Part 2 of rugby league writer Daniel Boss’ 16-part preview of the 2014 NRL season takes a look at the team in the national capital, the Canberra Raiders. After a disappointing 2013 which saw David Furner sacked as coach, the Raiders will be looking to bounce back with Ricky Stuart at the helm in 2014.
Following a finals victory in 2012, there were once again high expectations for the Raiders last season. Once again, these expectations were not met. In fact, the Raiders were the most disappointing team in the NRL in 2013. Their season was chock full of scandals, including Josh Dugan’s rooftop Breezer incident after Round 1, Blake Ferguson’s indecent assault charges (which he was later found guilty of), the sacking of their coach David Furner following his support of Ferguson and the Sandor Earl suspension from ASADA. Despite all of these distractions, the Raiders were in the top 8 with 6 rounds left in the regular season but faded in these last 6 weeks as they went winless over this period.
The Raiders saw regression in both attack and defence in 2013, when compared to the 2012 season where they made the finals. Canberra scored less than 4.5 points per game in 2013 than they did in 2012 and conceded more than 3.5 points per game in 2013 than in 2012. This is the difference between a finals appearance and a bottom 4 finish. The Raiders are banking on a coaching change, rather than a change in player personnel, to change the attitude and tactics of the side which they hope will improve these statistics in 2014.
The big losses in the outside backs for the Raiders are a result of some of the incidents mentioned above, that being of Ferguson and Earl. Some good news came over the past few weeks with Anthony Milford committing to Canberra for the 2014 season. He will provide some spark at the back. Reece Robinson and Edrick Lee should be the starting wingers, while Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton should start in the centres. At full strength, this is a fairly strong attacking backline but the Raiders are lacking the depth that they possessed in previous seasons. Bill Tupou and Sami Sauiluma may also push for starting positions in the backline, having being called up on multiple occasions in 2013.
The Raiders will go into 2014 with the long-time combination of Terry Campese and Josh McCrone. McCrone is a solid half who is at his best when solely working down the right hand side of the field and allowing a more dominant playmaker to have more attacking chances with ball in hand. Unfortunately, Campese has not shown the form since his knee reconstrcutions in 2010 and 2011. Campese’s main strength was his running game but he just can’t simply run as strongly as he once could. The Raiders lost their backup halfback Sam Williams to the Dragons, which may mean that Mitch Cornish may get an opportunity to make his first grade debut in 2014. If needed, Wighton can also play in the halves.
Last season, the Raiders’ much vaunted front row never really seemed to provide the momentum that they had in previous seasons. They will be looking to bounce back in 2014 and are more than capable of this. The front row will consist of David Shillington, Brett White, Dane Tilse, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and young gun Paul Vaughan. They still have Mark Nicholls in the squad who does have first grade experience and signing Lagi Setu can also play in the front row if required. The hooker position has been one of the biggest weaknesses for Canberra over the past few seasons. The preferred option over the past few seasons has been Glen Buttriss. Buttriss is a solid player but has not shown anything more than this. They did use Shaun Berrigan there over the past couple of seasons but this option is no longer there following Berrigan’s retirement. Matt McIlwrick and signing Kurt Baptiste will provide depth and competition to Buttriss for the hooking role in 2014. Both players have shown some potential in limited opportunities last season at Canberra and Brisbane respectively.
Canberra has lost a few back rowers to other clubs, including Joel Thompson to the Dragons and Joe Picker to South Sydney. The Raiders have added Lagi Setu and Kyle O’Donnell to their back rower stocks, but neither should move the incumbent starting back row of Josh Papalii, Joel Edwards and Shaun Fensom. All three back rowers hit very hard in defence, with Papalii in particular as he has earned origin and test jerseys on the back of his strong defence. If there is any criticism of this back row, it is that none of the starters seem to be strong gap runners. I thought that Thompson was their best attacking back rower but he is now at St George. Along with signings Setu and O’Donnell, the Raiders also have Jarrad Kennedy, Jake Foster and Sam Mataora to provide depth in the back row.
Last season, the Raiders mainly used a one back, three forward interchange ‘policy’, with the one back being the explosive Milford. With Milford starting at fullback and no real impact back (with the possible exception of Cornish) in the squad, I can see the Raiders using one hooker and three forwards off the bench in 2014. The reason I say this is because the Raiders have quite a few quality front rowers and a lot of competition at hooker. If the Raiders are to succeed in 2014, they need to go back to playing to their strengths, which is their size in the forward pack.
Canberra has a new coach in 2014, that being former NSW and Australian coach Ricky Stuart. Stuart is well known for his high intensity as a coach, which has seen mixed results over his coaching career. If Stuart does not do well at Canberra, then I can’t him getting another chance with an NRL club after his lack of success following the retirement of Brad Fittler, which was 9 years ago. He does seem to coach better with higher quality squads, as the Roosters squads from 2002-04 and the Cronulla squad of 2008 were very good football teams. The 2014 Raiders squad is the best squad he has had since 2008, so the Raiders could be in for a good year if that is an indication.
- Anthony Milford
- Reece Robinson
- Jarrod Croker
- Jack Wighton
- Edrick Lee
- Terry Campese
- Josh McCrone
- David Shillington
- Glen Buttriss
- Brett White
- Josh Papalii
- Joel Edwards
- Shaun Fensom
- Matt McIlwrick
- Tom Learoyd-Lahrs
- Dane Tilse
- Paul Vaughan
16th. This season could go one of two ways for Canberra. They could play to their potential and push for a position in the top 8 or they could not play to their potential and finish near the bottom of the ladder. I just have a feeling that the latter will happen for Canberra in 2014. I’ve just seen their commitment levels vary quite substantially over the past few seasons and I can’t see how an intense coach will be able to sustain these levels. Maybe with Ricky Stuart being a club legend, this could provide motivation. I also don’t have a huge wrap of David Furner, who coached a mostly disappointing side over the past few seasons. Maybe a change in voice might turn around their form. I do quite like the Raiders, having lived in Canberra for the past 7 years and I would like to see them do well. If they need this for bulletin board material, then please use it. Prove me wrong, Raiders. Prove me wrong.
2014 Ladder Prediction