According to a couple of Raiders players I have spoken to in the past week, they aren’t sure if they will watch the finals.
That’s probably fair enough. I mean, is there a more sinking feeling than sitting back and watching eight teams go around for the next month knowing that if things have gone better you would have been there?
The Raiders finished the season in tenth place, ten points away from the eighth-placed New Zealand Warriors. The Raiders scored more points than the majority of teams in the top eight but they lost more close games than any other side in the competition.
Coach Ricky Stuart has already intimated that missing out on the finals this season will provide motivation enough heading into the preseason likely to start in early November.
I have decided to go back and look at the season to work out where it went wrong.
Starting the season without hooker Josh Hodgson didn’t help. His replacement, Siliva Havili, had hardly played first grade but had the responsibility of leading the side around.
Losing the first two games by two points to the Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle did little to help the confidence within a team which had lost seven games by six points or less the season before. The one point loss to the Warriors firmly placed the seed of doubt. By round 14, the Raiders were scoring plenty of points, but still losing the close games. A case in point was round 14, where they were defeated at the hands of the Panthers. A Nathan Cleary field goal with less than two minutes remaining securing a 23-22 victory for Penrith.
When Hodgson finally returned midway through the season the shape of the team changed dramatically but the side was effectively playing catch up.
The team was scoring plenty of points but still losing the close games including the four-point loss to the Sharks in round 19. So the Raiders started the season without their most influential player in Hodgson and finished the back half of the season without arguably their second most influential player in Jack Wighton. They’d also lost the skipper Jarrod Croker.
The Raiders are a hard side to read. They have no trouble scoring points, they never give up yet closing out the close games has proved costly this season.
So what will change next season and why as a Raiders’ fan should there be a reason for optimism heading into 2019?
Josh Hodgson starting the season should be enough to provide hope, as will the return of Jack Wighton.
The loss of Blake Austin, Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd will change the look of the side. They will miss the flair of Austin and the size of Boyd and Paulo. But defensively, the signing of John Bateman and Ryan Sutton will bolster the Raiders. What they lack in size they more than makeup for in defence. Bateman, in particular, could be a revelation next season in the NRL.
Just what the Raiders do with the five-eighth hole left by Austin remains unanswered heading into the pre-season. Assistant coach Mick Crawley has done an outstanding job with the attack and he will be hard to replace.
Among the positives this season has been the emergence of Havili and the reinvention of Michael Oldfield. Oldfield came to the Raiders looking for a chance. With injuries to Rapana and Croker, he showed he was more than capable of re-establishing himself as a good first grader while Havili re-invented himself as a handy back rower.
I must admit I approached every game in 2018 with optimism and a sense that this side could do anything. They were one of the most entertaining teams in the premiership but also, at times, the side most likely to lose the close games. They proved in the wins over the Roosters and Souths that they can play disciplined structured football.
The hope for 2019 is that the Raiders don’t lose their flair but take the discipline displayed in the final few games into next season.