Through green eyes: Mid term report card
It is difficult to believe... but the Canberra Raiders are now at the mid point of their season. I suspect that if Raiders fans were offered a seven and five start at the beginning of the season... most would have grabbed that deal. Yet here we are, at the mid point, with precisely that record.
The Raiders are fairly well placed on the ladder, in fifth on points differential - level with the Newcastle Knights on 14 competition points, with a bye in hand. Only three teams have more wins than Canberra. The start to the season was absolutely outstanding. After the opening two months, the Raiders were running third - and had lost just two matches.
It was just reward for the hard work in the off season on two things - defence and game management.
The Raiders' line speed, intensity in defence and work in the rucks improved significantly on the past two seasons. So much so, that today they have the second best defensive record in the competition, conceding just 15 points per game. That's below the 16 point benchmark that the genuine premiership contenders aim to achieve.
Coach Ricky Stuart has taken a leaf out of the Roosters and Storm playbooks in this department. One downside of that is that the officials have increasingly scrutinised the Raiders - with plenty of off side and ruck penalties being conceded. I don't think the Raiders are doing anything that the Roosters and Storm don't do... but the Raiders are now the second most penalised team in the league, after the Panthers. There's not much the Raiders can do about that, however, apart from adjust as best they can - without losing the intensity in defence.
Then there is game management. That's improved significantly as well. The Raiders record in close matches in recent years has been poor, to say the least. The Raiders ended the 2018 season with eight losses by four points or less, and five losses by two points or less. The season started with three last gasp losses in a row by two points or less, less than a converted try in aggregate. Something had to be done. The club brought in a sports psychologist. They practised for the clutch situations, under fatigue, in the off season. And that has clearly paid off.
Three games have been iced with field goals. The Raiders couldn't kick a single field goal in 2017 and kicked three in the whole of 2018. The Raiders' kicking game is also much more aggressive. They are now ranked first in the league for kicking metres (third last in 2018), with the Raiders aiming to control games with long kicks (now second in the league). They were ranked last in 2018 for forced line drop outs - and have now produced 21, almost as many as last year in total. They lead the league for 40/20 kicks, with three. Those are tactics that win finals matches.
In the past six weeks, Canberra has won just twice, as injuries have hit hard. At one stage, the Raiders were missing their entire first choice right edge. Canberra had eight regular first graders out against the Bulldogs, due to a combination of injury and Origin duties. Joey Leilua is likely out for the season, while Josh Hodgson, John Bateman, Jordan Rapana and Joe Tapine have all suffered significant injuries. It is little wonder some losses have come - though there have also been a couple of off days.
The Raiders have not won in any of their matches against the so-called "big three", the Storm, the Roosters and the Rabbitohs. They were not really in the contest with the Storm. They came within six points of the Roosters, coming from well behind after starting poorly. And they only lost narrowly, by four points, in a wonderful performance against the Rabbitohs.
The Raiders are now well placed to mount a challenge in the second half of the season. They will first need to get through the next month or so, with the team disrupted by Origin, injury and suspension. But if they can, the team has potential to build, once they start getting players back. They will still have work to do, to challenge the "big three". But there are reasons to be confident they can do so.
Recruitment and retention is not the least of those reasons. I rated the Raiders recruitment and retention a "C" at the start of the season. How wrong I was. Releasing Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd - and transitioning to a more mobile forward pack has been a critical part of the Raiders shift to a new style of football.
English forward recruit John Bateman has been outstanding, the best buy of 2019 in the whole competition. His energy and intensity in attack and defence lifts the whole team. Fellow Englishman Ryan Sutton has also grown as the season has gone on, so much so, I'd like to see him starting at prop. Then there are the young forwards like Corey Horsburgh and Hudson Young who have stepped up, filling the void left by some injured players.
Challenging Bateman for "buy of the year" is fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. He joined the Raiders from the Warriors just before the start of the season - and he's been a revelation. His arrival allowed Jack Wighton to move to five eighth - who has developed so rapidly in the role that he's earned his first Blues jersey.
That "C" is starting to look an awful lot like an "A".
That's the big picture. Here's my mid term Canberra Raiders report card.
The Raiders finished 2018 with the second best attacking record in the competition - but they ended up at 10th on the ladder. At present, they rank sixth in attack, scoring an average 20 points (3.2 tries) per match. That compares to the benchmark team, the Storm, who score over 25 points (4.2 tries) per match. The Raiders rank ninth for try assists (2.4 per game, 3.7 for the Roosters).
The Raiders also rank ninth for running metres gained - with 1405 metres gained per match, compared with 1464 metres for the first ranked Storm. They rank 11th for line breaks (3.8 per game, compared with 5.5 for the first ranked Warriors) and 12th for tackle breaks (24 per game, 29 for the Knights). Compared to 2018, the Raiders have tumbled down the rankings for all these indicators.
Canberra is playing a much more controlled attacking game in 2019, aiming to win the middle first. There is less risky passing and there's a continued focus on dummy half running. The Raiders rank 12th for offloads (7.8 per game, 12.5 for the Sharks) and last for general play passes (71 per game, 113 for the Sharks). The Raiders rank first for dummy half runs (over 12 per game) and fifth for one pass hit ups (78 per game, 82 for the Rabbitohs). The Raiders rank third for least errors (10 per game, Bulldogs 9.1). The result is a completion rate of 78 per cent, ranked third in the league, and just below the benchmark of 79 per cent (Bulldogs, Cowboys).
The counterpoint to fewer metres gained with the ball in hand - is the big lift in just about every kicking statistic. I've gone through those numbers earlier. But don't forget them. It is part and parcel of the Raiders' shift in style.
While the attack is more controlled, it is also less well oiled than it has been. Coach Ricky Stuart emphasised it was not something the team had focussed on in the pre season. The focus was defence. Probably nothing encapsulates that shift in focus more than the score line last week against the Bulldogs. The Raiders won 12-10. They have not won by scoring 12 points or less since 1989.
But it is something the team will need to improve upon in the second half of the year. The Raiders attack of the past few seasons has relied on the individual brilliance of the outside backs, rather than the halves creating points. This year, the strike of the backs has been impacted by the loss of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana to injury, while Nick Cotric's form has been a little down. That's reflected in the drop down the rankings in points scored and and in line and tackle breaks. With Leilua out for the rest of the year, and Josh Hodgson on the sideline for a while yet, others will need to lift if the attack is to improve.
As mentioned, the Raiders rank second for least points conceded, an average of 15 points (2.5 tries) per game. That compares with 13 points (2.1 tries) conceded per game by the Storm. Canberra now ranks fifth for running metres conceded (1379 metres per game, 1243 for the Storm) - after ranking even better earlier in the season. I think the drop in that department partly reflects the crack down from the officials on the Raiders' line speed. Canberra ranks seventh for line breaks conceded (4.3 per game, 2.3 for the Storm) - so that reflects pretty well on the Raiders' scramble. The line breaks are not translating directly into tries. Canberra ranks eighth for fewest missed tackles (24.2 per game), but that's not translating into tries either.
Jack Wighton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad have been the stars in the spine, both exceeding expectations about how quickly they would grow into their roles. Josh Hodgson has been the professional, as always, lifting his kicking game this season to boot. He probably has the tendency to overplay his hand in the red zone, but he's certainly going to be missed while he's on the sideline.
Sam Williams appears to have won the battle with Aidan Sezer for the No. 7 jersey. Sezer versus Williams has been one of the most debated topics amongst the fans this year. For mine, they offer different things, but overall there's not much difference between the two. Sezer has the better defence, while Williams organises the attack better. However, given the Raiders appear to have signed half George Williams from Wigan for next season, it looks like coach Ricky Stuart is aiming to upgrade his stocks in the halves. It is needed.
It is a more mobile pack and they've performed well as a unit, despite the loss of key players to injury at times. Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead have continued to show their class in the forwards, while young forwards, Ryan Sutton, Corey Horsburgh and Hudson Young have stepped up - helping to cover the loss of Joe Tapine, who's spent much of the season on the sideline. For mine the most influential forward and best performer is new recruit John Bateman. You could perhaps assess his impact best when he was not on the field with a fractured eye socket. What an impact he made on his return to the field last week. He just pips Josh Papalii as my best performer, who has also been outstanding.
The depth in the backs has been tested, with the loss of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana to injury. New recruit Bailey Simonsson has grown in the wing position, while Michael Oldfield always steps up to do the job when required. Jarrod Croker's form has probably been a bit down, and he'll be looking for a stronger second half to the season. Nick Cotric has also been a shade off his best, but he's still playing well enough to force his way into the New South Blues team. He's looked best when shifted to centre this year, and he'll need to continue in that vein to compensate for the loss of Leilua.
Mid term report card:
This Friday night, the Raiders play their first match at the new Western Sydney Stadium - built on the site of the old Parramatta Stadium. I can't wait to see it. It looks amazing. The Raiders face a big challenge up against the Wests Tigers, in their first "home" game at the venue. The Green Machine is heavily impacted by injury, suspension and State of Origin duty. They must win matches like this, if they're to maintain touch with the three leading teams. The Wests Tigers are no pushover, as teams like the Melbourne Storm will attest. And the Tigers will field some "bogey" players for the Raiders, veterans Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah. It is a very difficult match to tip, but I'm going with the Raiders
in a close one.
Don't forget, if you're going to game, come along to the pre game meet up for Raiders fans at the Woolpack Hotel from 5pm, which has been organised by long standing member of The Greenhouse, Kenrick Winchester. Register
for the event on The Greenhouse Facebook page and share it with your Raiders friends! All the details are at the link!
The Canberra Raiders Jersey Flegg
team also face the Wests Tigers - on Saturday afternoon at Campbelltown Stadium. It's part of a double header, with the Canberra Raiders NSW Cup
affiliate, Mounties facing the Western Suburbs Magpies. Both the Raiders and Mounties are towards the top of the ladder - so get out and support them if you're in Sydney.
Every week I rate the Raiders players on a scale of 0-10... and here are the total points and average points per match after the clash with the Bulldogs. Let us know if you agree with the ratings... or not!
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 87
Elliott Whitehead 82
Josh Papalii 81
Jack Wighton 78
Sia Soliola 78
Jarrod Croker 77
Ryan Sutton 76
Josh Hodgson 74
Siliva Havili 72
Nick Cotric 70
John Bateman 67
Dunamis Lui 65
Sam Williams 59
Corey Horsburgh 56
Hudson Young 48
Joey Leilua 47
Jordan Rapana 40
Bailey Simonsson 34
Michael Oldfield 29
Joe Tapine 23
Aidan Sezer 18
Sebastian Kris 9
Jack Murchie 6
Emre Guler 5
Tom Starling 5
JJ Collins 4
Average points per match
John Bateman 7.4
Josh Papalii 7.4
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 7.3
Jack Wighton 7.1
Elliott Whitehead 6.8
Josh Hodgson 6.7
Joey Leilua 6.7
Sia Soliola 6.5
Jarrod Croker 6.4
Nick Cotric 6.4
Ryan Sutton 6.3
Corey Horsburgh 6.2
Aidan Sezer 6.0
Jack Murchie 6.0
Siliva Havili 6.0
Sam Williams 5.9
Michael Oldfield 5.8
Jordan Rapana 5.7
Bailey Simonsson 5.7
Dunamis Lui 5.4
Hudson Young 5.3
Emre Guler 5.0
Tom Starling 5.0
Joe Tapine 4.6
Sebastian Kris 4.5
JJ Collins 4.0
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