I can’t believe we’re doing this again.
The Canberra Raiders 2022 season starts proper this Friday at 6 o’clock post meridiem. All the pain of 2021, all the change, the restructuring, the conditioning, and the noise, is rendered moot by what occurs on Friday. Canberra haven’t had the perfect off-season. They’ve lost a up-and-coming centre and a newly-recruited starting halfback before a team was even picked. They’re fighting uphill from the first kick. It’s the Raiders way.
They start with the Cronulla Sharks and as much as anything, we are getting the first proper evidence of whether or not the Raiders adjustments from 2021 will be enough to compete again. The Sharks are in a similar tier to the Milk – behind the heavyweights (Roosters, Panthers, Storm) and the potentials (Parra, Manly, Bunnies) – but right there as a potential dark horse. If Canberra can overcome them it’s a good sign that there’s more to this team than just being an ‘also-ran’. If not, it may be evidence that the adjustments still need time to adhere in place. Or it could mean another year of pain.
Ok. Let’s go.
Not Jarrod Croker, who’s rugby league mortality seems to be closing in on him. My heart hates it. There will be other opportunities for him this season – the Raiders lack of depth at the position and coronavirus will make certain of that. I’m still confident he makes 300 games. After that, well, who knows.
In his place is James Schiller. There’s something beautiful about the sun setting on one Canberra great, himself a (distant) relative of another Canberra legend, and rising on another relative of Raiders greatness. The people’s team is now the family club (cop that Canterbury). Schiller impressed in the trials but I did not think he was this close to the top line in Stuart’s thinking (turns out likely starter Seb Kris is isolating). Not that I think it’s beyond him. He looked powerful and quick, and seemed to make several difficult defensive decisions look easy. Semi Valemei, who played mostly centre in the trials instead comes in on the wing. His presence will inspire robust discussion, due to his penchant for mixing in glaring errors with his brutally physical style of footy. I still think there’s a quality footballer in there. I just wish Sticky would give him some time to learn his game.
Ryan Sutton misses out, and it’s hard not to think that Sticky has chosen to develop other players because of the decision made around the Englishman’s contract this week. I hope that’s not the case. Sutton provides important passing through the middle and effort and energy in defence. Instead Emre Guler is on the bench with Corey Horsburgh. I loved what Big Red offered in the trials. His passing will be a decent facsimile of what Sutton would have offered, just in less minutes and more power. I’m not sure how Guler is ahead of Sutton in the depth chart.
And of course Brad Schneider gets his start at halfback. We’ve got big hopes for the Schneid. We wish him nothing but the best. He’ll be tested in defence, which is why we’ll be watching how Corey Harawira-Naera and Matt Timoko can support him defensively. On the other edge as expected is Hudson Young, with Elliott Whitehead playing point forward. Adam Elliott will provide flexibility, covering middle and edge, and if one side isn’t holding up defensively he may be the failsafe.
Xavier Savage misses out, which some might be angry with. I’m not worried about him missing opportunities. He’ll be playing first grade soon enough. I suspect it’s a physical development thing (hence Semi) rather than issues with performance or decision making. It does fly in the face of our “Riverboat Ricky” thesis, but the person there instead of him (Valemei) is hardly a bastion of stability.
The Sharks will be without Wade Graham. He’s tortured the Raiders over the years, and even with his increasing age and decreasing output, it will be pleasing to not see him. Cam McInnes is out too, which removes one of the more robust and energetic middle defenders from the Sharks pack.
Who/what we’ll be watching
This game will be a test of the Raiders newly minted edge defence. The Sharks scored 80 per cent of their tries on the edges last year, and with the style of footy that Nicho Hynes, Will Kennedy and Matt Moylan are most comfortably playing it feels that they’ll be back shifting hard and fast. On one side Young, Wighton and Schiller are a new combination. On the other will be Corey Harawira-Naera, Brad Schneider and Matt Timoko. Cronulla has plenty of ball play, and Will Kennedy will be a handful for centres to pick up on sweeping movements.
The Sharks conceded a heap of points in 2021 (ok about the same as the Raiders), but I would suspect their defence will improve under Craig Fitzgibbon. Without McInnes in the middle they’re very big, so pace around the middle should be critical as the game wears on and players like Talakai and Fifita come on (hello Tom Starling).
It will be interesting to see how Canberra’s new attacking structure targets this. In the second trial the first receiver consistently shifted the ball wide early, and the Raiders missed opportunities closer to the ruck. As the game wore on Whitehead and Horsburgh in particular began to focus on shorter balls and taking the line on, and prospered. They can better target that middle through interplay between the forwards rather than pressing wide early in sets. This has the advantage of taking the pressure off Brad Schneider, and allow him to pick and choose the moments to insert himself.
Raiders by 2. Help me I feel nervous already.
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