Unless they make a free-agent splash, Canberra is unlikely to be considered a contender in 2023. A broadly successful 2022 will be treated as a limited team maxing out its talent, and more favoured teams will be tipped to make a leap on the back on free agent acquisitions.
That’s fine. Rugby league teams fight tooth-and-nail to be seen as the underdog. Low expectations are easy to vault, and that keeps people in jobs. It’s harder for the business side of things, but Raider fans are a small but hardy breed, and they’re already breaking membership records despite the public perception.
If Canberra are going to overcome circumstance and chatter to prove themselves worthy of greater things, they’ll have to maximise all of their advantages. That means the stars have to play like stars. The young talent has to show why it’s viewed so highly. The role players have to roll like Sisyphus. It all has to go to plan.
But the Raiders have something in there advantage that sits alongside these factors that can help propel them to higher ground in 2023. For the first time in many years their squad is mostly settled, with only minor additions in the off-season. There’s every likelihood that their starting spine, and rotation hooker, will be the same in round 1 as it was at the end of 2022. Indeed, if the Raiders played tomorrow there would only be one forced changed from the team that played the semi-final against the Eels (Ryan Sutton out,
David Fifita Pasami Saulo in?) In short, for the first time in many years they have continuity and cohesion.
Compare this to the change that normally occurs. The Raiders started 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 with different spine members to the majority of the previous season. In 2021 they had different wing and centre combos, different bench forward rotations, no John Bateman and confusion about who was part of their hooker rotation (not to mention not much clue about how to play in the hyper-Vlandoball era). Each of those seasons saw substantial change in the squad, with what I’d call ‘overhauls’ at the end of 2018 and 2021.
That’s not to say there’s not change this off-season, but it’s change at the edges rather than the core. Adam Elliott and Ryan Sutton will definitely be missed, and god knows I wish Harry Rushton was still a Raider. Josh Hodgson barely played in 2022, so it feels more like his transition out began in 2021. Of these, only Elliott played a big role in 2022. The solutions, for the most part, have been sought in-house, as Canberra has sought to retain and promote talent they’ve been cultivating for years (as we outlined here). This only builds on the cohesion and continuity within the squad.
This is good because time together, and the ability to build cohesion and connectedness, has potentially held the Raiders back. This is anecdotally supported by Canberra’s own assessment. For much of last year Coach Stuart noted the lack of time Jamal Fogarty and Jack Wighton had spent together as a key driver of the team’s clunky attack. As the year wore on that definitely changed, and the Raiders not only scored more with Fogarty in the side, but also drastically increased its scoring as the season wore on. They averaged 21.75ppg through Fogarty’s first 8 games, and 27.71ppg in his last 7. Small sample sizes are subject to too much influence (like games against Manly and the Tigers), so this is just one data point that we shouldn’t’ get too carried away with. But it does support Sticky’s hypothesis.
Indeed the hypothesis is supported by the data analytics firm Gain Line, who have repeatedly insisted over years that there is evidence that supports cohesion as being a key indicator for success. Most recently they’ve argued for its evidence in the relative success of Brentford in the English Premier League, Saudi Arabia in the current football World Cup, and Penrith in the NRL. Essentially the idea is that in team sports, the best way to maximise your potential is through games spent together.
You can see the logic. Not only does it allow smoother attacking movements as players get a chance to continually development structures and movements tested in game time. Players learn to react to the movements of the people around them in defence, a knowledge of where they may be tested and when they will or won’t need help. Teammates can react to glimpses of an opportunity, where over time two or three players may see a weakness that previously only one did. It takes time to build this understanding. And Gain Line publicises evidence on occasion to support this claim.
And when we look around the league we can see the Milk’s continuity isn’t necessarily shared across the league. The Panthers are losing their starting 9 and a key backrower. The Storm and the Eels are famously undergoing substantial change. The relative lack of change the Raiders are facing may well be an advantage it can take into the 2023 season to outperform expectations.
This, of course, is not foolproof. Change is a part of the game, and part of being a good team is adapting to the changing tides. What’s more, there’s no correlation between the Raiders losing players and being good or not. There was plenty of change before 2019 and that was unequivocally a good thing. To say the limited sample size of the Milk in recent times confirms Gain Line’s theory would be a stretch. And while the data argues for the importance of cohesion in outperforming expectations, it’s no substitute for talent.
It’s impossible to say if continuity has played a role in the Green Machine’s recruitment strategy. A more bespoke explanation would be that they had been hopeful of keeping Elliott, Sutton and Rushton, and in losing out on them so late in the 2023 free agency game (i.e well after the market had officially opened in November 2021), they were instead forced into a market where there was no options. Canberra may have wanted continuity of a different sort, and have been forced to embrace this version while chasing waterfalls into 2024 (Dave trust me Dickson Noodle House is worth signing for the Milk alone).
Other teams have more talent, and teams will upgrade their rosters in a way that Canberra has been unable to do this off-season. But perhaps a little cohesion and continuity will be the silver lining that can make the Raiders a contender.
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