This has hardly been an ideal pre-season for the Canberra Raiders.
The Milk were already entering the season with a bit of a challenge brought upon by the World Cup shortened pre-season’s impact on it’s ageing roster. Lots of teams had players at the world’s celebration of rugby league in England last year, but the Raiders mixture meant that ageing players like Elliott Whitehead and Jordan Rapana got less of the preparation they need to compete one more year at an elite level. You could probably chuck Josh Papali’i in that bunch, and while it’s not enough on it’s own to make you worry, when combined with a range of other factor, it makes me nervous.
This short turnaround this off-season has been compounded by the abandonment of the Raiders central carry-over benefit from 2023 – continuity and cohesion. To an extent this has been driven by circumstance. The injury to Xavier Savage presented Coach Stuart with a problem with few good solutions. We’re not particularly sold on Seb Kris as a fullback (though, given our love for the Sea Bass we’d love to see him succeed) but it was one of a series of imperfect solutions. However, as a solution it wasn’t a simple in-out scenario. Instead it requires not just change at the back, but also on the left edge. Edge defence has always been a challenge for the Milk. That last year ended with that feeling relatively stable was unique. That it’s been abandoned so quickly is noteworthy.
Circumstance, to a lesser extent, may deliver change elsewhere on the edges. We noticed (as I’m sure you did) that Elliott Whitehead started at right-edge backrower in the second trial. But then Corey Harawira-Naera came on, and Whitehead shifted to the middle. It makes sense that Whitehead will play more middle this year – he’s lost a clip of pace, and that can reduce the ways he can be a threat to the defence. He’s an excellent passer, and can offer some of the width through the middle the Raiders have lost with the departure of Josh Hodgson, Adam Elliott, and others. On the edge Harawira-Naera is more of a threat to the line in attack, but he can lose interest on defence. That means instead of stability on both edges, Canberra may have new combinations and different challenges to overcome.
The boat-rocking of spinal stability has also been self-inflicted. We’d written coming into the season that the Raiders big advantage was the consistency in their key positions. It would be the only season outside of 2021 where Canberra would start the season with the same 1-6-7-9 as they ended the previous season. For a side that spent all last year saying “just you wait until we build some connections” one would have thought the opportunity to do just that would be at the forefront. However, in addition to the injury to Savage, the Milk seem likely to abandon last season’s hooking rotation in favour of Danny Levi.
Now don’t get me wrong, Levi might be ready to find his way in the league. In the trials he provided adequate service, and had some great moments jumping out from behind the ruck, testing the ruck defence and finding gaps for others to take advantage of. But it’s also hard not to notice that the pack haven’t yet found a synchronicity with the newcomer. That’s to be expected. Unless you’re elite, it takes a bit of time it’s also why you only change your spine when you’re really, really sure. After stumbling into a solution last season, it seems the Milk are hoping to do so again.
It would be easier to write all this off as noise if the Raiders trial form hadn’t been so abhorrent. As per always, the outcomes of trials are irrelevant, and it’s hard not to think (as we did) that Sticky was trying something fancy in an attempt to prepare teams for the horror heat and fatigue they’ll feel through the first month or so of the season. But the lethargy through the middle, the play of key forwards (like Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh who looked like the worst two players on the field), and the inability of the edges to stop anything with more than one pass involved was compelling as it was depressing.
Being prepared, or otherwise, for the season matters even more given the unique difficulty of the early goings. The Raiders draw looks favourable at the end of the year, but through the opening weeks the season has a host of challenges, like playing in the Queensland summer heat in rounds one, two and six, the Panthers in round five, or their ‘easy’ games being the Sharks or the team they always weirdly struggle with, the Knights. Getting to week seven with three wins and losses felt like a challenge before the chaos. Now if they acheive that it will be a downright celebration.
Of course, this sense of urgency may be the exact thing Stuart wants to embed in this squad to avoid the Milk’s traditional early season torpor. Embedding competition at positions has always been a key facet of Stuart’s coaching philosophy. Perhaps he’s extended this idea squad-wide, trying to shake the foundations of a squad that he may have deemed a little *too* happy with last season’s result. Outside of the forced change to Savage, an alternative reading might see this ruckus brought and fostered to an extent, rather than just a victim of circumstance. To do this we must trust Stuart’s expertise, and ascribe to him a degree of omnipotence. Whether you do that is between you and whoever you talk to when no one else is around.
It’s been rocky so far so strap in. We’re just getting started.
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