Mid-season review: Canberra Raiders

Position after 13 rounds: 15th
Wins: 4
Losses: 8
Byes: 1
Competition points: 10
Differential: -85

In combination with national opinion polls, the NRL ladder is proof that not much out of Canberra this year has been exactly what you’d call “in vogue”. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time, a month into the season, that the Canberra Raiders almost looked the part. They opened their campaign with a loss against Melbourne in which they were probably the better side, and then moved on to strong wins against the Titans and the Wests Tigers (interrupted by a dismal loss to the Roosters in Round 3). With a 2-2 start to the season, Canberra were in the top eight and looking good!

But it’s been pretty much all downhill since.

Their most impressive win and also their most depressing loss this season have both come against the Wests Tigers. Ironically the former took place on a Monday night in Campbelltown in Round 4, where Terry Campese ran rings around his opposing five-eighth Benji Marshall and handed the Raiders a 30-16 win – only their second ever win at the venue.

But when the Raiders met the Wests Tigers at home in Round 13 it was a performance more representative of their season to date. They were without Terry Campese, without force, without points. The 40-0 drubbing (Canberra’s worst defeat to the Tigers) left the Raiders flailing in 15th position on the ladder and saw more media scrutiny of coach Dave Furner’s tenure in charge.

The Raiders have won just one of their past six matches and that victory came in a 40-34 point-a-thon against the lowly Eels. They boast the second-most brittle defence in the NRL and it’s from there that the majority of the Raiders’ problems stem from. Their line has been broken more than any other side (5.3 times per game) and they are third worst in the competition for conceding both metres (1366.5) and offloads (11.7).

To be fair, luck hasn’t been on their side this year – but that won’t stop fans from counting down the minutes to season 2013.

Are Things Going To Plan? Couldn’t be further from it. The Raiders are desperately lacking in all defensive categories and unless they improve, they run a real risk of threatening for the timber cutlery.

They are the worst in the NRL in terms of line-breaks conceded (5.3 per game) and only Parramatta have conceded more points or tries. To the coaching staff’s credit, the Raiders have turned things around in attack compared to last year, having gone from last in the NRL for metres gained to 11th (1301.1). Their discipline has also improved out of sight, climbing from 13th for errors made to second best at the halfway point this year (behind the Storm), with just 10.1 errors per game.

In all, lacklustre defensive efforts combined with injuries at exactly the wrong time to exactly the wrong players have left the Raiders with a season they’d rather forget.

Injury Front… Disastrous. The Raiders have used 26 players thus far, the third most in the NRL behind Penrith and the Wests Tigers.

But the most frustrating thing for Green Machine fans has been who’s been injured… and when. In a devastating one-two punch the Raiders lost fullback Josh Dugan (shoulder) and back-rower Shaun Fensom (biceps) on the same afternoon back in Round 3. The pair would miss a month of football.

Then in Round 7, in their loss to the Broncos, the Raiders lost their shining light Terry Campese for the remainder of the season with a ruptured ACL.

Losing such a bulk of talent at crucial points in the season is never easy to deal with and the Raiders have learned that this year.

If Only… Things had been different against the Broncos at Suncorp in Round 7. Looking back, it shapes as when things started to go horribly wrong. They lost Terry Campese midway through the match and when the fulltime siren went, a demoralising 30-6 loss left the Raiders with a 3-4 start to the season from which they haven’t yet recovered.

To that point the Raiders had won as many as they’d lost, but it sparked a three-match losing streak that would see them leak 92 points in three weeks.

The grass of Suncorp Stadium has made kings, but it’s also broken hearts. And that’s exactly what transpired on Friday the 13th of April for the Canberra Raiders.

Who’s Flying… David Shillington has been admirable all year, the workhorse prop belying the form of his team every week to prove why he’s Kangaroos quality. He’s averaging more metres (123.9) than any other Raiders forward and he’s tackled everything with a pulse, at an average of 22.8 per game.

Surprisingly, Jarrod Croker is currently the leading point-scorer in the NRL (92), while Josh McCrone is third in the competition for line-break assists (12). Also, Croker ranks third for line-breaks among centres, with eight.

Needs To Lift… Everyone – and especially in defence. Quite simply, the Raiders are leaking too many points. Their 31.8 missed tackles per game is above the NRL average and with key defenders like Jarrod Croker missing 32 tackles this season (the most by any centre), there are gaping holes that need to be plugged.

In particular their left-side defence has been embarrassing: it’s let through a whopping 35 tries, compared to their right-side defence that’s conceded just 10 four-pointers! The next worst left-side defence in the NRL is the Warriors who have leaked 27 tries on that edge. 

Coach David Furner tells NRL.com… “Where we’re at at the moment is not good enough, but we’re certainly working extremely hard to get results,” Furner says. 

“Our start was fairly strong. We’ve had some nice close games, but in the recent weeks there’s been a change of personnel through injuries, so it’s not the ideal situation.

“[The injury front] is frustrating but I’ve got enough senior players on the field: Shillo, Tilse and McCrone who has developed into a senior leader. Obviously losing Campo was very big, but the opportunity is there with Sam Williams and I do like Josh Dugan having a bit of a role where he can get more ball… so there is frustration but there’s also opportunity.

“Dave Shillington this year has been even stronger than last year, both on and off the field, and Josh McCrone is great leadership material.

“No-one likes losing, and we start playing this game for the enjoyment, but we’re in a competition that’s ruthless. As a player you don’t want back-to-back losses – in a way it has been good for the players but you don’t want too many [losses].

“We did a lot of work in the pre-season, but things change… like through injuries that are out of your control. We’ve got to work on enthusiasm with the young guys coming through like Edrick Lee, Dimitri Pelo, and giving those guys opportunities.”

Predicted Finish… There’s more chance of Julia Gillard becoming full-forward for the Western Bulldogs than there is of Canberra figuring in this year’s finals series. In the coming weeks they meet Melbourne in Melbourne, Cronulla in Cronulla and they also face games against the Broncos and the Bulldogs later on.

The only thing saving Canberra from the dreaded spoon is that the Parramatta Eels face teams 1 to 5, one after the other, five weeks in a row. Without a yelp from here the Raiders are headed for a forgettable 15th placing.

Under-20s… Things are much rosier for the Canberra Raiders in the Toyota Cup. They currently sit in third place with nine wins and three losses and they boast the third-most potent attack in the competition (396 points). Unlike their NRL counterparts, defence doesn’t seem to be a worry for the junior Raiders who have leaked the fifth-fewest points in the comp (263).

Halfback Mitchell Cornish is having a blinder of a season and leads the competition for line-break assists (13), is second in terms of points scored (132) and goals kicked (50) and fourth for try assists. Edrick Lee, who made his NRL debut in Round 12, leads the competition for one-on-one tackles (30) and his 11 tries are second only to Brisbane wunderkind Caleb Timu.