Raiders (season) Rumble: The Good, the Bad and the Hopeful


Rugby league is almost back.

Presuming the league can find a way to get their shit together and reach an agreement with the players, NRL trial season is about to hit us, and that means proper footy is just weeks away. Can you feel it in the air? Sounds like it’s time to think about how the Raiders might go.

Each year Raiders fans start the same predicament. Outside of 2020 we’ve entered pretty much every season of the Stuart era hopeful but uncertain. The team has been like a Rorschach test; how you see them reveals as much about your own personality as it does about the team. Parsing just how a season might play out for the Milk sometimes feels like a fools errand anyway. 2020 was the only year recently that ended about where we thought, and that did so despite a pandemic, a season ending injury to a star and the general chaos created by rule changes. Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to the Green Machine.

On the field to the Canberra enter the season with minimal change – outside of whatever might come of Jack Wighton’s incident. In an off-season that’s felt like it’s had a ton of movement elsewhere, they had almost none. Pick a team and it feels like they’re drastically different. The Storm’s pack is brand new. The Tigers went out and bought half the comp, and are still trying to snare Mitch Moses. Parra’s grand final window may have shut as it lost key players too. The talent continued to trickle out of the Panthers (mostly to the Bulldogs), in what can only be described as the only living example of the trickle-down effect actually working. Even the Titans have finally put together something that looks like a spine to go with their talented middles.

All that change and Canberra sat still, for the most part. Danny Levi and Pasami Saulo are helpful roster fillers, and may be more than that given an opportunity. But they’re not the big fish the Raiders set out to get in David Fifita. That dream is (maybe? probably? I dunno I haven’t written an article on it for 12 seconds) over, and it means the Milk are entering the year pretty much the same as they exited last year.

So with all that improvement elsewhere, can the Raiders stay in the top 8?

The Good

The good news is all that quietness and stability is a big deal. 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 Milk 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 Trey Mooney in?) In short, for the first time in many years they have continuity and cohesion.

We’ve noted before how important this stability can be, and Gain Line analytics presents plenty of information in support of that thesis. It’s a point of difference for the Raiders this year, and hopefully one that can allow them to flourish, but one only needs to look at how much better the attack got towards the end of last season (27ppg over the last 7 games as opposed to 22 on the season) as evidence that a bit of time together doesn’t hurt. Just last week Jack Wighton was telling media about how much he was looking forward to building on the connections that were forged in 2022.

This is particularly noteworthy for the spine. Canberra started 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 with different spine members to the majority of the previous season. Last season they played with 13 different spine combinations (shouts to the god Jason Oliver for that). That’s basically a new mix every second game, including three different fullbacks, three different halfbacks, a couple of five-eights, and five different hookers. It leant credence to Coach Stuart’s suggestion that the halves needed time to gel.

Well now they’ve got it. 1,6,7,9,14 could all be exactly the same as the season ended last year. Xavier Savage has a full-offseason knowing the top-line job is his, and the experience to know what’s expected. Jack Wighton’s fourth year at 6 feels to have the most stable environment around it since his first. Jamal Fogarty proved he was a good game-manager through the back end of 2022, – the attack notably improved with him involved. Zac Woolford and Tom Starling are both being asked to improve from last year, but with one getting his first full-offseason with the squad, and the other getting the closest thing he can get to a quiet one, they may be ready to improve.

They’ve also got a host of young players with the time and experience in first grade that should allow them to take a step up. We’ve mentioned Savage and Starling, but players like Matt Timoko and Corey Horsburgh also seemed primed to make more improvements. Players like Trey Mooney and Ata Mariota feel ready to play first grade (and man let’s talk about Ata dead-lifting 300 kgs…*pulls James Schiller surprise face*). And while Canberra feels like it has a settled 17, it also has a depth at most positions that should act as a ballast should rough seas find their way to the nation’s capital (presumably via the Murrumbidgee, but who am I, André Delebecque?).

The bad

Things, however, are not perfect. The downside of stability is that things can fray at the edges (somewhat literally in this circumstance). All eyes will be on Elliott Whitehead to see if it was the preparation to play as a middle that plagued him last year, or the years of blood, sweat and toil he put his body through to sate our desires. If Whitehead isn’t able to play to his normal standard on the right, there’s nothing but questions about what follows. Corey Harawira-Naera is exciting but not consistent enough defensively for Coach Stuart’s preferences, and if he comes to the edge, it puts more pressure on the middle to find the agility he provides elsewhere. It would be unfair on Seb Kris to play out of position and without sufficient preparation, and Clay Webb has barely sniffed first grade and looked a year off being a year off last year (though Stuart has been notably impressed with him this off-season). It’s the kind of problem that can become a sinkhole. We’ve seen many a season collapse under the weight of a single defensive issue.

Canberra have a similar question created by the departure of Adam Elliott. He was a a huge asset last year, and it was such a shame that he (and Millie Boyle) walked away. They are without no obvious solution at 13. There is plenty of options, but for the moment it feels like when you have lots of of options, it’s just proof you don’t have any suitable ones. I thought Trey Mooney would end up playing big minutes there by the end of the season, but now he’s playing on the edge in the trial match. In the meantime the mix of Coreys will have to do.

The other question is in the spine. Coach Stuart has been talking up Danny Levi all year, as competition and a potential start for round one. As we’ve said, this is Stuart’s preferred approach to get the best out of players, and with Tom Starling and Zac Woolford with plenty of room to improve this is generally good news. But it’s also possible that Stuart isn’t happy with what he has on the roster. Tom Starling was pronounced ‘next’ but has so far failed to develop at the pace needed. Woolford wasn’t even in top line footy this time last year. Arguably the most talented hooker on the roster is currently recovering from multiple surgeries. And the only failsafe is yet another player who wasn’t in the NRL last year.

The last thing that worries me is what happens when things go wrong. In the last two seasons Canberra have cratered through the second quarter of the season. The fact that the side persevered both years, and even succeeded last year, are good advertisements for the ability of Coach Stuart to hold the club together (though, it’s arguable that he was heavily involved in creating both messes). With Madge Maguire now involved, I’m curious what the impact of two notably intense individuals is if another nadir is met.

The Hopeful

The nature of the competition this season is that everyone is pointing up. Hopes are rising for almost every team outside the eight. Lots of improvements have been made on paper, and the Raiders have done anything but that. Canberra’s weaknesses are obvious and honest, and create a teetering feeling that other clubs with more robust recruitment programs have addressed more publicly.

The Milk could get better, and still not make the finals. Such was the dramatic change of fortunes at the end of last season (for them, and for Brisbane). It took 14 wins to make the finals last year. In 2019 that would have landed you 5th. With so much pressure from outside the 8, with change in key areas for some top 8 sides, it feels like this season is going to be a different beast. It’s hard not to notice the Raiders stood still, on paper at least.

But games aren’t played on paper, and solutions driven by name aren’t always the way. The Raiders of the past have done as well with adding no-names (like Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Hudson Young, Bailey Simonsson and Corey Horsburgh in 2019) to their squad. The lack of recruitment may be taken as an inability to find the same talent as others (and as the Fifita pursuit shows, that’s a big part of it), but it can equally be taken as a sign that the Milk have got the talent on their roster to succeed.

I think Canberra succeeds because their ‘core’ of leaders are ready to perform. I’ve loved what I’ve heard from Papalii and Tapine, both about their roles as leaders for the game (in the dispute over proper conditions with the NRL) and their desire to get better on the field as players (not drinking during the season is pretty amazing). Jack Wighton will obviously not have the ideal start, but let’s be frank, if anyone is able to have a ‘clear’ mind while all around him is noise, it’s Jack. I think they improve on last year because Fogarty and Savage will be better for more time, and Timoko and Horsburgh are ready to build on platforms. I believe they’ll win more because Hudson Young exists. I know they’ll find a way because there’s players at the edge of the roster like Mooney and Mariota ready to show that they’re better than people know.

Let’s get this thing started.


See you in in the finals.

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One comment

  1. Dan, I think the “Canberra succeeds because…” falls right over due to the complete lack of success we have had for decades. It’d be far more accurate to say Canberra doesn’t succeed because we keep on settling for recruiting no names… Wouldn’t it?


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