Raiders 2017 season review
Remember Round 1? Raiders fans certainly do.
Heading north to tackle JT and his Cowboys with expectations high for the season ahead, Canberra sent the game into golden point courtesy of a try to Joey Leilua only to have their hearts broken by a stabbed Thurston field goal attempt that hit the cross-bar, somehow stayed in the field of play and was grounded by Gavin Cooper inches inside the dead-ball line.
They weren't to know it then but those 84 minutes in many ways summed up the season that would unfold in the nation's capital.
Where Canberra teams of the past could be accused of being somewhat foolhardy in their use of the football the Raiders in 2017 were in the contest virtually every week, losing in golden point on three occasions and losing six more by a converted try or less, including a 24-20 loss to Penrith in Bathurst that superseded the Round 1 Cowboy calamity as their most extraordinary defeat of the season.
Winning four of their first seven games to sit in fifth spot, early indications were that the Raiders would live up to their pre-season promise but they would win just two of their next nine to fall well down the ladder, if anything being guilty of waiting for the wins to start rolling in.
Despite sitting in 12th position going into Round 19, four wins in five weeks kept the finals flame flickering before the tormentors from Penrith returned in Round 24 to all but extinguish their hopes for 2017.
Failing to qualify for the finals was undeniably well short of what was expected of Canberra this year and more than any other set of fans those who support the Green Machine will look back and wonder what could have been had a couple of results gone their way.
Where they excelled: A lot of the qualities possessed by successful footy teams existed in Canberra this season but they fell agonisingly short of earning them two competition points time and again. The 95 tries they scored ranked them fourth in the Telstra Premiership and the 87 line breaks they conceded was equal fifth in terms of keeping their line from being breached. The likes of Jordan Rapana, Nick Cotric and Joey Leilua ensured the Raiders finished second in total tackle breaks with 945 and they ranked third for both dummy-half runs and dummy-half run metres. Coach Ricky Stuart says there doesn't need to be a lot of tinkering to bounce back next season and the stats seem to back up that assertion.
Where they struggled: In such a close competition as the Telstra Premiership wins come on the back of building pressure and unfortunately for Canberra fans no team forced fewer line dropouts than the Raiders in 2017. On only 19 occasions were Raiders playmakers able to force a repeat set and as a result they gave up 23 seven-tackle sets to allow the opposition off the hook. Their completion rate of 75.3 per cent for the season ranked them 14th in the competition and their average of 1,522 metres gained per game was a lowly 13th in the NRL. The other poor stat of note was the ranking of 15th for bench impact based on an average of 54 metres and totals of 18 offloads, 78 tackle breaks and just three line breaks for those who were used from the interchange.
Missing in action: Either by luck or good management the Raiders used only 25 players in their 24 games in 2017, equal fewest in the NRL. They lost Dunamis Lui to a season-ending knee injury in Round 13 but they had 13 players play at least 22 games this season with halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer playing the entire year in the six and seven jerseys respectively.
Turning point: Wins over the Eels and Roosters bolstered in between by the bye catapulted Canberra back into the top eight only for a fortnight of heartbreak to bring their charge to a shuddering halt. In Round 13 they fought back from 20-6 down at half-time against Manly to level the scores at 20-all and send the game into extra time only for a Daly Cherry-Evans field goal to snatch victory from their grasp. If that wasn't bad enough, six days later they led Penrith 20-12 in Bathurst only to concede two tries in the final two minutes to go down 24-20. There were signs of life late in the season but you could make the argument that they never emotionally recovered from those back-to-back soul-destroying losses mid-year.
Hold your head high: Elevated into the senior squad after a single year in the under-20s, 18-year-old winger Nick Cotric took the NRL by storm and is the hot favourite to win the Dally M Rookie of the Year award. Playing in all 24 games the powerful teen scored 16 tries and busted 135 tackles, he and wing partner Jordan Rapana combining for more than a third of the team's total tries. Truth be told, there weren't many poor performers at all in the Canberra squad in 2017 with fullback Jack Wighton ranking sixth in all run metres with 3,755, Rapana topping the NRL for line breaks with 24 and Josh Hodgson finishing in the top 10 for total tackles.
2018 crystal ball: A largely settled squad should learn plenty from the season just past and if there is one area in which they need to definitely improve it is execution in 'good ball' areas and the ability to build pressure. Jack Wighton and Josh Hodgson were the club leaders in try assists with nine so more responsibility has to fall on the shoulders of Austin and Sezer to create opportunities for those around them. Ricky Stuart has got the roster right and with a little fine-tuning the Green Machine will be ready to roar like we expected it to this year.
Conclusion: Were the Raiders guilty of waiting too long into the season before they came good or were they simply chosen to be the tortured team of 2017 by the rugby league gods this year? When a field goal attempt hits the underside of the crossbar and inexplicably pulls up inches short of the dead-ball line for the other team to score are you unlucky or did you not work hard enough to cover for it? As they watch the finals series unfold Raiders players will believe in their heart of hearts that they should be there still playing but time and again they let opportunity escape them. There's no question they were the victims of some cruel misfortune but that should only motivate them to take luck out of the equation when they kick off next season.
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 3 games (Rd 5-7 & Rd 21-23)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 games (Rd 13-17)
Players Used: 25
Tries Scored: 95 (fourth)
Tries Conceded: 84 (10th)