With the NRL regular season done and dusted, the finals series is now in week two and for the first time since 2018, the Canberra Raiders aren’t there.
It was a stinker of a year for the Green Machine. On the back of making the preliminary final last year and the grand final in 2019, the 2021 campaign never got out of second gear and oscillated between bumbling performances and off-field sagas.
The club was in the headlines for the wrong reasons for most of the year and was subject to intense speculation of division between some players and coach Ricky Stuart.
Much of this stemmed from halfback George Williams walking out 18 months into a three-year deal and players appearing to publicly take sides with him over their employer.
Then there was Joe Tapine’s wife, Kirsten, taking aim at Stuart’s bench rotation on Instagram after a loss to the Rabbitohs in early May (although she had a point as his bench use was at times diabolical).
Add to that, Curtis Scott’s sacking over an incident at Kokomo’s – with his trial and ensuing legal case against the club to come – speculation over the future of Josh Hodgson, and even departed second-rower John Bateman taking potshots at the club from drizzly Wigan in the UK.
Then there were the on-field woes.
The writing was on the wall after the two-point victory over the Cronulla Sharks in round two. This game was the blueprint for much of the season: in the fight for 40-50 minutes, then outmuscled and out-enthused until full-time.
That time they held on, but unfortunately, the ‘Faders’ were back.
There were always concerns about the Raiders’ ageing outside backs being off the pace in the NRL’s dogged quest for quickfire rugby league. But the forwards were shown up, too – often looking sluggish, immobile and visibly fatigued as matches wore on.
It’s a bit sad that some players of different shapes and sizes are being jettisoned as the pace of the game gets meteor-fast and the ‘grind’ has evaporated under the rule of ARL commissioner Peter V’landys.
But that’s the way the game has gone. The good sides have adapted. The Raiders haven’t.
Early season losses to the New Zealand Warriors and North Queensland Cowboys, in which big leads were swallowed up in second-half fadeouts, highlighted the Raiders running out of puff and heralded a horror mid-season patch where they lost 10 out of 13 games. They also lost four of their last six.
But amazingly, despite the losing record and a points differential of -97, the Green Machine was still in the hunt for finals. However, this scenario says more about the current state of the NRL than it does the Raiders.
In the weakest year of rugby league in living memory that featured regular floggings and disturbingly lopsided match-ups – often between top-eight clubs – a whopping 22 competition points separated minor premiers the Melbourne Storm and eighth-placed Gold Coast Titans. The fact that 22 competition points could earn a team a place in this week’s finals should have alarm bells ringing at NRL HQ.
The Raiders finished on 22 points, too, but that negative differential condemned the club to 10th place.
This was the club’s third 10th place finish in five years, but arguably the worst of the lot. In 2017, they finished on 26 points with a positive differential. In 2018, it was also 22 points, but again the differential was decent.
Fans shouldn’t be fooled by the carrot that was dangling in the final round of the regular season as the Raiders needed to beat an injury-ravaged Sydney Roosters outfit to finish eighth. Unsurprisingly, the team led early, then got lapped 40-16 in a performance where desire and commitment went out the window.
As Stuart said in his post-game press conference, the Raiders would’ve been cannon fodder in the finals anyway so the loss just put an end to the misery.
It should be noted that key injuries in 2021 didn’t help. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was out for most of the year; hotshot Xavier Savage was injured just as his first-grade career took flight; and Tom Starling’s late-season broken jaw was a blow.
But there were positives.
Jordan Rapana turned back the clock for a standout season. The emergence of speed machine Savage at fullback has fans frothing for next year, while youngsters Matt Timoko, Sebastian Kris and Harley Smith-Shields all have high career ceilings. Forwards Corey Harawira-Naera, Ryan Sutton, Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine held their own for most of the campaign, too.
The emergence of the young guns, with others waiting in the wings, shows there’s hope for the future, but those players aren’t winning the Raiders bulk games in 2022. The club’s rebuild will take time, especially with some elder statesmen, including injured captain Jarrod Croker, remaining on long-term deals.
Most concerning is the fact the Raiders don’t have a halfback. At best, Sam Williams and Matt Frawley are serviceable back-ups, while the NRL’s off-contract list for 2022 is grim reading. Brad Schneider has looked good in the Raiders’ lower-grade system, but it’s unknown if he can make the NRL leap. Hopefully he can because Jack Wighton needs a quality half by his side.
At this stage, 54-year-old Stuart could be asked to lace up the boots and play number seven.
But jokes aside, his primary concern is assembling a Raiders team that can improve on 2021. Unless some big changes are made and the club can scrounge together some signings, that will be a tall order.