The first news the Canberra Raiders have received about their draw for the 2023 NRL season is above as tough as it gets. In round 1 they will play the Cowboys in Townsville in the hot summer sun, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Cowboys, in my opinion, should have precisely zero games in daylight in Townsville in March. It’s hot enough there at night time in March, let alone when the sun is still out. Combine that with the fact the season is starting earlier than previously – presumably to account for the extra rounds needed to fit the Dolphins 24 games in – and suddenly the Milk are playing elite sport in the hottest part of the country at the hottest time of the year during the hottest part of the day (well not quite but close). A 5.30 kick off might be fine in the middle of winter, but in March that’s still day and there’s not quite searing like the North Queensland sun (I have no understanding of the humidity. I will also assume that is a thing).
Canberra, of course, have a terrible record in North Queensland. Most will remember the soul crushing golden point loss in round 1 2017. When they won there in 2018 they broke a twelve year hoodoo. When they went there last year against a Cows side that had lost the week before to the Bulldogs, they got their ass handed to them. All around that they’ve always found victory tough – outside of 2019’s 30-12 they’ve not had anything approaching a comprehensive victory since
1958 2003. They aren’t packed with North Englishmen as they once were, but it’s still a difficult place for the Milk to play.
The Cows have a bit of a reputation for being slow starters. I’m not so sure that’s the case. Their round one record over the last few years is as close to 50/50 as it comes, regardless of whether you focus just on home games or consider the matter more holistically. With Todd Payten at the helm, and the clarity of approach built over 2022 fresh in their minds, i’m not sure that’s something the Raiders will be relying on. They’ve also historically been a terrible matchup for the Milk. Their often very sizeable pack led by Jason Taumalolo has a tendency to offset Canberra’s normal advantage in the middle, which is probably a key contributor to the Raiders’ poor record against them in recent years.
This isn’t a matter of deliberate institutional bias against Canberra, though there are structural reasons that this has occurred. The timing of games is driven so heavily by broadcaster requests. The biggest NSW market in Parramatta play the Storm on Thursday night. Penrith and the Broncos play Friday night. The Bunnies play the Sharks on Saturday night. It would make sense to me and you for the Townsville game to be later than the Sydney game, but that is driven by broadcasters too (and, I think, a desire by visiting clubs to Townsville to typically play at 5.30 so they can fly home that night). In a sense Canberra can count their blessings it’s not Sunday night at 6pm, or god forbid if they were unlucky like the Dragons to get a week of rest to start the season.
Of course there’s an advantage there in that the Raiders have all summer to prepare, and suddenly a round trip to Townsville only interrupts preparations for the next game rather than recovery from the previous as well. And if Canberra are serious about 2023 being a big step up, then a trip like this shouldn’t worry them. There will be tougher games next season than this. And maybe they get the Cows on a cold August night at Bruce in return.
But still. That’s a hot start if I’ve ever seen one.