The last couple of years have been a mix of dizzying heights and unimaginable lows for the Green Machine from the nation’s capital.
In 2019, they fell inches short of a Premiership for the first time in decades, ousted in arguably, the controversial circumstance in the decider.
Coming off the back of that fairytale season, the Canberra Raiders were able to back up their Grand Final appearance with a Top Five finish and a Preliminary Final.
Unfortunately, injuries cruelled their season, with mercurial dummy-half Josh Hodgson suffering an ACL early on.
The COVID-induced move to Campbelltown Stadium would not have helped their chances, but the men from Canberra managed to put in an admirable effort, with the halves pairing of Jack Wighton and newcomer George Williams inspiring the team to their impressive finish.
Question marks remain over their ability to clinch that elusive premiership, but the Canberra Raiders should be in a much stronger position this year to finally end that title drought. Let’s get into it.
Will George Williams suffer the dreaded ‘second-year syndrome’?
The former Wigan Warrior was a revelation in 2020, as Ricky Stuart continued his successful track-record of pulling in unknown (to Australian audiences) Englishman to ply their trade in the National Rugby League.
Looking back at the year that was, it is clear that Williams sits amongst the likes of Elliott Whitehead and Josh Hodgson as uncannily sound selections.
George burst onto the scene with seven tries, 15 assists, 13 offloads, 19 forced drop-outs and an average 232 kick metres in just 22 games.
The perfect foil to Jack Wighton’s hard-running five-eighth variety, Williams provided the stability and direction that was undoubtedly lost when Hodgson went down with his ACL.
With solid fundamentals and a flair for the unbelievable, Williams needs to work on little more than his direction and game management heading into 2021.
The 26-year-old himself admitted he needs to up his talk if he is to be the key playmaker that they need. Unlikely to decline in his sophomore season, it remains to be seen whether Williams and Wighton will gel effectively with the returning Hodgson.
Who takes the lead in that scenario? Hodgson arguably has the veteran pedigree, but Williams seems set on being the traditional 7 that can lead a team around the park.
Time will tell, but with Williams taking on goal-kicking duties as well, his value to the Canberra Raiders continues to increase.
Recruitment and retention; a mixed bag
Of the multiples losses to their roster, none hurt so much as the loss of John Bateman.
The hard-nut Englishman was an absolute workhorse in defence and a formidable, unstoppable force in attack. Bateman led the forward pack every game and, like many of his countrymen before him, was ever the picture of a relentless English bulldog.
His loss will be felt deeply, especially in his capacity to go toe-to-toe for the full 80 minutes. His absence will be offset somewhat by the recruitment of former Gold Coast Titans captain Ryan James.
James, however, has played only six games since 2018 and none at all last year as he recovered from his latest ACL injury.
At 29-years-old and extremely shy of game-time, it would be unreasonable to assume James will be able to quickly fill the boots left by Bateman.
Another issue with the Raiders lies in their backline. Nick Cotric was arguably their best back last year but will now be calling Belmore home after signing a lucrative deal with the Bulldogs.
The loss of strike centre Joey Leilua the previous year and Wighton’s move to five-eighth has left their backline rather thin heading into 2021.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, an aging Jordan Rapana, a slightly broken Jarrod Croker, and Curtis Scott remain, with Scott still unable to produce the goods and the young fullback still with much to learn.
This, of course, opens up the remaining positions to rookies. It will be up to them and the coaching of Ricky if we are to see the Raiders backline mix it with the solid teams.
They’re not the messiahs, they’re very naughty boys
Penalties, penalties, penalties. They are the bane of any coach’s existence and, when you have one as highly-strung as Ricky Stuart, anything worse than last year could lead to an early coronary.
In 2020, the Raiders were the second-most penalised team after the Manly Sea Eagles.
This was especially disappointing after the brilliance with which they finessed the rules in the previous year, particularly with the one-on-one strip.
If they are to give themselves a better chance of reaching the Grand Final once again, they need to clean up their ruck.
The difference between teams at the back-end of the year is so small that any advantage can be the difference between glory and years of regret. Just ask the 2019 Raiders.
Player to Watch
With limited recruitment and proven stars, it should come as no surprise that Josh Hodgson is the Canberra Raiders player to watch in 2021.
The man billed as Cameron Smith 2.0 has done nothing but boost his reputation in his time in Australia. An imaginative dummy-half, Hodgson has the same Smith-like ability to seemingly play in slow motion.
It seems so easy for him to pick up the ball, look left, look right and then place an inch-perfect grubber behind the goal-line.
He is a defensive workhorse who almost single-handedly controlled the Raiders’ attack in 2019.
A slow start to 2020 was then cruelled with an ACL snap before he could find his groove.
With a strong team behind him and the established halves partnership of Wighton and Williams, Raiders fans will be extremely excited to see their Number 9 back in the green jersey come Round 1.
Gains and Losses
Caleb Aekins (Penrith Panthers, 2021), Ryan James (Gold Coast Titans, 2022), Trey Mooney (2021), Harry Rushton (2023), Xavier Savage (2021), Clay Webb (2021)
John Bateman (Wigan Warriors), Luke Bateman (released), JJ Collins (released), Nick Cotric (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Andre Niko (released), Michael Oldfield (Parramatta Eels)
NRL News Predicted Line-Up (Full Strength)
- Charnze Kicoll-Klokstad
- Bailey Simonsson
- Jarrod Croker
- Curtis Scott
- Jordan Rapana
- Jack Wighton
- George Williams
- Josh Papalii
- Josh Hodgson
- Dunamis Lui
- Elliott Whitehead
- Corey Harawira-Naera
- Joseph Tapine
- Tom Starling
- Emre Guler
- Sia Soliola
- Ryan James
Head Coach: Ricky Stuart