A deeper look into the early-season form of Canberra’s 2017 campaign and what needs to change for the highly-fancied Raiders to turn it around.
After a breakout 2016 campaign that saw them finish two points shy of a grand final appearance, armed with a young, improving roster, a lethal attack and a great mentor in Ricky Stuart, general consensus was the Green Machine were ready to take the leap from scary attacking force to genuine title threats.
Ten rounds into 2017, they haven’t exactly set the world on fire.
This is, more or less, essentially the same Raiders outfit that impressed in ’16. The team’s identity is pretty well carved out. Unlike most contending teams, the Raiders’ conversation starts with their forwards, not their spine.
Josh Hodgson is their best player, but his creativity is frequently used to serve the strengths of those around him rather than generate his own offence. It makes sense: behemoths Junior Paulo, Josh Papalii and Shannon Boyd headline a hulking squad that stands comfortably over most opponents.
These aren’t one-dimensional players either, all possessing crafty footwork and potent offloading skills that help the green momentum machine roll forward, garnering such an advantage and great field position. Still, Hodgson was integral to their rise, and hasn’t been able to influence the team as he did last year, as evidenced by his running game – down to 36 metres a game this year from 70 in 2016.
For all the power up front, there’s just as much strike out back. You’ve heard about the famed “Leipana” duo. Jarrod Crokier is probably the best left centre going. Wighton might be the best defensive fullback in the league and an equally dangerous ball runner. All contributors to an elite, downright lethal attack.
Canberra aren’t meticulous in a Melbourne or Brisbane sense, seeking to capitalise on gaps appearing from defensive mistakes. Rather, the Raiders attempt to run straight through the opposition; they don’t search for holes, they create them. When nothing presents itself, they tend to push the issue. Now considering the skill of their main contributors, this momentum-based game-plan is often effective enough to create frequent scoring chances. When the momentum stops, complacency creeps in.
That tends to only happen against teams who have the ability to stifle the juggernaut – the elite defensive teams. Problem is, these are the exact teams Canberra need to overcome to be there at the end of the season.
And they haven’t been doing it so far.
Look across their mediocre 4-6 record for evidence. All four victories have come against inferior competition – Tigers, Eels, Titans, Warriors – all teams outside the top eight. Contending teams are supposed to be confidently putting away lesser opponents, so that’s a good sign! All four wins have come by more than 12 points, holding an insane average winning margin of 23 points.
All well and good, against bad teams they are taking care of business. Yet against better teams, they’re getting taken care of.
Five of their six losses have come against top eight sides: Cowboys, Broncos, Bulldogs, Sharks, Manly.
Being that the Raiders possess nothing more than an average defence (assuming it remains at its regular level), how far they can go, at least in the short-term, is contingent on the dominance of their attack.
There’s a notion that Canberra don’t have the metal to hang with the contending teams due to their momentum-based offensive system rather than the structure that is concurrent with most successful elite teams.
And that is because, well, it’s true – Canberra are 0-4 in games decided by four or less points. Golden point is unforgiving and losing games in the last 10 minutes doesn’t generally suggest a subpar performance. Yet four games is a large enough sample size to insinuate a trend here. Being able to hang with these teams is something – it implies they are operating at about the same level as these teams. Pulling out consistent victories is another thing.
Winning close games is hard, and whilst who you’re playing in these close games is more suggestive then win/loss record. Good teams find a way to win. Take a look:
Records in games with margins of six or less:
• Good teams: Melbourne 3-2, Roosters 3-2, Cowboys 2-1, Cronulla 4-2.
• Not-so-good teams: Panthers 1-3, Newcastle 0-3, Tigers 0-2
Canberra is 0-4, by far the worst mark in the league. Couple that with the aforementioned 0-5 mark against finals teams.
Then think, five out of last year’s nine finals games were decided by six or less points. This is a concern that has to be addressed immediately.
The fix? The Raiders need more direction from their halves
Solid, but unassuming halfback Aidan Sezer is too regularly drowned out. Rather than a pure halfback, Sezer fits the description of a combo-half, the mould of Kieran Foran or Corey Norman, capable of toggling seamlessly between either half position. Unlike those names, Sezer doesn’t have the commanding presence, often used as link deferring to the more dangerous weapons on the team.
Aidan Sezer is looking to add a stronger running game as he solidifies his halves pairing with Blake Austin: https://t.co/fUYfvqcawb
— Jason (@JasonNRL) April 18, 2017
Blake Austin is dynamic, but patchy. Josh Reynolds Ultra, an electric ball-runner that serves best carving up retreating defences rather than orchestrating an attack. As a combination they make perfect theoretical sense, the cool, collected game of Sezer with the threat of Austin’s running ability.
But context is everything. Slowly Canberra have become slightly reliant on the flashing game-breakinig plays of their outside men without setting the platform to give them space to operate. The potency of these weapons will increase considerably when deployed under the right circumstance rather than thrown the ball and asked to create.
This comes through most when the game gets tight, and their attack goes from potent to predictable. If they were able to pull out half of their close games, a respectable mark, we’re assessing their season in a different light.
There is plenty of football left to be played, and they are, no doubt, in a position to turn it around. Newcastle was the first loss Canberra have had in four and a half seasons where they’ve scored 20 points and walked away without the W. This is an anomaly, though telling. For Canberra’s sake, the lowest point in their season, a wake-up call where they started to turn things around.