2014 was, in terms of being a Raiders fan, a bit crap. Ok, very crap. One could even go as far as craptacular. By round seven we had managed a 1-1 record against the Knights, toppled premiership contenders Souths and Melbourne, and lost to fellow cellar dwellers like the Titans. It was round eight where the wheels came off the Green Machine in depressingly spectacular fashion. The Manly Sea Eagles decided we needed a flogging, and promptly handed us a 36 point beat down (54-18). Most teams would heed this as a sign that defensive deficiencies needed urgent attention; the Raiders hopped across the ditch to play the Warriors (infamous for a being a hot/cold team), heeding nothing. The Warriors were hot, too hot and gave the Raiders a successive walloping by 42 points (54-12). In the space of two games the Raiders had bled 108 points, answering with a measly 30 of their own.
Fans quickly began calling for heads to roll, for younger talent to be promoted from NYC and NSW cup. Ricky Stuart’s first year as head coach was looking decidedly glum. The club had moved to a new personnel building approach – spend big. With cheque book in hand they courted Michael Ennis, Kevin Proctor, Josh Mansour and James Tedesco. By all accounts the club was willing to spend big on all four players, which in many people’s eyes was dubious move, given factors such as age (Ennis, Proctor) and unknown potential (Tedesco).
Ennis, Proctor and Mansour all declined for various reasons, whilst Tedesco took the bold move of signing on with the Raiders. This coup lasted barely a week, when he suddenly announced that he’d had a change of heart, and wished to remain at the Tigers for the immediate future. Whilst the back flip did sting at that point, it did prove to have a very golden lining later in the year.
That golden lining manifested in two ways: the first was when Tedesco went knee to knee with Terry Campese, ironically coming off worse against one of the most chronically bung knees in the game. Tedesco’s back flip also meant that Canberra still had a stack of dough in the war chest.
While recruitment was proving to be a slow and painful process the club was making good ground on retaining current players. Perennial workhorse super lock Shaun Fensom re-signed for another three years, Dane Tilse agreed to a two year extension and Joel Edwards inked to stay until the end of 2017.
The first sign of things improving was the signing of Sisa Waqa from the Storm. With the departure of Milford (Broncos) and Reece Robinson (Eels) the back line cupboard, while not bare, was in need of a top up. Waqa has proven to be of reasonable quality at the Storm, and will hopefully add some defensive starch to the Raiders fringe in 2015. Fans were somewhat surprised when the next signings came from not within the NRL but the other side of the globe, with the club snaring the services of Hull KR hooker Josh Hodgson and former Roosters player Isaiah Soliola. The decade long hunt for a credible #9 seemed to finally be at an end, with Hodgson being in good form for Hull KR and then going on to secure himself a place in England’s Four Nations squad.
The signings did not however ease the pain of the continued form slump. The Raiders managed to concede another 50 plus points to the Warriors, and also finally had their historic hoodoo over the Dragons broken. Terry Campese found himself more and more on the outer, and with each round and loss the Raiders were closer to a future without Milford at full back.
With the final three rounds looming things had improved, but not necessarily enough to stave off some dire predictions for 2015. Stuart finally gave Mitchell Cornish a full 80 minute whirl against the Sharks in round 23, giving the Raiders a much needed win (while all but handing the Sharks the spoon). Cornish backed this up again in round 24 against Wests, but he wasn’t the only player being scrutinised by Raiders fans and staff. Blake Austin was one of the few Tigers players to menace the Raiders, his skill at #6 readily apparent to all.
The Raiders finished the season with three successive wins, slightly easing the pain of a turbulent year. But while the playing season may have been over, the recruitment saga was still steaming along. Blake Austin and his manager clearly played a well-conceived campaign to allow from his release from a reluctant Wests Tigers. Raiders fans had to wait for over a month, with Austin’s status constantly queried by weekly media nuggets. The length of this even led to all four of us holed up in the Sportress to develop an uncontrollable compulsion to randomly google Blake Austin.
Wests now found themselves in a miserable position – Austin was clearly itching to be released, and given the dramas of Tedesco and the Tigers reluctance to promise him the first shot at five eight Austin finally got what he wanted, swiftly making his way to the Nation’s Capital. Raiders fan by this point were understandably ecstatic – with a mere five signings the club had secured a new hooker, a new five eight, an extra half in Sam Williams, returning from the Dragons, a proven utility in Soliola and quality backline stock in Waqa. Not shabby for a club which is usually shunned by marquee players and the media.
2015 should by all reckoning be a better year for the Green Machine. It will be a leaner squad, with the club having shed a lot of dead wood in terms of fringe players, or those who for whatever reason have spent recent years sidelined. Ricky also has a great chance to shape the direction of the playing group in cultural terms. Jarrod Croker’s appointment as captain for the final three rounds only added to his burgeoning praise sheet, and there can’t be many who’d argue against either he or Fensom leading the team forward over the next few years.
Stuart’s choice to not blood Cornish until late in the season also seems to be paying dividends, and one gets the feeling that Austin with his calm demeanour but equal playing prowess maybe an excellent foil for the young half.
Raiders fans will no doubt spend the rest of the off season fantasising about the 2015 season. I for one know that we four in the Sportress will be pumping out several more pieces in the next few months, examining every possibility of the year ahead. We’ll try and be as objective as possible, but we’re not promising anything!