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NRL 2019 season preview: Canberra Raiders

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14th February, 2019
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The Canberra Raiders have long struggled to live up to their potential, and 2019 shapes as a further slip down the slope for the men from the nation’s capital.

Today, in the second part of my 2019 NRL preview series, I run the rule over the Green Machine.

» NRL Teams and Squads

Never able to settle on their best 17 and hampered by injuries, as well as with a number of players who didn’t perform and combinations that didn’t click, 2018 was pretty disappointing for the Raiders.

This is a team with plenty of promise, but while Ricky Stuart is at the helm, they may fail to ever realise it.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Their biggest problem in 2018 was the way they finished – they would be in games for the first hour, then find a way to mess things up. It was one relatively consistent aspect of their season, and something they must address.

Still, they aren’t the only issues, with their attack often heavily reliant on an underperforming duo and defence struggling on both edges.

Given the poor work they have done in recruitment and a challenging fixture list, which won’t be helpful in terms of building momentum or rhythm, this looks like another long season, with the issues likely proving too tough to fix in one swoop.

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Club fact file

Colours: Green
Home ground: GIO Stadium
Premierships: three
Minor premierships: one
Best finish in last five years: 2016 – second (preliminary final loss)
2018 finish: tenth
Coach: Ricky Stuart
Captain: Jarrod Croker, Josh Hodgson

Squad

Jarrod Croker (c), Josh Hodgson (c), Brad Abbey, John Bateman, Luke Bateman, JJ Collins, Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Emre Guler, Siliva Havili, Ata Hingano, Corey Horsburgh, Royce Hunt, Sebastian Kris, Joey Leilua, Dunamis Lui, Jack Murchie, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Michael Oldfield, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Aidan Sezer, Iosia Soliola, Ryan Sutton, Joseph Tapine, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, Sam Williams, Hudson Young

Changes
Ins: John Bateman (Wigan Warriors), JJ Collins (Newcastle Knights), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (New Zealand Warriors), Ryan Sutton (Wigan Warriors), Hudson Young (promoted)
Outs: Blake Austin (Warrington Wolves), Shannon Boyd (Gold Coast Titans), Craig Garvey (Sydney Roosters), Charlie Gubb (Widnes Vikings), Liam Knight (Manly Sea Eagles), Junior Paulo (Parramatta Eels), Mikaele Ravalawa (St George Illawarra Dragons)

Canberra’s recruitment this year is weak. And that’s putting it nicely.

Their biggest problems are going to start up front. They have lost Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo, who formed the engine room last year and did a pretty good job of it.

Charlie Gubb and Liam Knight, while not superstars, aren’t good losses either and will the club’s forward depth. Craig Garvey and Mikaele Ravalawa depart too, after getting limited time in top grade.

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Half Blake Austin is also gone, but given his recent form, that doesn’t seem like an as big of a loss.

Their biggest recruits are both English forwards, which is a risk. John Bateman and Ryan Sutton were standouts in the English Super League, but they have big roles to fill in the NRL, which has seen mixed results from other players who have come across.

Of course, the Raiders already have Elliott Whitehead, Luke Bateman and Josh Hodgson.

JJ Collins and Hudson Young – a pair or unknowns – are the other two recruits and likely only there for depth.

Spine
Veteran half Aidan Sezer and English international Josh Hodgson have a huge role to play if the Raiders are to do anything good this season.

Aidan Sezer Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2016

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Hodgson’s loss was felt strongly in the first half of 2018, when he was injured, and having him back at full fitness will be huge.

Sezer’s kicking game will need to be pin-point accurate as well, but he may actually improve not having Austin next to him, with the Origin hopeful taking control of the team.

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Youngster Ata Hingano is likely to partner Sezer, although journeyman Sam Williams is another option. A team like Canberra need to be in the business of risk-taking though, so Hingano should get first crack.

Where the x-factor and difference-making could come from though is at the back, with Jack Wighton trying to move on from some off-field issues. He has talent but struggles to realise it, with inconsistent performances and errors too frequent.

Backs
The Raiders have plenty of potential in the outside backs, but they need to be completing sets and playing consistent football to utilise them, which they failed to do during 2018.

When you think of the backs, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana immediately spring to mind. Rapana will be injured for the first half of the year though, while Leilua was inconsistent last year.

Rapana’s likely replacement is either Brad Abbey or Michael Oldfield – one is young, with plenty to prove, and the other a journeyman who can be counted on to get a job done, albeit not an amazing one.

Jarrod Croker will line-up on the other side of the park and has a huge role to play leading from the front again, while he has one of the game’s most exciting youngsters outside him.

Nick Cotric played all 24 games last year, had 12 tries, almost a line break per game, and an average of over six tackle busts every match. It truly was a phenomenal season and he will be hard to shut down.

No question the outside backs are Canberra’s biggest strength.

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Forwards
The experience of Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead spearhead the forwards.

Ryan Sutton is over from England, having played 119 games for Wigan, but the 23-year-old isn’t the quality of some other imports who have made it in the NRL. Regardless, he will start up front, with Luke and John Bateman rounding out the starting pack, at lock and second row respectively.

On the surface at least, there’s a lack of depth, with Iosia Soliola needing a big year off the pine.

Joseph Tapine and Dunamis Lui are the probables to round out the bench, but watch for youngster Emre Guler, who will be pushing for a spot somewhere in the 17.

The biggest issue is that the Raiders had the fifth-worst defensive record in the competition last year, so unless there’s improvement there as a unit in 2019, we can expect more of the same, dour results.

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Origin impact
Papalii is a walk-up start for the Maroons, while Cotric will go close to a Blues jumper. If the club’s going well, expect talk about Croker and Sezer, but realistically, they should only lose the one.

Likely best 17
1. Jack Wighton
2. Nick Cotric
3. Jarrod Croker (c)
4. Joey Leilua
5. Jordan Rapana (Brad Abbey until back from injury)
6. Aidan Sezer
7. Ata Hingano
8. Ryan Sutton
9. Josh Hodgson (c)
10. Josh Papalii
11. John Bateman
12. Elliott Whitehead
13. Luke Bateman
14. Siliva Havili
15. Joseph Tapine
16. Iosia Soliola
17. Dunamis Lui

Keys to the season

Can Jack Wighton show us his best?
Wighton only played 13 games for Canberra during 2018, due to his off-field issues, so he needs to have a big impact.

The fullback was actually pretty solid last year, with almost 140 running metres per game and 11 try involvements, at almost one per game. He has been error-prone throughout his career though, and popped up with some big ones at critical moments last year.

Add some poor decision-making and it’s clear why he has never been a serious Origin contender. What’s more, combining with Sezer and Hodgson, as well as some of the offloading from forwards like Papalii and Whitehead, he should be one of the comp’s most dangerous players – but he has never got to that level.

2019 is time to let the talent do the talking for Wighton.

Jack Wighton

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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How can the Raiders improve their defence?
This is a question of attitude rather than anything specific on the park which needs changing first and foremost.

We have always known Canberra as an entertaining side who like scoring points and playing an aggressive brand of footy. However, they might actually be able to improve their defence by cutting down errors.

They were in the top eight for errors last year, but it wasn’t about the numbers so much as the timing – Stuart’s side would often make big mistakes at crucial times.

Defence can be a form of attack, but it’s hard to do either when you’re giving up the ball at the end of games.

The other thing they must do is remain solid in the forward and avoid missed tackles up the middle.

Josh Hodgson will be dangerous with a full pre-season under the belt
When you think about the best hookers in the NRL, Hodgson’s name comes in near the top of the list.

His loss can’t be overstated during the first half of last year, and without him, the Raiders – who didn’t miss the eight by miles – may well have had a few extra wins and snuck into the finals.

That’s how important Hodgson is to the Raiders at both ends of the park.

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The Canberra hooker has eyes-up vision in attack and picks the right option more often than not, making a shaky spine feel more solid.

It’s still not perfect, but a full pre-season in Australia ahead of what he will hope is a season free of injury could line him up as the Raiders’ most valuable player.

Enough to drag the Raiders up the ladder? Probably not, but there will definitely be some special moments with his play out of dummy half.

Josh Hodgson of the Raiders

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Fixtures

Round Date Time (AEDT) Opponent Venue TV
1 Sun Mar 17 6:10pm Gold Coast Titans CBus Super Stadium Fox
2 Fri Mar 22 6pm Melbourne Storm GIO Stadium Fox
3 Fri Mar 29 6pm Newcastle Knights GIO Stadium Fox
4 Sat Apr 6 5:30pm North Queensland Cowboys 1300 Smiles Stadium Fox
5 Sun Apr 14 6:10pm Parramatta Eels GIO Stadium Fox
6 Sun Apr 21 4:05pm Brisbane Broncos GIO Stadium Nine/Fox
7 Sun Apr 28 2pm Manly Sea Eagles Lottoland Fox
8 Sat May 4 3pm Penrith Panthers McDonalds Park, Wagga Fox
9 Sun May 12 2pm Sydney Roosters Suncorp Stadium Fox
10 Sat May 18 7:35pm South Sydney Rabbitohs GIO Stadium Fox
11 Sat May 25 3pm North Queensland Cowboys GIO Stadium Fox
12 Sat Jun 1 7:35pm Canterbury Bulldogs ANZ Stadium Fox
13 Fri Jun 7 7:55pm Wests Tigers Western Sydney Stadium Nine/Fox
14 Thu Jun 13 7:50pm Cronulla Sharks GIO Stadium Nine/Fox
15 Sat Jun 29 7:35pm Parramatta Eels TIO Stadium, Darwin Fox
17 Sun Jul 14 6:10pm St George Illawarra Dragons WIN Stadium Fox
18 Sat Jul 20 5:30pm Wests Tigers GIO Stadium Fox
19 Sun Jul 28 4:05pm Penrith Panthers Panthers Stadium Nine/Fox
20 Fri Aug 2 6pm New Zealand Warriors MT. Smart Stadium Fox
21 Sun Aug 11 2pm Sydney Roosters GIO Stadium Fox
22 Sat Aug 17 5:30pm Melbourne Storm AAMI Park Fox
23 Sun Aug 25 4:05pm Manly Sea Eagles GIO Stadium Nine/Fox
24 Sun Sep 1 2pm Cronulla Sharks Shark Park Fox
25 Sat Sep 7 3pm New Zealand Warriors GIO Stadium Fox

The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Melbourne Storm, North Queensland Cowboys, Parramatta Eels, Manly Sea Eagles, Penrith Panthers, Sydney Roosters, Wests Tigers, Cronulla Sharks, New Zealand Warriors
Best home run: Round 2 – Round 11 (seven out of ten)
Worst away run: Round 12 – Round 20 (six out of eight)
Five-day turnarounds: two

Fixture analysis
The Raiders season can easily be broken down into three segments.

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They start the season with a cruisy run, playing seven out of their first 11 at home. With a start on the Gold Coast against a revamped Titans outfit, they will then return home and more or less stay there.

After that, they hit the road, with just two home games across the next two months, before things finish more evenly.

Having to play the Storm, Cowboys, Panthers and Roosters twice is tough, while the Tigers, Sharks and Warriors bring unknown quantities. They do, however, get the Eels and Sea Eagles twice, so that should be a positive.

Jarrod Croker Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2017

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

But still, the unbalanced nature of their fixture means they need to be at the top of the table after 11 rounds of footy, otherwise, you can more or less draw a line through Canberra’s chances in 2019.

Prediction

Canberra are a little bit all over the place in the key positions, have question marks in all the difficult spots, and are still relying on Ricky Stuart to come up with a winning gameplan – something he hasn’t done in years.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Stuart somewhere else in 2020, with the Raiders going in a different direction after another long season, which will see them maybe start okay in front of the home faithful, but then struggle.

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15th. Long winter ahead for the Canberra faithful.

Be sure to tune in on Monday as we move one more spot up the ladder.