The Raiders 2016 season will go down as one of the best experiences a long-suffering organisation can have. Years of irrelevance, followed by a rebuild that hopefully provides the foundation for success, then an explosion of football joy. This was not an inevitable process; indeed, there was a fragility to what the Raiders achieved in 2015. Keeping it together over 2017 won’t be easy.
For starters the competition is going to improve. An unusually flat competition means there could be as many as seven premiership contenders outside of the Raiders next year. The Sharks may miss Michael Ennis, but more experience and involvement from Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes may alleviate the hurt. The Broncos reload every year, and Anthony Milford will only get better. The Cowboys have Jonathon Thurston and James Taumalolo, which seems to guarantee them a top 4 spot despite their ageing pack. The Storm will roll out Cronkbot and Cam Smith for another crack, and have Billy Slater potentially coming back.
Even if one of these sides manages to fall-off, the Parramatta Eels and the Sydney Roosters will be resurgent in 2017. They are just a year removed from dominating the 2015 regular season in a historical manner. Despite losing most of their side to injury, the Keiran Foran saga, and whatever you call their administrative problems, the Eels still managed to put together enough wins that would have put them in the playoffs if not for the NRL’s salary cap penalty. They had the second best defence in the league. They will only be better in 2017.
And this doesn’t even mention the up-and-coming sides such as the Panthers, Tigers and the Titans, who may have over-performed this year, but also Matt Moylan, Ash Taylor and Luke Brooks may actually just be good. The Bulldogs will be looking at the 2016 Sharks and be thinking “Why not us?” Some of these teams will fall over in 2017. But finishing in the top four will be hard to repeat – for any side- despite what happened in 2016.
Fixating on a repeat of 2016 is a trap for the Raiders. Is there any space for BJ Leilua or Josh Hodgson to improve much on their respective 2016s? Jordan Rapana’s form may be a ‘new normal’ for him, but it also may have been a career year, one that he may go close to, but ultimately fail, in replication next year.
The Raiders will have the obstacles of the competition being prepared for them. They moved Rugby League forwards by dragging it backwards this year. Their play recalled the style of the mid-1990s, eschewing the ubiquitous tactics of the modern game (think block runners, rinse and repeat) in preference for a more expansive style that relied more on individual players ability to dominate one of one match-ups. Next year when Blake Austin simply shuffles to the right hand attack and hopes for BJ and Rapana to dominate, defensive structures will be waiting for it.
The Raiders also are unlikely to have the depth that kept the squad afloat despite some difficult injuries. The Raiders lost both halves after week one and still managed to keep touch with the competition – they have now lost Sam Williams to the Super League. They carried Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom, Jarryd Kennedy and Jeff Lima in Mounties for large parts of the season. Paul Vaughan is now gone, Fensom may well follow, and all of a sudden the Raiders are a little less stacked than a year ago.
But that doesn’t mean that the Raiders are necessarily going to come back to the pack next year. For starters those players that dominated last season are likely to dominate again next season. Even if players like Josh Hodgson and BJ Leilua regress slightly in 2017, they would still likely be close to the best at their position in the competition. Jarrod Croker was impeccable in 2016 because he’s incredibly skilled; the improvements he made (in defence mostly) are hardly likely to disappear into thin air. Elliot Whitehead, Sia Soliola and Josh Papalii are in their physical primes.
Moreso than that there is plenty of improvement in this squad. As outlined in Part II of this review, the halves never quite reached their potential in 2016. Injuries and a lack of time together early in 2016 can’t have helped. They began to find a way forward – as evidenced by the eventual ‘back-to-the-future’ approach of moving Austin outside Sezer. But there is scope for better play from both Sezer and Austin. Wighton’s best form was at the end of the season, and his error ridden beginning to 2016 is unlikely to be repeated. Boyd and Paulo are now undoubtable as the starting props in this side, and one hopes that Boyd benefits from his Four Nations experience this spring.
The Raiders have a settled 17, depth at most positions and some potential talent to bring through the ranks – most notably, Lachlan Croker, Nick Cotric and maybe Rhys Kennedy can be expected to play a bigger role next year. The side will retain its key talent in the medium term, and it seems unlikely that any more talent will need to be forced out of the squad in the near future by cap pressures after Vaughan’s departure.
It won’t be easy next year, but the future remains bright in Canberra. The foundations are in place to compete for premierships. The expectations can be nowhere but high. Only time will tell if the Raiders can handle them.