Take a look at the Canberra Raiders road to the finals as they prepare to play the Cronulla Sharks in week one of the Telstra Premiership Finals.
1. Siege mentality
In the space of a season, Canberra have transformed their defensive line from a series of turnstiles to 13 moving ‘Wrong Way! Go Back’ signs. They have conceded fewer metres than any other team in the competition (1322 per game), a direct consequence of coach David Furner’s emphasis on defence. Last year they were ranked 11th in the NRL in the same category (1357 metres per game) which left the Raiders avoiding the wooden spoon on for-and-against alone. The Raiders’ most brutal defensive effort came in Round 4 in their victory over the Wests Tigers, when the Green Machine conceded just 923 metres in defence, with Bronson Harrison (30 tackles) starring in the 30-16 victory.
2. Best behaviour
In a dramatic turnaround from last year, the Raiders have become the most disciplined team in the NRL, committing just 9.7 errors per game. In 2011 the Raiders were ranked 13th in the NRL with a woeful error count of 11.9 per game. On 13 occasions this season, the Raiders have made fewer than 10 errors – including their near-perfect performance against the Dragons in Round 17 when they made just four blunders all game. Veteran forward Dane Tilse has been as safe as houses for the Green Machine, making just four errors in his 807 minutes of football this year.
3. To the point
With eight scores of 30 points or more this season, the Raiders have become true attacking heavyweights. Only three teams scored less points last season, but in 2012 the Raiders have climbed to fifth in the NRL for both points (21.9) and tries (3.9) scored per game. Canberra centre Jarrod Croker is enjoying his first season as leading point-scorer in the NRL (220) while talented back Reece Robinson has been unstoppable with 16 tries. The Raiders’ most impressive effort with the ball came against the Storm in Round 18 when they piled on 40 points to 12, through eight stylish tries.
4. Holes plugged
Last year the Raiders leaked points like a sieve. In fact at 26 points per game, only wooden-spooners the Gold Coast Titans (26.2) had a more brittle defence. This year, Dave Furner has managed to shore up his side’s mettle as the season progressed, to the point where the Raiders now give away just 22.3 points per game. While that is far from an ideal defensive record (11th in the NRL), the fact that the Raiders are in effect leaking a try less per game is a big reason behind their charge to the finals. Shaun Fensom (42.8 tackles per game) is the most effective of Canberra defenders, and regularly contributes the work of two forwards.
5. Crafty Croker
For the first time in his career, Jarrod Croker has outscored every other player in the competition. His 220 points have won matches for Canberra throughout 2012 and Croker is owed a lot of thanks for helping the Raiders to their first finals appearance since 2010. One of the best finishing centres in the NRL, Croker has scored 16 tries this year and has scored more than one try on five occasions. Also, only NSW Origin star Josh Morris has bettered Croker’s 14 line-breaks at centre. A performance indicative of Croker’s burgeoning talent was his outing against the Wests Tigers in Round 4. On that day he scored 18 points, made three line-breaks, 12 tackle-breaks and an incredible 241 metres in attack. With pace and skill, he’s the main reason the Raiders have had so much success on their left side to date – their 41 tries down his edge are the most by any team.
6. Fullback fantastic
He kicks, he runs and at times he’s impossible to tackle. A talented and slippery fullback, Josh Dugan has been a weapon at the stern of the Green Machine’s arsenal this year and a formidable opponent to every team that’s tried to wrestle him into submission. A match-winning performance from Dugan against the Sharks in Round 20 saw the fullback bag 256 metres, three tackle-breaks and a try. He’s averaged 144 metres per game this year and has made 93 tackles-breaks (9th in the NRL). The Raiders’ line-up is a daunting prospect to the seven remaining teams when this man is bringing up the rear.
7. Tiger mauling
It was the kick in the backside the Raiders so desperately needed. At the halfway point in the season Canberra were reeling with just four wins to their name. Then in front of a home crowd, when they were expected to turn a corner, they hit rock bottom with a humiliating 40-0 defeat at the hands of the Wests Tigers. Canberra completed just 61.8 per cent of their sets (their lowest returns all year) as well as committing 15 errors and missing 40 tackles. Players will tell you that coming off the Canberra Stadium field to boos was a turning point in their campaign; since that embarrassing day, they’ve dropped just three games.
8. A fortnight’s delight
Through the first 16 Rounds of the competition the Raiders boasted a lacklustre 5-9 record and had all but given up hope of playing finals football. But it would take them just a further two weeks to evolve into genuine premiership contenders. First a freakish try to Reece Robinson (who had already scored two that night) in the 78th minute snatched a miracle win for the Raiders over the Dragons that would reinstate belief amongst the squad and set them up for a stunning win against the Melbourne Storm. A spectacular hat-trick to Edrick Lee punctuated the 40-12 victory that was the first indication all year that Canberra could really mix things up come September.
9. Late-season charge
When the chips were down and their season was on the line, the Raiders managed to string together four wins for the first time in two years. It was good timing. With five games left in the regular rounds, the Raiders figured they needed to win them all. They began with an impressive 28-12 victory over the Broncos before grinding wins against the Panthers and Roosters. But it was in Round 25 that the Raiders simply sizzled with a 34-6 trouncing of the Bulldogs. The win moved Canberra into the top eight for the first time in 19 weeks and looks to have booked a busy September for the Green Machine.
10. Best with Boot
Halves Josh McCrone (169) and Sam Williams (107) might not put ball to boot as regularly as some other sixes and sevens in the comp but when they do, they’ve got it on a string. No side has had more success with attacking kicks than the Raiders who have scored 32 tries from kicks in 2012. With talented outside backs Reece Robinson (16 tries) and Edrick Lee (seven tries) lending their significant try-scoring abilities to powerhouse centre Jarrod Croker (16 tries), the Raiders have established themselves as one of the best late-phase attacking teams in the NRL.