For the most part the 2022 Canberra Raiders season was an worthy achievement. Canberra transitioned the squad, moving ageing squad players out in exchange for youth. They maintained success despite this (or because of it), managed without around $1.5 million in salary cap as injured stars watched on, and still made the league shake for a brief period. They got career years out of key players and recruits, built a few burgeoning starts, and while they lost some players to free-agency, these seem replaceable. They won 14 games in the regular season – one less than 2019 – beat the Storm in the first week of the finals and just got hit by a juggernaut in a semi. There is upside in this team. Right?
An alternative assessment is that the Raiders red-lined on the back of Joe Tapine’s contract year and Hudson Young’s growth, like an inefficient engine roaring down the highway burning petrol just to keep up with better designed cars. They never developed a coherent attack or a air-tight defence. The youth movement brought potential, but the existence of potential doesn’t make it’s fulfilment inevitable. And Canberra’s losses in free-agency have been compounded by a near absence of the club in the market, meaning all their money will (hopefully I guess) be used to retain Tapine and little more. 14 wins was more about the weakness elsewhere in the competition, and they only scraped in to the finals thanks to a chaotic collapse by the Broncos at the end of the season.
How do we differentiate these two assessments? In truth this season had both in them. Canberra did survive because Joe Tapine and Hudson Young willed it. They failed to ever develop a structured attack that could compete with elite defences like the Panthers or the Eels. They missed Adam Elliott in the semi-final, and will miss him more next season. Ryan Sutton, Josh Hodgson, Harry Rushton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad are the kinds of players the Raiders need, if they didn’t come with the name and context of their departure. At their worst they looked like a wooden-spoon team and I moped in public about it for about three months. Then they stiffened their spine – an achievement in itself – and found a manageable way to suceed.
So what did this side achieve, and is it sustainable?
Canberra did successfully embrace youth. Matt Timoko and Xavier Savage are now every-game starters. Matt Timoko proved the most reliable edge-runner the Raiders had, and he tormented good defenders. He also showed a willingness and ability to do the dirty work in yardage. Savage was in moments electric, a shooting star that didn’t show it’s light often enough. But it’s there, and it will come out given time. Both have defensive gains to make, particularly Savage, but that’s what being young is about. They’ve got all the energy but bodies are still building and brains are still heeding the lessons learnt at the highest level.
Hudson Young proved me right, becoming a offensive weapon and a very good and reliably physical defender. With Tapine he is one of two players that has single-handedly won games this season, from the inside ball to Matt Timoko in round one, to the grubber for himself against the Knights (and plenty of other moments along the way). He is already being mooted as a representative player, and he hasn’t even refined his game to its finest version. He is not yet the transformative defender that John Bateman was, but the pieces are there, and he brings a similar unpredictability in attack (with a stronger carry) that the Raiders need to utilise better. A word of warning: Hudson will have a tougher year next year, but that doesn’t mean he is falling off or struggling. Next season the expectations will be un-meetable. Teams will watch film, they will learn, and they will adjust for him. If next season looks like consolidation that will be a win. Canberra will have to find the right balance between asking him to be Jack Wighton’s back-up creator on the left-side, and utilising him in more traditional back-rower lines to open up space for those around him.
Corey Horsburgh is another young player who progressed to mainstay this year. Like Hudson he is also only 24, just had what is probably his best year in the league, and has become the reliable third head to Canberra’s Cerberus of middle forwards. For a big unit he’s surprisingly agile, has a workfare that is unending (witness his 54 tackles in the semi final loss), and his passing will be of increased importance to the Raiders in the absence of Sutton, Rushton, Elliott and Hodgson. His best years are ahead of him, and whatever fate befalls Josh Papalii will be offset by his improvements.
Plenty of other youth showed enough to think they’re worth persisting with. Brad Schneider showed a capable running game and solid defence in Jamal Fogarty’s absence – there’s a big future for him if Ricky Stuart can break the habit of a
lifetime coaching career and turn a promising half into a good one. Adrian Trevilyan played 10 minutes that might be up there with Usman Khawaja’s debut 37 or Jason Smith’s first game for the Milk in things that gave me disproportionate hope. Zac Woolford quietly became the number one hooker at the club over the year, which is a testament to his game and evidence of the impact the wind-back of V’Landysball on Tom Starling. The play of Albert Hopoate and Seb Kris proved that the Raiders depth in the backs is in the right place, to the extent that Jarrod Croker may now be the 3rd best option at left centre. That players like Ata Mariota and Trey Mooney will get bigger roles next year is a good thing. Hopefully both can become every game starters, following the pathway of Timoko in 2021 or Horsburgh and Young in 2019.
But what about maintaining the existing performance out of the stars? Joe Tapine’s output was stunning and much has been written about it. Like Papalii’s 2019 it became expected that you’d see 150 plus metres and a bucket-load of tackle breaks. Is it sustainable? What made him great was his ability to play consistently across the season and longer within games. He was also helped by the change in the Raiders playing style that gave him greater opportunity to show and prove his passing talents. There was noise about him giving up the beers and burgers, and while a new contract may reduce his commitment to diet, that’s a problem and focus for a new fitness and performance manager. He seems to have reached a point where he craves leadership, and that starts with the work done off-field, so I am not worried about that. And the expansion of his passing game won’t disappear with a new deal, only at the behest of the coaching staff, something that would presumably be a fireable offence.
Josh Papalii had a year that mirrored the teams, coming good in the second half, improving each game like the little dude climbing the mountain on the Price is Right (haha wow that’s a dated reference). How much of his downturn was age or health related is hard to tell. There was a dramatic difference in his play at the back end of the year, where suddenly his feet went from feeling like he was about to sleep with the fishes (see…) to bouncing through the defensive line like a tik tok trick shot video (say that five times fast). How much is left? Well considering his year totals for metres, post contact metres, offloads, tackles and tackle efficiency were all in-line with, or improvements on, previous years, I’m comfortable with thinking there is more in him yet.
Jack was Jack. All season long. 10 try assists, 15 line-break assists and 23 try involvements was a good year given how much the Raiders offence struggled this year. Given that he only scored four times and four line-breaks (less than Elliott Whitehead) it suggests he played a bigger role creating for others. He still managed to average 100 metres on the ground. It suggests that maybe his game is evolving, and that maybe the hope that he can be *more* than a brilliant footballer isn’t forlorn. Will he ever see the game like a coach? I doubt it, but 15 forced drop outs and 3 forty-twenties suggest he’s thinking a lot more about what he does. I reckon he even went the majority of games without slamming a ball out-on-the-full. It’ll take time to find out if Jamal Fogarty is a suitable partner for him, but this season suggested there’s something to that partnership to enjoy over the next two years.
There are players that are ageing out. Elliott Whitehead was much better in the finals than he was in the regular season, and clearly benefitted from a last round break. It’s hard to know how much he has left or what his best position is. The Raiders don’t have an obvious solution if his trendline continues it’s downwards trajectory, especially if Adam Elliott’s absence draws Corey Harawira-Naera inwards. Jarrod Croker’s body doesn’t seem to be cooperating anymore. It’s hard to know how much time Jordan Rapana has left, and Nic Cotric frustrates because he’s basically the same player he was when he entered the league. Admittedly he’s younger than Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh, so maybe we should remind ourselves that time is on his side.
And of course we said goodbye to others. I’ve written pretty extensively about the departure of Josh Hodgson, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Ryan Sutton, Harry Rushton and Adam Elliott. As a collective Hodgson, Charnze and Sutton represent another nail in the coffin of the memories of 2019. This is probably a good thing. The game has changed since then, and those memories are more useful as a source of pride in the achievement than they are as learnings for success. Harry Rushton and Adam Elliott’s loss is devastating – there’s no way to sugar coat that – and how Coach Stuart and Don Furner re-fill the promise of Harry and the structural importance of Elliott is one of their big challenges for summer.
Considering the transition of the roster, the emergence of new stars and starters, and the performance of existing leaders, it’s hard to consider 2022 anything but a success. 14 wins in the regular season weren’t an accident. People will point to wins that could have been (Warriors, Dragons) but there were others than went the other way (Sharks, Knights). They went 7-4 in games decided by six points or less, 8-5 in games decided by ten points or less, both right in line with where you’d assume a 14 win team to be. They did get some helpful timing in their draw (such as playing Manly after internal chaos tore them apart, or the Roosters before Robbo worked out that his halves should play on the sides they had played all their careers). But they also had to play in Townsville in March (which should be illegal) the Broncos at their height of their powers, and 4 of the top 5 teams twice.
In short this team was no fluke. But that doesn’t mean Sticky’s suggestion this was a top 4 side hamstrung by injury is right. Sure a few wins earlier in the season would have helped, and a longer time for Fogarty, as well as the availability of Hodgson and others would have been beneficial. But all teams suffer injuries, and good teams manage regardless. The tide of a season can’t be swayed with counterfactuals. Would a healthy spine have found a way to share the ball? Would Hudson Young been trusted with so many opportunities? Would the Milk have found Zac Woolford if Josh Hodgson and Adrian Trevilyan hadn’t been hurt? Would Joe Tapine have dialled it up to 11 if times weren’t desperate? Would the Raiders have beaten the Storm twice if Ryan Papenhuyzen’s knee was in-tact? It’s a fun talking point but the fact it’s unresolvable makes it useless outside of its narrative benefit to Stuart. All that lies between what is and what could have been is the dreams of broken men.
It’s safe to say that this was one of the best eight teams in the competition, and it can stay in that place or get better with a little bit of administrative competence and a dash of hope. The two assessments we started with are, in a sense, a test of your optimism and faith in the coaching structures to find the best of these players, but the turnover in the back-house makes it hard to asses that with certainty. It is unavoidable in some cases (Hickmans, Egan). In others it represents a melancholic parting of ways with 2019-20 in line with other player departures. Both White and McFadden were reportedly huge parts of that success, just as Hodgson and Nicoll-Klokstad were.
Ricky Stuart has always struck me more as a man manager than a strategic wunderkind, so getting people around him that can work with him to, as a basic starting point, build a coherent and structured attack this off-season, is a baseline. Since 2018 the Raiders have become a side that scraps for points rather than creating them. I’d love to see Seb Kris score more regular tries than having to rely on the strange alignment of the moon and Jupiter to influence the randomness of him finding himself planting the ball in the end-zone. The good thing is that Canberra knows something must be done – this is why Mick Crawley was brought back to the club in the off-season. His initial experiment was abandoned after a slow start (and potentially after the injury to Josh Hodgson made it harder to execute). But there’s a recognition there of work to do.
Don Furner has his summer cut out for him. He needs to help Sticky find a new supporting crew to help implement this. One rumour is Manly assistant and former Raider (because, of course, it has to be) Michael Monaghan will joins the squad. I hope Furner and Sticky generally seek out some new blood. Working out who is, or will be, a good assistant is tough for our vantage point, so to an extent you just have to trust people know what they’re doing.
The Raiders also need to recruit smartly. Retaining Tapine, Harley Smith-Shields (on the same contract timeline as Taps) and Adrian Trevilyan (apparently off-contract) should be a priority. Pasami Saulo is a good addition to the middle, but after key departures they need to add a more established prop and lock to that rotation. That may be solve-able by moving Corey Harawira-Naera to the middle permanently, but that just makes the need to find another edge backrower all the more important. I would also suggest a backup for Savage at fullback. Jordan Rapana has been second choice fullback for some time now, but that feels increasingly unreliable, both in his availability and in the general chaos he sews on the field. It may all be dependent on what happens with Joe Tapine, and a decision by him may be the domino that leads to other decisions. If he goes, then Canberra has *even more* cap space available to search out talent on the market now but not available until 2024. That could change how they approach 2023, as well as beyond.
For now though those goals of retain, replace and revamp are clear. Canberra have plenty in the shed to continue to challenge for a top 6 position next season, but it requires improvements, both in performance, in style, and in personnel. This season was a success, and there’s plenty to build on. But the team needs a tune-up, and modernisation to keep up with the competition. 2022 was a wild ride, but with a better approach there’s an easier and more effective way to get to the same place and beyond.
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