A mere four weeks ago, all that stood between the Raiders and the wooden spoon was Trent Barrett and the Canterbury Bulldogs continuing relationship. My how things have changed. Since then
the Dogs fired Barrett has resigned, Canberra had a three game winning streak, a hard fought loss to a top four side, and Jamal Fogarty has returned. Four weeks ago murmurs about his return had felt like a mirage. Now there’s an unfair but necessary requirement for him to find his feet urgently.
The next two weeks will finalise Canberra’s completion of the “top 8” set. By then the Raiders would have played every potential finals side, before playing the more manageable Dragons and Knights before the bye. It’s a crucial period. Next week they’ll likely be without Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is still weeks away from returning and Jarrod Croker is likely done for the season (according to Christian Nicolussi of the Sydney Morning Herald). Jamal Fogarty’s return is beyond welcome.
Canberra have stumbled upon a strategy to win games recently. It’s the same one they used to have before Peter V’Landys tried to break to game. Win the middle, kick to corners, tackle like maniacs and hope that chances for points manifest through positivity and heart. It’s worked plenty in the past 100 years of footy, so there’s no reason it can’t keep working.
In the past though this plan has relied on the individual brilliance of certain players. Josh Hodgson’s guile. Jack Wighton in the freedom of space and freedom from responsibility. BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana creating something from nothing (and occasionally nothing from something). This iteration of the Raiders are proving a hard working team, but they do not have the individual brilliance of previous versions. It puts a glass ceiling on their performances against top teams because they cannot put enough pressure on defences that don’t put pressure on themselves.
To succeed then, Canberra need to build a more threatening offence. Good offences are part strategy part familiarity. This season has been the antithesis of that. The Raiders have changed both strategy and personnel with unhelpful regularity. Indeed the only constant in key skill positions this year has been change. They’ve played three fullbacks, three halfbacks, two five-eighths, five hookers and a partridge in a pear tree. They started the season with Elliott Whitehead as a key ball-player, shifted him back to an edge. Varying success of passing between the middles has only just started to turn a corner. Edge backrowers have shifted around, as have centres (Matt Timoko trained all off-season at right centre, started the season at left centre, and is now back at right centre).
It doesn’t get any easier. Origin will only make that worse, as Jack Wighton departs to play centre for Freddy Fittler. The Raiders are now heavily reliant on Jamal Fogarty to go from a mixed debut for the club to running the show with Matt Frawley or Brad Schneider for the 11th new halves pairing of the season. Canberra has no choice, but they simply need to make this latest combination work. There’s no alternative, and no respite in terms of competition.
For his part Fogarty had a mixed debut, which is about as much as one can expect from someone playing their first competitive game in near 9 months. He looked happier improvising on the right than he did chiming in as part of sweep movements on the left. There was no surprise that timing was an issue, or that he seemed unable to effectively threaten the line with his recently repaired knee. The major problem is that knee will now shoulder the load of the Raiders offence.
He may get some support from around him but so much of what exists is immature in its development. Xavier Savage is still finding his feet in first grade. Matt Timoko feels like he could use more chances than he gets. Hudson Young was brilliant against the Sharks and Souths, and somehow barely touched the ball last week. Tom Starling has had poor and brilliant moments in equal measure this season. Fogarty will need to be the elder statesman that can brings these dispirit elements together until something more consistent and cohesive can be built towards the end of the season.
This being a problem is a privilege the Raiders have had to earn. A month ago it wouldn’t have mattered if they beat the Roosters or the Broncos, just that they’d beaten the Bulldogs and put some distance between them and the spoon. Fogarty would have been able to be the returning hero, able to play with nothing to lose. Now they’re playing for real money, and it means a new set of requirements and expectations. It’s not been pretty but in the last month Canberra have started to find a way. There’s a new challenge now.
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