Mid-Season Review: Canberra Raiders

Position after 13 rounds: 16th
Wins: 3
Losses: 9
Byes: 1
Competition points: 8
Differential: -100

Trying to get a gauge on the Raiders in 2011 is proving to be one of the premiership’s greatest challenges. One minute they’re up, the next they’re dead and buried… then they’re resurrected… then they suffer heart failure again. Certainly ‘erratic’ would best sum up the Green Machine through the first half of the competition.

When they smashed the Sharks by 40-6 at home in Round 1 – with under-20s halfback Sam Williams calling the shots with aplomb – fans were understandably enthusiastic about a top-eight finish – or higher. This was even allowing for the absence of stunning playmaker Terry Campese through the first 10 or so rounds.

All eyes were on the Raiders’ pack. Indeed, before the season kicked off, their prop rotation of David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Dane Tilse and new buy Brett White were rated the toughest in the comp. Throw in ball-playing Bronson Harrison, rugged rake Alan Tongue and gritty defender Shaun Fensom and the Raiders looked ‘morals’ to improve on their semi-final finish last year.  

But things quickly went pear-shaped… as in a soul-destroying nine-game losing streak. Along the way they lost a few more key players to injury, including Shillington and Learoyd-Lahrs.

But just when Raiders’ fans thought they’d reached their lowest point the side inflicted one of the biggest upsets of the past decade – they beat the Storm in Melbourne for the first time in 11 years. They backed that up with a dominant win over the Bulldogs at home, regrouped with the bye and last week had the Cowboys on the rack when leading 22-nil after just 26 minutes in the nation’s capital, only to capitulate and send themselves back to the drawing board. Again.

Are Things Going To Plan? No. ‘Plan A’ went out the window early and now they’re struggling to adapt to ‘Plan B’.

Analysis of their statistics to date highlights defence as the big problem. They concede the second-most line-breaks a game (4.8) and have the third-highest number of missed tackles (36.2). Along with the third most errors made by any side (13.2) it all adds up to why they’ve conceded the most points (25.5) and tries (4.3).

Injury Front… Talk about a side in the wars. Canberra have been forced to draw on 28 players to date – more than the NRL average.

They’d planned to be without Terry Campese for the first 10 weeks or so, so no surprises there. But they certainly didn’t bank on Campo sustaining a new injury to his groin just nine minutes into his comeback last week. The playmaker is now looking at three more months on the sidelines – that’s pretty much his season over. Neither did they anticipate fullback Josh Dugan’s ongoing ailments (see If Only below).

Meanwhile Matt Orford’s ongoing struggles with a dodgy groin have been frustrating.

Learoyd-Lahrs’ fractured eye socket saw him miss the past month before his return last week, while David Shillington tore a pectoral in Round 11 but returns this week.

Back-rower Joe Picker missed six games with an ankle injury and boom 20-year-old Sam Mataora won’t be available until Round 18.

If Only… The big names were playing to their potential. The forwards aside, fullback Josh Dugan has managed just six games all year and despite selection for New South Wales in Origin I, he’s a fair way off his blockbusting form of 2010 (averaging just 84 metres, down from 158). And now he’s sidelined for a further three to five weeks with an ankle injury…

Who’s Flying… No-one’s starring and really only a handful of players are pulling more than their weight.

Winger Blake Ferguson has been a standout in attack, sprinting to a team-high 134 metres a game and scoring nine tries (incredibly he’s second on the NRL top tryscorer’s list). Ferguson won them the game against the Storm in Round 10 with a brilliant solo try and his individuality, although tempered at times by errors (he has an NRL-high 23) has for better or worse provided plenty of excitement.

Prop Dane Tilse has toiled hard, grinding out a team-high 14 runs for 110 metres – he’s the only Raiders forward to crack triple figures every game. (Despite a massive 165 metres last week Brett White still only averages 89 metres a game.)

Lock Shaun Fensom has powered through the defensive work, making 42.6 tackles a game (seventh most in the NRL) – almost 13 tackles more than his nearest team-mate Bronson Harrison.

Sam Williams has created six try assists to Matt Orford’s three, each from six games played.

Needs To Lift… Despite some excuses due to a stuttering season through injury, marquee signing Matt Orford has offered little in his return to the NRL after two years.

The Canberra outside backs have really missed Terry Campese’s creative magic. Centre Jarrod Croker is finding it tough getting into space and has added just 64 metres a game.

But the biggest surprise is the limited territory gained by representative props Learoyd-Lahrs and Shillington, who have been well contained by oppositions and restricted to just 85 metres each per outing.

Coach David Furner tells NRL.com “Our areas for improvement are about consistency and putting together an 80-minute performance. We've only had a couple of games where we've been complete in both attack and defence so it's a matter of getting them both right each game.

“Not having the same team week in, week out has hurt our consistency and the time we did have the same team we managed to put back-to-back wins together. It's part of the game though and sometimes the luck can be with you and sometimes it can't. We need to be more consistent in our play and not worry where we are at the moment and focus on each game as it approaches.

“The thing I'm happy about is the way in which we've stuck together and also the way in which some of the younger guys have come into the team and taken their opportunities. I think the way the team stuck together during the horrific run of losses is something we can use going forward. I think the opportunity someone like Sam Williams or Josh Papalii has got this season shows they're up to the task. At the start of the season I saw Papalii as someone who would get an opportunity at some stage this year, but Sam Williams I couldn't have thought the same. Obviously with the injuries we've had to players in the halves he's taken that chance and I think he's been great for us. Joshy Papalii is starting to get more of a chance now too and he's impressing the group.”

Predicted Finish… The Raiders unleashed a whirlwind finish to make the finals last year, winning eight of their final nine games – including their last five in a row. They’ll pretty much have to emulate that if they’re to play late into this September. Unfortunately due to their inconsistency, both in form and in health, that would seem extremely unlikely.

Still, the only side currently in the top eight that the Raiders face in their final five games are the seventh-placed Bulldogs, so if they can edge a little closer to the top eight in the next month or so they can theoretically stay in touch. But that’s a huge ‘if’. And if things stay the way they are, the wooden spoon is a distinct possibility.

Under-20s… The junior Raiders sit alongside the eighth-placed Broncos on 14 competition points but outside the finals zone due to a slightly inferior points differential. Coach David Hamilton will be keen to arrest the current form slump that has seen them lose four of their past six games, including their past three straight. During this time they’ve clearly missed the services of star No.7 Sam Williams, who despite only playing six games in total still leads the TC for try assists with 17. The Raiders’ enterprising attack has seen them post the third-most points by all sides, with other key contributors including fullback Nathan Massey (nine try assists and 55 tackle-breaks) and hooker Matt McIlwrick (six try assists, 14 runs and 125 metres a game).

Canberra's player stats for 2011

Compare the stats of every NRL team in 2011