Before we begin, I’d like to extend an apology to Curtis Scott. In my season preview, I wrote the following:
Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops.
It turns out that wasn’t true and I had forgotten that ACAB. Sorry, Mr Scott. Around that I wrote:
While Canberra’s defence was good, the attack completely dissipated in the finals. Bringing in an English half is a risk, but so was bringing in English forwards, and it paid handsome dividends. By all accounts, George Williams is the goods and might be the missing piece of the puzzle… After being mired mid-to-lower-table for so long under the decade-long dual dominance of Sydney and Melbourne, it would be genuinely surprising to see a team turn a corner and transform into perennial challengers.
I think they may be there.
The Canberra Raiders finished in fifth place with a 14-6 record and +128 points difference (5th best in the league). In a season where injuries killed many teams’ chances, the Milk found new talents ready to take the step up and fill the gaps. It was the difference between them and Manly.
I don’t know if there’s many interesting takes left about the Raiders after season 2020 but general consensus seems to have landed on (see also: How It All Works):
- Jack Wighton is pretty good at football, because he is insane. He is now a Dally M winner and owner of a .180 TPR.
- George Williams is another successful find (.128) as Canberra continues to strip the Super League of talent.
- Elliott Whitehead played really well but in a way that doesn’t turn up in the stats (.090).
- Josh Papalii (.152) would be the game’s best middle forward if it wasn’t for Taumalolo.
- Corey Harawira-Naera is an incredibly dubious signing that does not get enough criticism but he still rated well (.123).
- Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad tries harder than any other player in the NRL but didn’t have his best year (.106).
- There’s a crop of young Raiders coming through, led by Tom Starling (.153) and Hudson Young (.119).
- John Bateman and Nick Cotric are off. I don’t doubt their production will be easily replaced.
- Josh Hodgson spent a lot of time on the sidelines this season, which begs the question:
If Tom Starling can continue his scintillating start to his career (small sample size alert!), and with a productive halves pairing behind him, then the 30 year old Hodgson may be surplus to requirements. His 8.35 games this year should have been enough time to amass better than a career worst TPR.
However, I’m more interested in whether Canberra are now in the same league as Sydney and Melbourne. The last few years have been the Raiders’ best in the NRL and likely their best performances since the early 1990s.
The Raiders’ class Elo rating of 1589 is now the fourth highest in the league behind the Storm (1715), Roosters (1635) and Panthers (1603). And then these last few years in closer detail.
Here’s a team that is consistently above average and builds form at the right time of year. They may well rue the lost opportunities that were 2016, when the Raiders finished second (17-6-1) and were knocked out in the preliminary final by minor premiers Melbourne, and 2019, when the Raiders were hobbled by bizarre circumstances as much as their stifled attack in their grand final against Sydney.
These are the hallmarks of a Good Team. There aren’t too many of them in the NRL at the moment.
While the Raiders are 5-4 over the Roosters since 2016 and 3-3 to the Storm over the last two years, Canberra still need to find a way to play their best football in the last two weeks of the season. They haven’t done that. Those franchises have won premierships and the Raiders have been waiting for over twenty-five years now.
The club’s in no danger off the field. Indeed, their ratings have rocketed up to an average of 250,000 per game on pay TV, which was fourth best in the NRL this year. This is a huge improvement on 228,000 in 2018 and 2019 (13th and 7th best respectively). For a small market club, that’s not bad.
Ricky Stuart is Canberra’s dad and he’s not going anywhere. The roster looks balanced, well valued and supported by capable reserves. The Raiders might not be as pumped up as the Panthers, as rich as the Roosters or as clinical as the Storm but who is? The defence has been of premiership calibre for more than 12 months now.
As loathe as I am to conclude everything’s fine and patience is needed, where could you realistically find any improvement that isn’t just hoping (or paying well overs) a freak turns up in the roster somehow? The process seems sound to me. I couldn’t possibly recommend any changes – other than to actually turn up when playing the Storm at Suncorp Stadium – so we’re left to twiddle our thumbs and wait.