Raider Revival: How Canberra Are Keeping Their Season Alive
It felt as though the Canberra Raiders had blown their best chance at a premiership when they lost the 2019 Grand Final.
The stars had aligned to pull off a surprise premiership win, but they caught a Sydney Roosters side at the peak of their powers. Bouncing back to reach the Preliminary Final in 2020, the Raiders ran into a Melbourne Storm juggernaut that, as we know, would go on to win the following week with relative ease.
Perhaps 2019 wasn't Canberra's best chance?
With the experience gained over the last two seasons, Jack Wighton in Dally M winning form, George Williams getting comfortable and the likes of Joseph Tapine playing out a career season, the Raiders looked primed for a deep run through 2021.
While not among the big four favourites (Panthers, Roosters, Rabbitohs, Storm) heading into Round 1, the Raiders were on an islandas the assumed fifth-best team in the NRL at 7.7% to win the premiership and 70% to at least play finals football.
Fast forward 18 rounds and the Raiders have fallen painfully short of expectations. Now at only 0.2% to lift the Provan-Summons Trophy and at risk of missing finals football entirely at just 41% to reach the Top 8, Ricky Stuart hasn't been able to continue Canberra's success.
"Reaching the 2019 Grand Final did always have a bit of a 'that is probably their best chance at winning it' feel afterwards. However, this fall from grace has been worse than anybody predicted." - NRL 2021: Coach Of The Year Rankings (Stuart, 16th)
While the Raiders have won just 7 of 17 games so far in 2021, they still sit at 9th on the NRL ladder. Only point differential separates the Sharks and Raiders for 8th and 9th while the Dragons are just one win ahead at 7th.
This top-heavy competition has left two spots open in the Top 8 for bad teams. The Raiders have the most potential of those fighting for a spot in finals footy and are the most likely to cause an upset if they can get back to their best over the next seven rounds.
Having won two on the bounce heading into Round 19, the Raiders are back on the right path.
Where it went wrong to start
Stuart and the Raiders have been forced to deal with a myriad of off-field issues which have translated into poor on-field performances. Most notably, the discontent and eventual departure of George Williams.
The English halfback never received the credit he deserved for how he organised the side and the way he contributed to Wighton's Dally M winning season in 2020. It's no coincidence that Wighton's form has dipped with Williams not playing his best football to start the year and since leaving the club.
Canberra's attack played left and right with the two halves sticking to their side for the most part. Tasked with playing on the ball more often and spreading himself across the field, Williams had his ups and downs throughout his 11 matches this season. Those ups and downs, in conjunction with Josh Hodgson's struggles to start the year contributed to Canberra's poor showing in the middle.
That lack of punch through the middle has resulted in the Raiders conceding a whopping 24.7 points per game through 17 rounds - a far cry from the 15.8 per game in 2020 and the defensive resolve they had developed over the last two seasons. As the game moves towards possession and building pressure, the Raiders rank 12th in possession percentage at 48% per game. While their 27 total forced dropouts put them 4thin the NRL, eight of them came in Round 17 alone. Canberra's most consistently named half, Wighton, has managed just five all season.
On the back foot for the majority of games and fighting to stay in it, the points haven't been coming. Again, as numbers rise across the competition, the Raiders' are averaging 20.4 points per game - almost two points less than last season.
There isn't one aspect to Canberra's start to the season that can be singled out as the cause. There is, however, one player that can get them back on track and begin to right the wrongs of the first two-thirds of the year.
Cracking The Top 8
The Green Machine is starting to roll.
We've been here once before when they beat the Broncos in Round 14 only to lose to a hapless Dragons outfit 22-20 a week later.
However, signs of a Raiders revival are beginning to develop and have come with just enough time to extend their finals streak to three consecutive seasons.
Chiefly, Hodgson's improvement throughout the year is coinciding with Canberra's best football.
The biggest slight on his game is the tendency to overplay his hand. However, those moments when he runs one or two too many crash balls around the ruck in good ball are worth it when he's spending the rest of his time moving the team around the field. Since being reinstalled into the #9 jersey in Round 12, the Raiders have won three of their six games. His fingerprints were all over Canberra's 38-16 win over Brisbane in Round 14.
He poked and prodded the Broncos defensive line to set up Emre Guler to score. Compressing the defensive line before giving Wighton a chance to work some of his magic and push it left, Hodgson caught TC Robati wide as the B defender and put Guler through the gap.
Later in the match on 5th tackle and with Josh Papalii on his shoulder, Hodgson stepped out from behind the ruck to isolate his big prop onto the outside shoulder of the much smaller hooker. Jake Turpin's only chance to stop Papalii is with a legs tackle, and Hodgson knows it. With his upper body free, Papalii is able to twist his way to the line to score.
It's early days, but the Raiders are two from two when Starling plays 55 minutes off the bench and Hodgson spreads his time between dummy half and a Victor Radley-like lock forward role.
Starling is a spark plug off the bench. He can scoot out of dummy half with the best of them and is willing to play at the line away from the ruck when the opportunity presents itself. He doesn't have the control of the side Hodgson does, though. He doesn't have that veteran craftiness around the ruck that allows him to pull the defensive line to pieces across three or four tackles before firing a shot later in the set. Instinctive, fast and a genuine X-factor, Starling is best suited to a side that is being marched around the field by somebody else. He has that somebody in Hodgson who, despite spending more time at lock, can still have an impact on how the Raiders move around the field.
The Raiders are 12th in yardage averaging 1,589 running metres per game in 2021. The fact that the six again rule has increased most numbers across the board yet the Raiders are averaging 80 fewer metres this year than last really highlights their downfall. But, again, Hodgson and Starling are contributing to rectifying the issue.
Canberra ran for 1,556 running metres per game while Hodgson and Starling traded places throughout the opening 11 rounds. Since Hodgson has taken back the #9 jersey, they have averaged 1,649 metres per game. Again, it's early days, but the 1,862 metres and 1,921 metres they've picked up since Stuart adopted his new rotation at dummy half rank first and second for the Raiders in 2021.
Joseph Tapine has recaptured his form after being dropped earlier in the season. He's a hard and crabbing runner of the football, but those crabbing runs are most effective against an unstable defensive line. Having a ball-player that can isolate big bodies, say, Josh Papalii, onto smaller defenders to generate a quick play-the-ball creates that instability for Tapine to attack.
Likewise, Corey Harawira-Naera is playing some of his best football since joining the club last season. He's another player that can make best use of his skills as a hole-runner when there is some doubt in the defensive line.
With Hodgson and Starling beginning to form a dangerous partnership and that partnership improving the performance of the forward pack, it won't be long before Jack Wighton displays some of that Dally M winning form from 2020.
If it all lines up in time to be in the Top 8 after Round 25, the Raiders might carry the 'team nobody wants to play' tag into September.
Canberra is on the up but they face the third-hardest remaining draw of all 16 teams.
To come: @ Eels, @ Knights, Dragons, @ Storm, Sea Eagles, @ Warriors, Roosters
The Stats Insider Futures Model also has the Sharks (44.2%) and Knights (43%) slightly ahead of the Raiders at 41%to make the Top 8 while the Dragons still occupy 7th on the ladder. A lot still needs to break right for the Raiders to extend their season beyond Round 25.
They look to be on a better path to earlier in the season, though.
Hodgson's resurgence has been a key factor and his health will play a big part in how much closer the Raiders get to finals football. How the team develops and improves around him will determine whether or not they become finals fodder or potential September spoilers.
Expectations for the Raiders were set around 5th on the ladder and a possible return to the Preliminary Final. Finishing 5th is all but out the window, but beating the Roosters or Sea Eagles to make Week 2 of the finals is a realistic and season-saving goal that can be set from here.
They face the tough task of beating the Eels in Round 19. A big loss will undo a lot of their improvements over the last fortnight. However, a close loss or upset victory can click the Green Machine into second gear and steer them towards what was once an unlikely finals push.
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