Home Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (15th)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (=14th)
Longest Winning Streak: 2 (Rounds 10-11 and 16-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 8 (Rounds 2-9)
Players Used: 29 (=8th most)
Player Of The Year: Shaun Fensom
Tries Scored (After 26 rounds): 74 (=12th)
Tries Conceded (After 26 rounds): 109 (=15th)
It’s been a while between drinks for long-suffering Raiders fans but rarely have they been left as disappointed by their side’s performances as they were in 2011. Canberra’s stunning run home to the finals this time last year meant that – perhaps for the first time since their last premiership in 1994 – hopes were genuinely high that the club could once again establish itself as a true premiership force. Alas, it all went pear-shaped rather quickly.
Having kicked off the year in sensational fashion with a 40-12 thumping of Cronulla at Canberra Stadium, the Raiders embarked on an eight-game losing streak over the next two months – equalling an unwanted club record set back in 1986 – that was as unexpected as it was underwhelming. That a side many had tipped as top-four contenders should be essentially out of the finals race before the representative season had even started defied belief.
Certainly injuries played their part. The knee injury suffered by Terry Campese in last year’s finals series sidelined him until Round 13 and when he finally made his long-awaited return he lasted just nine minutes before injuring his groin. He wasn’t sighted again.
Similarly, star players Josh Dugan, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Josh Miller, Joe Picker, David Shillington, Trevor Thurling and Daniel Vidot were all available for barely half of the season.
However, there were also some serious under-achievers – none more so than halfback Matt Orford whose return from England proved to be a serious disappointment. After six poor showings he was dumped in favour of promising young half Sam Williams.
There were some positives. Lock Shaun Fensom established himself as a workhorse of the highest order with a record 75 tackles against the Bulldogs in Round 11 while halfback Josh McCrone managed to overcome the side’s lack of stability in the playmaking positions with some impressive performances in the back-half of the year.
But right now that is of little consequence to a club still reeling from this most unexpected of disasters. Management has commissioned an independent review of their 2011 slide – whether it can help get them back on track in 2012 remains to be seen.
Where They Excelled: There was very little for Raiders’ fans to get excited about in 2011 although the incredible work rate of Fensom was a rare bright spot. Aside from his defensive work, he also topped the NRL for decoy runs with 139. He finished the season ranked second for total tackles with 1135 and 12th for most offloads with 38.
Where They Struggled: For a side touted as having the biggest forward pack in the Telstra Premiership, Canberra failed to make any significant impact up the middle of the field in 2011. In fact, their average 1270 metres per game was the worst in the NRL and well behind the next worst – the Gold Coast – who averaged 1287. By comparison, St George Illawarra made an average 1428 metres per game.
However, it was in defence that the Raiders were really found out. They ranked second weakest for points conceded with 26 per game and conceded the equal-most tries at an average 4.5 while missing a whopping 37.4 tackles per game – a stat exceeded only by South Sydney.
Missing In Action: Terry Campese was sorely missed. The driving force behind the side’s brilliant run home in 2010, his composure with the ball in hand and ability to produce the big plays were conspicuously absent this season. Likewise, ongoing injury concerns halted star fullback Josh Dugan in his tracks. Having impressed after making his State of Origin debut for NSW in Game One, he missed the next two after damaging ankle ligaments while the Raiders found the lack of consistency in the No.1, 6, 7 and 9 jerseys impossible to cover.
Turning Point: Canberra’s Round 4 loss to the Gold Coast was heartbreaking – and not simply for the fact that it prevented them getting their season back on track after two consecutive losses. With a minute remaining and holding a six-point advantage, Matt Orford inexplicably knocked on at the scrum base to surrender possession. Moments later, as the siren sounded, Anthony Laffranchi found himself strolling across the tryline to level the scores.
Incredibly, Blake Ferguson then outdid Orford’s effort as he dropped the ball without another player in sight as he fielded a clearing kick, allowing Greg Bird to pour salt into Canberra’s wounds with a match-winning field-goal in golden-point extra time. That loss seemed to deflate the Raiders and they added five more losses before experiencing their second win of the season.
Best Games: An opening round 40-12 thrashing of Cronulla at Canberra Stadium not only gave no clue as to what would follow in the ensuing weeks but also provided the one moment all year in which Raiders’ fans could dream of a premiership. Picking up where they left off in 2010, Canberra scored seven tries to two in a dominant display that briefly saw them sitting atop the NRL ladder.
Worst Games: Coach David Furner didn’t hold back in venting his fury at his players after they wilted badly in front of their home crowd on the way to a 49-12 thrashing against Wests Tigers in Round 8. Canberra were simply awful – their afternoon characterised by dropped ball and basic forward passes. The Tigers scored four tries in each half and tore holes in the Raiders’ defence time and again on their way to a win that was far too easy.
Hold Your Head High: Halfback Josh McCrone did his best to lift his ailing side and although he was often playing a lone hand he has at least cemented the No.7 jersey as his own for 2012. Particularly impressive was McCrone’s running game and he scored a handful of near-identical tries during the latter rounds on the right edge where his show-and-go fooled plenty of defenders. He finished the season ranked 12th for line-breaks with 13, 15th for line-break assists with 10, and 12th for try assists with 16.
Coach David Furner says: “There were plenty of games we’ve been in control of this season; I saw it many times in the box where we should have come out the other end,” he said. “We need to have a look at the season. There is a lot of work to do but we need to win those tight games.
“As a group there were a couple of guys there … they all put in a tremendous amount of effort but the points don’t suggest that. We’re going through the process of looking at the season now. Injuries haven’t helped but there is no one [reason for the poor season] and I don’t think the coaching staff or the players have used that as an excuse.
“There have been games throughout the year we should have won… and it’s just that control. I reckon on a good half a dozen games this year where we should have closed them out – but if you don’t, you end up where we are.”
Conclusion: Injuries to key players ravaged the Raiders but they still boasted enough quality to do better than their 15th-place finish. Unfortunately there were too many players under-performing – particularly through the middle where they were so dominant in 2010. Their big men failed to make the metres to dominate opposition sides and their defence was feeble at best.
Still, there is much to look forward to in the nation’s capital, with Campese due to return next year and Dugan also looking to shake off the nagging injuries that impacted upon his season. The only way from here is up.