Welcome to the first instalment in this series on players to watch in the 2021 NRL season.
Just three weeks ago, when Josh Hodgson went down on his knee, many thought the Raiders season was done.
However, with wins over the Roosters and Rabbitohs since, most have now changed their mind.
Ricky Stuart is doing some remarkable things with this team.
The Canberra Raiders won on Saturday night with ten players sitting on the sidelines. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is likely to join them for at least a fortnight with his finger injury, while John Bateman was named in the initial 21 just to fill up the required numbers. The arrival of Corey Harawira-Naera should relieve some pressure.
However, Stuart has done more than record some victories in backs-to-the-wall performances from his young team. He has actually changed the way the team plays.
The statistics tell a story. Stuart has been in charge of the Raiders team since 2014 and their average for and against and points differential is shown in the below table:
|Year||Avg. points scored||Avg. points conceded||Avg points diff.|
*2020 to Round 11
His 2016 team fell somewhat unluckily one game short of the grand final after a tight loss to the Melbourne Storm. Some of his key players then were the same as now, with Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker, Josh Hodgson and Josh Papalii all in that semi-final line up along with four other current Raiders players.
With Blake Austin in the halves, Stuart backed their attack to score more than the opposition. But it wasn’t enough. The Raiders fell short.
The 2019 season signalled Stuart’s intention to change his team mindset to a more defensive orientation. Too many close losses since 2016 had stopped a further finals appearance, and the coach knew what he had to do. The likes of Corey Horsburgh, Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman and Hodgson were immense for the Raiders in defence in 2020.
If anything, the defence has been slightly better again in 2020, a season in which more points are expected to be scored, while the attack is close to a converted try behind. A relatively tough draw and the gradual build of the injury list is at least partially responsible for this.
Similar to the Sharks of 2016, Stuart has taken his patched-up side and got them to play a grinding style of football with which they back their defence to cover any mistakes.
They would have had an excuse for having a let down against the Rabbits after such an emotional win against the Roosters the week before, but they didn’t. In fact, if anything, their goal-line defence was even better. The Rabbits threw a lot at the Raiders but in the end ran out of ideas and didn’t score a point after the break. It was exactly the style of football Stuart wants his team to produce.
The Raiders have a reasonably good run home, with only two games against the much-vaunted top six and four games against teams in the bottom quarter of the competition. The cavalry will also start to return, with Bateman, Horsburgh and Sia Soliola all expected back before the finals.
From an attack-minded perspective only four years ago the Raiders now know their defence can win the big games. Against the odds the Raiders can go one better this year.
It’s just the way Ricky Stuart would like it.