Matt Cleary, NRL.com
Home Record: 6 wins, 6 losses (9th)
Away Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (=4th)
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Round 22-Finals Week 1)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 7-9)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored: 97 (4th)
Tries Conceded: 97 (12th – fifth fewest)
When Terry Campese’s wretched run with injury continued and he was outed for the season in Round 7, Canberra were never expected to trouble those producing programs for the finals. But that’s how it is every year in Canberra – and the Raiders are sick of being considered perennial underdogs. They want to dominate and turn their fine stadium into the graveyard it once was. Canberra wants to be feared – and not just because it’s cold.
And when their halves found their feet and their fine forwards began dominating the middle, the Raiders produced enough to suggest that with some luck, they could achieve it.
Canberra’s bold late-season run – which featured a 40-12 flogging of eventual premiers Melbourne and a comprehensive 34-6 victory over premiership runners-up Canterbury – culminated in a record crowd at Canberra Stadium for the elimination final… in which they flogged Cronulla 34-16.
The sight of Blake Ferguson walking back after a match-sealing try, arms raised and urging on the crowd, will give fans plenty of optimism for 2013. It took long-time supporters back to the glory days, when Belcher, Meninga, Daley and company performed many such a victory march.
Yet Canberra are also sick of comparisons with the past. Another season’s gone by in which they were never realistically going to win the Telstra Premiership.
But there are good signs. With Campese and prop Brett White gone, Canberra had every reason to turn up their toes. But to their credit they continued to rally, continued to turn up, and by season’s end were the form team in the competition.
Where They Excelled… Canberra’s attack was in the top echelon. They ranked fourth for tries and points scored. They were equal fourth with the Bulldogs for line-breaks. They made the least amount of errors (9.6 per game) in the entire competition, a tribute to their discipline. They also conceded the second-least amount of metres, tribute to how quickly they moved up in a line of defence, and indicative that not many long-range tries were scored against them.
Where They Struggled… Canberra’s defence was loose, to put it mildly. Although they were at the lower end of spectrum for tries conceded (97) they gave up 5.3 line-breaks per game and 11.8 offloads (second worst behind Newcastle).
Missing In Action… Campese’s loss to a knee injury in Round 7 was a dagger in Canberra’s heart. The five-eighth is Origin-quality, a determined competitor in the Ricky Stuart mould, a man with the running and ball-play of the top pivots; he is as important to the Green Machine as Cooper Cronk is to Melbourne.
Also, Origin prop Brett White played just five games, while losing the competition’s leading point-scorer Jarrod Croker – who had his best season in green – didn’t help Canberra’s tilt.
Turning Point… Not to harp on it, but Campese’s injury put paid to any chance Canberra had of winning this competition. They did very well to finish sixth and to win their Qualifying Semi-Final. But Campese is their best player, along with Josh Dugan (who was the competition’s most punishing runner from the back with 84 tackle busts in 14 games in the No.1 jersey). Josh McCrone (23 try assists, fifth most overall) did his best as a halfback playing five-eighth, and Sam Williams gained invaluable experience.
Best Games… The Raiders can take plenty from the fact that they flogged both of this year’s grand finalists and twice flogged Cronulla. The atmosphere at home during the victorious elimination final was the best at the ground in a decade.
Worst Games… Losing 38-26 at home against the Titans in Round 19 was bad, as was losing 32-16 against Newcastle in Round 14. But the 40-nil flogging by Wests Tigers in Round 13 – and being booed off the field – was the nadir of Canberra’s season. And the only way was up.
Hold Your Head High… Halves McCrone and Williams really found their feet towards the end of the season; their deft ball play and incisive, smart running were a big reason Canberra’s season came to life. To give Canberra fans hope after losing captain Campese was no mean feat, and the pair will take plenty from the experience.
Blake Ferguson was good in the centres, wing or fullback; he’s an exhilarating runner at full flight. Josh Dugan was typically elusive at fullback. If he can stay fit (hopefully this is not an “if” he will carry through his career) the 22-year-old custodian will push Brett Stewart for the Blues’ Origin jumper.
In the forwards Canberra found a live one in 20-year-old back-rower Josh Papalii, whose hits on Paul Gallen in Week One of the Finals Series had people querying his Origin status. Manage to get under the skin of one of the game’s best toughest customers and you’re doing something right – probably why Papalii played all of Canberra’s 26 games, something only he and McCrone achieved.
Raiders front-rowers Dane Tilse (21 games, 30 offloads) and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (22 games, 20 tackle-breaks) put plenty of starch in the middle, while the impressive Shaun Fensom topped Canberra’s season tackle count with 953.
Jarrod Croker was the comp’s leading point-scorer, he and Reece Robinson both scoring 16 tries. And mid-season recruit Sandor Earl was a talisman, his eight tries and fine wing play no coincidence next to Canberra’s six-match streak.
Coach David Furner says: “I’m proud where the players have got to. Teams go through adversity and this team’s been through plenty with injuries. The opportunities given to some of those young players, to have two semi-final games, they can only get stronger. And as a team we can only get stronger.
“I never thought this group would be wooden spooners; I believe in the ones who had opportunities. I’ve always preached’ judge a team and a coach at the end of the year’.
“Our last few weeks, I’m proud of the players. They deserved the support. Dave Shillington led us admirably up front all season and is a proven representative player whilst Blake Ferguson has come on in leaps and bounds this year and was regularly amongst our top performers.”
Conclusion… Though they were pumped by Souths two weeks into the finals, Canberra finished the season on a high. Their late-season rally drew a record crowd to Canberra Stadium for the first week of the finals. If they can string together some wins and keep the fans coming – and if they can have some luck with injury and focus on monstering teams in defence (perhaps by winning more of the ‘wrestle’) – Canberra will be a force in the NRL. Furner has plenty to work with.
That said, it’s another season when the Raiders had only the barest sniff of featuring in the big dance of the long weekend. They’re tired of hearing it, but the Raiders over-achieved.
*Statistics: NRL Stats