The success of the Canberra Raiders in 2016 has seen them become the pick of the punditry for the 2017 National Rugby League Premiership. With the play of the likes of Hodgson, Papalii, Whitehead, Leilua, Hodgson and Hodgson in 2016 it’s not hard to see why. But before the good people of the nation’s capital start booking their spot on the Murray’s bus up the Federal Highway in October, there is something we all need to consider.
Dave Taylor is important to the Canberra Raiders 2017 premiership ambitions.
Yes that Dave Taylor. The one who was unceremoniously dumped by the Titans in 2015. The one who was charged with cocaine possession in 2016. The one who didn’t have a side last November. The one who looked like he’d eaten a deep-fried pillow last December.
Taylor in 2017 is a lot different to Taylor in 2016 or 2015 though. He famously lost 9 kilograms this summer. He most likely will play a different role to the wide-running role he played in his peak, instead lining up with the Raiders props in the middle of the park.
Lachlan Croker, who played all of a half of first grade last season, is also going to be very important for the Raiders this year. So is Adam Clydsdale, who barely got on to the ground in 2016, and didn’t impress when he did.
Success in the National Rugby League requires performance from all 25 playing squad members. With the top eight scheduled to be loaded this year Taylor, Croker and Clydsdale represent the difference between what Raiders fans are really starting to think – premierships – and what the gambling agencies are used to expecting of them.
Oh sure, if things go well none of these players will play more than a bit part role this season.
Take a journey with me back in time to round five of 2016. The Raiders middle forwards (props and locks) that night – Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Jeff Lima, Shaun Fensom, Jo Tapine and Paul Vaughan. Did you know at that time that Clay Priest or Luke Bateman would be the bench unit that would power the Raiders in the middle of games? I didn’t. I didn’t know who Clay Priest was then.
Success in the middle of games, when the first-string props had given way to the bench unit, was heavily correlated with Raiders success last year. In wins, the Raiders scored 9.1 points in the second twenty minutes of games (compared to 6.4 in the first twenty). In losses, the Raiders averaged 1.7 points in this second twenty minutes (compared to 4.6 points in the first twenty). Logically, you’d expect a drop-off in points scored in losses. But I think from this we can draw a conclusion that when the Raiders bench forwards didn’t outshine their counterparts, the side struggled. It’s fair to say that the success of the bench forwards will be of critical importance to the Raiders this season.
While one may be tempted to suggest that Taylor is just squad depth, he is the cherry on the top of a pack forged last season. While there is no doubt Luke Bateman, Jo Tapine, Clay Priest and Jeff Lima will do the bulk of the heavy lifting this year, here is a comprehensive pictorial list of forwards that played every game for the Raiders last year:
Chances are Dave Taylor plays for the Raiders this year regardless of if he’s in Coach Stuart’s first choice 17.
The Raiders were the thinking man’s dark horse to make the finals at the start of last year, particularly after Mitchell Pearce found himself sitting on the sidelines because he thought…well, it’s not clear he thought at all. In the first half of the first week against eventual finalists Penrith, the Raiders managed to lose not one, but both starting halves with multiple week injuries. Luckily the Raiders had a first grade quality half in Sam Williams to hold the fort until Austin and Sezer came back from injury. Elliot Whitehead showed he had a five-eighths mind (and skill-set) in a behemoths body. Without their starting halves, the Raiders stayed afloat, going 1-1-1 during that period (oh that draw with Newcastle. What a thing!).
This season Sam Williams has left the NRL. That means if an injury happens in the halves it’s fairly likely Lachlan Croker will be back in first grade. He fits more obviously as a replacement for Blake Austin. He projects to be a better ball player than Austin (not a high bar at this stage). But where he will feel the most pain is in defence, something Austin has had his share of trouble with. This puts more pressure on the Raiders right-side defence, giving more work to the back-rowers and centres to protect the edge.
Josh Hodgson played through a few injuries last year. He hurt his ankle more than once. For much of the season he played sixty minutes a game, used as a utility forward or an extra half while Kurt Baptiste filled in around the ruck.
Kurt Baptiste is likely to miss most of this season with a torn achilles. We’ve covered the impacts of his absence here, but in short it means either more time for Josh Hodgson (and consequently higher injury risk) or more time for Adam Clydsdale.
In multiple games last year, Baptiste provided the Raiders offence with spark at the back of games. Trailing 24-0 against the Broncos last year, Baptiste almost single-handedly engineered a small comeback for the Raiders, bringing them within striking distance by the end of the game.
Successful sides get contributions like that from bit players. They’re not every-week requirements but premierships are won on the backs of contributions from all twenty-five squad members. If the Raiders are to be a contender this year these players will be needed.
 Yes, you can take that previously annual ‘Raiders favourites to come last’ and shove it right up your date.
 A note to footballers. You are never funny. Ever. Not even in a dress or with a dog.