As part of the NRL.com series reviewing each club's 2018 season, Scott Hazlewood dissects a season of near misses and frustration for Ricky Stuart's Green Machine.
Season 2018 will go down as the ultimate year of 'what if' for the Canberra Raiders after a number of close losses throughout the season left them in 10th position for the third time in the past four years.
Canberra lost 11 games by nine points or less, eight of which were by a converted try. The tone was set early when they crashed to three straight defeats to start the season with a combined losing margin of only five points.
The absence of international hooker Josh Hodgson for 14 weeks with an ACL tear was a significant blow and his importance to the side was rammed home when he spearheaded a 48-12 thumping of the Wests Tigers in his return game.
The Raiders' wretched season also included Jack Wighton's suspension after he pleaded guilty to assault and the loss of captain Jarrod Croker with a dislocated knee in round 18.
Josh Papalii enjoyed another stellar season at club level, but it did not start well with coach Ricky Stuart demoting him to Intrust Super Cup for a lack of fitness and commitment to the team. Rather than dwelling on it, the move propelled Papalii back to his best as he churned out big minutes in the middle of the field for the Raiders and won State of Origin honours. An honourable mention to powerhouse winger Nick Cotric, who led the NRL in tackle breaks with 149. He will push hard for Blues Origin honours in 2019.
It could be argued the entire season falls into this category, however, it is tough to go past the first three games of the season which could have and arguably should have been wins for the Raiders. Sitting at 3-0 the view for the rest of the season would have looked remarkably different. However, it was the stumble out of the gates against Gold Coast (28-30), Knights (28-30) and Warriors (19-20) that set the tone for 2018.
"Soft. Soft football, soft pieces of play, soft choices and I've probably protected them for too long," Ricky Stuart following the Raiders' loss to Manly in round four.
The Raiders' 24-12 victory over the Rabbitohs in round 24 has to be in the discussion for the systematic way they were able to shut down a side that was at the time gunning for the minor premiership. Shame for the Green Machine faithful it took until the second-last round for such a performance to be produced.
Match Highlights: Raiders v Rabbitohs - Round 24, 2018
This 'award' could either go to the Raiders' loss 42-22 to South Sydney back in round seven when their forwards were smashed by the Burgess boys at Gosford. Or it could also be seen as their loss to the Melbourne Storm in 20, when they were still an outside chance of making the top eight, only to see that go up in smoke with a 44-10 loss at AAMI Park.
Experienced trio Shannon Boyd (Titans), Junior Paulo (Eels) and Blake Austin (Warrington) depart the national capital in 2019 with Englishmen Ryan Sutton and John Bateman joining the Raiders from Wigan Warriors.
With big men Boyd and Paulo gone, the Raiders may need to change how they play, with their electric backline one of the best in the NRL when they get the time and space provided by their go-forward. However, if they replicate what they produced in the final three weeks of the season and their discipline with the ball in the first 20 minutes of games is high, they can return to the finals.