I continue my series by previewing teams with 2019 grand finalist the Canberra Raiders, with the help from the Greenhouse.
Surprising most people last year by making the grand final, their fans help preview what to expect this season and what can be done to go one step further this year. Every bullet point represents a different person answering the given question.
What are the biggest changes that need to be made from last year to go one better?
• More creativity in attack. We had a ton of chances to punch in points against the Roosters and we just could not break through. We need to continue to focus on being a defensive-minded team but more creativity and better execution in the red zone is going to be what takes us above. We need to be able to reliably feel like we can punch it in at least three times against the best defensive teams in the comp.
• Seizing the vital moments and having a more ruthless attitude. We were very, very close – a pass not thrown here, a contentious call there, an absurd bit of luck, a lazy piece of defence when Joseph Tapine turned his back while defending his line. Some of those we can’t control, but some parts we can. Ricky Stuart culled one or two of those people from the squad and has given others one more chance. So this year the ruthlessness has come from the top down. It was lacking after 2016 and we slid backwards.
After having such a great year last year by making the grand final, how do you avoid a having an off year like you did in 2017 after having a great 2016?
• Injuries could be a factor. If you get wrecked there is not much you can do to avoid the hangover. But outside of that, it’s purely a mental thing, the team needs to understand nothing they did last year means anything now. It’s a new season and they need to work hard to establish themselves again and work to finding out what sort of team they’re going to be this year.
• After those seasons, the club failed to refresh the squad, which led to a slight sense of entitlement/staleness to the squad. You could also argue there was some hubris, with Stuart altering his pre-season to have guys firing in September, not Round 1. The club made an effort to bring in new faces this year, even after such a successful year last year and at some pain to the club, losing favourites and stalwarts like Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua in search of future success. We are hoping those are the hard decisions that we failed to take in 2016 and ’17.
You have lost BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana, so do you have depth to replace and possibly replicate their production?
• Hard to replicate and replace what that duo gave us. It’s not likely we’ll match that, and certainly not if Curtis Scott ends up with a lengthy suspension, which is likely. But you hope the new halfback provides the upgrade in creativity spoken about above, and that along with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad developing further as a ball-player, the attack of the team might not be as freakish but perhaps it can be more reliable and that’s a good offset. As for depth, I think Michael Oldfield is as good a back-up winger as you can have in this league so I’m comfortable there, and there is big wraps on Harley Smith-Shields, who’s a centre.
• You never know who is going to have a breakout year or how a signing will go. With Scott we had some breathing space for young guys like Smith-Shields to develop. With Scott looking at missing a significant period, we are one injury away from a real depth crisis. Oldfield and Smith-Shields will need to be on deck and making the grade.
George Williams is another English player signed by the Raiders. Will he have a similar impact to other English players?
• The history on English halves is not great, and it’s easier to make an impact in the forwards the way John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead and others have. Josh Hodgson is one of the best hookers in the league and if that’s the level of impact we get, this team is ready to win the title. I don’t think he’ll have that level of impact but I do expect him to be a good upgrade for us.
• We have no idea really. Gareth Widdop came over and did OK as a playmaker, which gives me some optimism. But he’s been hampered in pre-season by injury and the whole vibe around this off-season has me more worried than I was a few months ago. It’s almost impossible to hope he’s as good as Hodgson or Bateman. But if he’s half as good as Whitehead and adapts at a similar speed (half a season to really find his feet, a breather around the Origin/bye periods and then good to go) then we’ll be OK.
Not many players leave Melbourne as better players. What makes you think Curtis Scott will be any different?
• Nothing. As it stands he may not last long at the club. If he can get his head right and stay out of trouble then I think he will be an impactful player. He’s young, nowhere near his best and his talent is undeniable. He’ll fit our defensive structure well and I think his attacking game is under-rated. But as of right now, its been a disastrous start.
• Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk went OK. Sisa Waqa was good for us once upon a time too. It is a bit of an overblown myth. But at this stage it looks to me like Scott is not behaving like someone who really has winning the GF as his number one drive right now.
What’s your team’s biggest strength and the biggest weakness?
• Biggest strength is the forward pack. It’s big enough, its very tough, it’s very mobile and it has a very good balance of impact, motor, experience and youth. There is natural pairings and rotations in the middle third players, and versatility in the bench and back-rower to ramp up minutes and cover for injuries. Weakness at the moment? You’d have to say it’s centre and halfback because the projected starters right now are two guys (Smith-Shields and George Williams) who have never played NRL footy and we don’t know what they are yet. At full strength, the team does lack speed in the outside backs. Not really any noted fliers that can finish off long breaks.
• Biggest strength is our spine right now. Jack Wighton is reaching his peak, Hodgson is at his and CNK has been a revelation. If George Williams is solid, we have a spine capable of winning big games. Biggest weakness is going to be depth. Youngsters who should be learning the game and adding to the team depth are instead sitting out for long periods, such as Hudson Young and Scott. The fact we moved on some experienced players to make room for them leaves us now very light on quality depth.
Who is the player with the most pressure on them?
• George Williams. He’s an international coming into one of the most important positions on the field, replacing a guy who was solid without being spectacular and the expectations are he will be a major upgrade on that player and that upgrade can prove the difference between runners-up and winners. Next would be Josh Hodgson. He needs to be in the Cam Smith (declining) and Damien Cook conversation for Dally M Hooker of the Year. If he is consistently near his best, it’ll go a long way to helping ease the pressure on Williams.
Who is the rookie or the relatively unknown player to look out for?
• I don’t know much about him but the good judges here and around the club say Harley Smith-Shields. I think there is a very good chance he gets a shot in first grade early given the Curtis Scott situation. Emre Guler is another. I thought last year would be his breakout year, but he’s a guy I expect big things of. By season’s end I think he’ll be starting alongside Josh Papalii and being groomed as his successor as our middle forward pillar.
• I’m not sure if Bailey Simonsson counts but he showed his best football in the big games against the best teams last year. Hoping for him and Guler to establish themselves as first-grade regulars.
What would constitute a successful season? What would constitute a failure this year?
• You don’t play in a grand final and then lower the expectations the following year. Barring an injury crisis that cripples the chance, the expectations for a successful season are to win the premiership. Less than that will be seen as a failure.
• Winning the grand final equals success. Outside the top four equals failure.
Where will they finish this year?
• I honestly think they should finish again in the top four and be battling it out for a premiership. But the 21st Century history of this club says they can’t string together back-to-back seasons of success. There is real unease among the fans about this. I think this team specifically is built to buck that trend, and I think this coach has learnt a lot over his many years of success and a lot of failure. I think he’s found the balance between the players’ coach he was early in his coaching career and the angry miserable coach he was before coming home to Canberra.
• With this off-season, I’m leaning towards a slightly disappointing fifth or sixth place finish but a strong finals campaign leading to a preliminary final appearance. From there it’s anyone’s game.