hard runner but lacks any agility or change of pace. Further down the depth chart James Schiller has impressed, but he feels more comfortable on the wing than centre. That leaves Matt Timoko on one side and either Jarrod Croker, Semi Valemei, or hope on the other. It may be that Sticky ends up playing Jordan Rapana there, which if your concern with Valemei was over-aggressive defence, won’t relax you.
A quieter issue is what this all amounts too. Competing with Manly was great, but beating a second string Roosters gives no hint as to the Raiders projected finish. There’s been a heap of change but will it be enough? I have to admit I’m hopeful. Before most seasons it feels like Canberra could finish anywhere in the 6-12th range. It’s just our historical baseline; the years that fall outside that feel so few and far between. But it’s hard to look at everything that went wrong last year, the turmoil, the ill-preparation, see the near miss of the finals and think ‘why can’t we be better?’
That could look as comical as the high hopes before 2021 in which we looked at the lack of clarity in the outside backs, the massive forward pack, and the past two seasons and wrongly diagnosed good things. Everyone looks good until they take a shot in the mouth. Only time will tell how Canberra react to that. But today at least I think they’ll handle it better than last year. Finals footy here we come.
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