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A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canberra Raiders

We’ve gotten through the truly awful teams, so now we can focus on teams that underwhelmed but weren’t disgusting. First cab off the rank is the Canberra Raiders, finishing the 2021 season with a 10-14 record with a -97 points difference. That means the Raiders were only four points per game worse than the average team in the NRL (with a Pythagorean expectation of 9.9 wins), although we need to temper that by recognising that the average NRL team this year would’ve been a spoon contender in other, more competitive seasons.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

By the time you read this, you’ll have read or heard a thousand justifications for Canberra being right in the premiership race. I don’t disagree with any of them but note that the projected Taylors have them wedged firmly between Manly and Cronulla, which seems low for a premiership contender. That seems primarily due to a weak back five and strangely mediocre starting rotation, given the names therein. This might be the numbers being off or we could be in for a big case of everyone talking themselves into the Raiders…

The primary concern surely has to be receiving a flogging at the hands of the Storm, which abruptly ended the Raiders’ 2020 campaign in about ten minutes. The secondary concern is whether the team has really improved since the 2019 grand final…

The Raiders have been knocking on the door since 2016 now, so at what point do we conclude that their processes aren’t right? Perhaps it will be at the end of this year if they come home without the Provan-Summons again, having hit their ceiling once more in week three of the finals.

A lot of Raiders fans read pessimism into my words and were deflated. Everyone else had been building them up for a premiership tilt. Then George Williams left and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad got hurt. The Raiders started falling over and then they fell over. Not only did they not make week three of the finals, they didn’t make the finals at all.

The 10-14 record is more reminiscient of 2017 and 2018, than 2019 and 2020. It’s up to you to decide which one is reflective of the true level of the Canberra Raiders.

What happened

The backs and forwards appear to be there or thereabouts but their total production seems to be being eroded, just a little, each year. The bench actually increased their contribution. But, as in 2017 and 2018, the Raiders were let down by their playmaking. It wasn’t as dire as those seasons but Vlandoball has also inflated every team’s production. 10 WARG in 2021 doesn’t go as far as it did a few years ago.

Williams, George was never as productive as the elite tier halves in the league but he was better than the alternative. Wighton would go on to have a shocker, considering he was judged to the best player in the game last year (his .180 TPR would return to around his long term average of .115 this season). Williams, Sam joined the Defintion of Replacement Level club, currently chaired by Danny Levi. It was the failure to have someone to replace Williams, George that was better than Williams, Sam that was the difference between finals and an early Mad Monday for the Raiders. Alternatively, had Wighton played up to the level that the NSW selectors believe him to be capable of, the question of who occupies the halfback position would have been redundant.

Williams apparently wanted to see out the season but had been agitating for a release. The Raiders granted an early release mid-season. I don’t know the truth of it but it looks a lot like the Raiders shot themselves in the foot. We can speculate on the why.

Perhaps that could have been covered for. The Raiders played well in 2016 with a lesser contribution from the playmakers. While the backs and bench improved their production from 2020 to 2021, some the key forwards went backwards.

Specifically, Josh Papali’i, Dunamis Lui and Elliott Whitehead all took significant steps towards mean, losing about 20 pips of TPR each. While numbers won’t tell you the whole story, if the plan was to hope everyone could redline all season to cover for Englishmen returning home, then that wasn’t ever going to be sustainable.

I also think the team hasn’t really reconciled with the loss of John Bateman and probably need to think about finding someone of his calibre and attitude (except for the preference for Wigan over Canberra) to fill the void.

There’s always next year

Plenty of Raiders fans will tell you Ricky Stuart has earned the right to dig the club out of this hole, again, but he has to dig the club out of a hole that he and the administration have dug. It’s been evident that not all is right at Raiders-land and for there to be frequent and regular expressions of frustration via both the traditional and social media, suggests a lack of cohesion that is going to undermine any future plans. Perhaps it is this and not mean regression that explains the performance of the forwards?

Provided that can be rectified – and that’s a big if now – the question is what happens to the roster. They were a half step off the pace when they were good and they are now several steps behind. Even if Stuart can squeeze the best out of everyone, I would suggest Canberra need reinforcements, especially in the halves. Aidan Sezer won’t ever come back, Jackson Hastings is going to the Tigers and James Maloney would rather slip into retirement for Lezignan than return to the NRL. Super League starts to look pretty thin after that, so it might be time to revise the recruiting strategy of the last few years.

Is it time to roll the dice on Luke Brooks? Perhaps but that patches the hole, it doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know if there are any real Moneyball signings out there that the club could make – perhaps make an offer for one of the Cowboys’ surplus halves? – and without a talent pipeline, hampered by two consecutive cancellations of the NSW Cup, the Raiders can’t draw down on the farm system like other clubs. Even the Queensland Cup cupboard looks bereft of options (former Raiders under 20, Jack Ahearn? Sam Scarlett? Cam Cullen?).

People smarter than me who know the organisation better will come up with a solution. One is to move Josh Hodgson to 7 to open up the 9 jumper for Tom Starling. That seems as good a plan as any but if it doesn’t work, don’t be surprised to see the Raiders in a similar position next season.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canberra Raiders

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.

Summary

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.

What happened

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.

What’s next

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.

Who will win the 2019 NRL Premiership?

At this time of year, is there anything else you want to know more than the answer to this question?

For our crystal ball, we turn to Monte Carlo simulations. These simulations work on the principle that if we know the inputs to a complex system and how they relate to each other, then we can test the outcomes of that system using random numbers to simulate different situations.

At its most basic, just imagine if you simulated the outcome of football matches by rolling dice. Numbers one and two might represent a win for the Gold Coast and numbers three through six might be a win for Wests. If you repeat that a couple of thousand times, not only will you be extremely bored but the Gold Coast will “win” about 33% of the time and Wests 66%.

Now take the same approach for the nine finals games, with the winner advancing per the NRL’s system, but instead of using dice, you generate a random number between zero and one and calculate the win probability using Archimedes (form) Elo ratings. Then repeat it 5,000 times over. The number of times that the Storm or Roosters or Broncos or Eels “win” the premiership across your simulations should give you some insight into the probability of that happening in real life. I call this the Finals Stocky and I present its findings.

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A deep dive for each team’s 2019 NRL season

With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.

As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.

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One thing new NRL fans need to know about each team

Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.

The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.

If you need a wider perspective, check out the Complete History of the NRL and the Complete History of the NRL (nerd edition).

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A deep dive for each NRL team’s 2018 season

The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.

This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.

(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)

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Club Report – Canberra Raiders

cbr-badgeBackground

What a team the Canberra Raiders were in the early 1990s. As one of the NSWRL’s first expansion teams in 1982, the Raiders made five grand finals between 1987 and 1994 (that’s seven years!). Of those five grand finals, Canberra won three of them in 1989, 1990 and 1994. Jason Croker, Mal Meninga, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Brett Mullins, Gary Belcher, Glenn Lazarus, Craig Bellamy, Tim Sheens – the list of top players in those premiership winning sides is almost endless.

Since then, it’s been a whole lot of nothing. The Raiders have been poor but not so bad that they even find themselves at the bottom of the ladder. 2016 was a year of redemption, finishing second on the ladder, the momentum of which they have blown throughout the 2017 season and they will be lucky to make the finals.

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Analysis – Stocky vs Reality: Did your team outperform? (Pt II)

The Stocky is the main forecasting tool driving the analysis on this site. It’s a simulator of the season ahead, using the Monte Carlo method and based on Elo ratings, that gives insight into the future performance of each club. My main interest has been the number of wins, as it determines ladder positions which in turn have a big impact on the finals. The Stocky might not be able to tell you which games a team will win, but it is good at telling you how many wins are ahead.

But how does a computer simulation (in reality, a very large spreadsheet) compare to reality? To test it, I’ve put together a graph of each team’s performance against what the Stocky projected for them. Each graph shows:

  • The Stocky’s projection for total wins (blue)
  • Converting that projection to a “pace” for that point in the season (red)
  • Comparing that to the actual number of wins (yellow)

It will never be exactly right, particularly as you can only ever win whole numbers of games and the Stocky loves a decimal point, but as we’ll see, the Stocky is not too bad at tracking form and projecting that forward.

This week is Part II, from North Queensland to Wests Tigers. Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle, was last week. Also see this week’s projections update for some errors in the Stocky.

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Analysis – Stocky vs Reality: Did your team outperform? (Pt I)

The Stocky is the main forecasting tool driving the analysis on this site. It’s a simulator of the season ahead, using the Monte Carlo method and based on Elo ratings, that gives insight into the future performance of each club. My main interest has been the number of wins, as it determines ladder positions which in turn have a big impact on the finals. The Stocky might not be able to tell you which games a team will win, but it is good at telling you how many wins are ahead.

But how does a computer simulation (in reality, a very large spreadsheet) compare to reality? To test it, I’ve put together a graph of each team’s performance against what the Stocky projected for them. Each graph shows:

  • The Stocky’s projection for total wins (blue)
  • Converting that projection to a “pace” for that point in the season (red)
  • Comparing that to the actual number of wins (yellow)

It will never be exactly right, particularly as you can only ever win whole numbers of games and the Stocky loves a decimal point, but as we’ll see, the Stocky is not too bad at tracking form and projecting that forward.

This week is Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle. Part II, from North Queensland to Wests Tigers, will be next week.

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Analysis – Another bloody mid-season review (Part I)

With the conclusion of round 13, it’s half time in the 2017 NRL season. It’s the ideal time to do what everyone else is doing and look back at the season so far. This week we’re looking at the first eight clubs that come up in alphabetical order.

Part II to come next week.

Benchmarks

There are some important benchmarks to consider when looking ahead to the end of the season.

Firstly, let’s look at the regular season. I’ve tallied up the average number of wins for each position, the average for-and-against and the number of teams with a negative for-and-against for each spot on the ladder. The dataset covers 1998 to 2016, so there are some inconsistencies from seasons which had twenty or fourteen teams and where points penalties were applied to the 2002 Bulldogs, 2016 Eels and 2010 Storm.

The main takeaways are that twelve wins should get you into the finals and eighteen should get you the minor premiership. Six or seven wins will still only get you the bottom spots on the ladder (unless the 2016 Knights are playing).

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