The summer weather is slowly fading away, the cool night winds bringing a new season to Canberra. Which means it’s time for the NRL season to start. The Raiders began their 2017/18 off-season in the worst possible way, with star hooker Josh Hodgson damaging his ACL during a very pointless world cup game. Thankfully the worst thing after that was the induction of Papalii, Paulo and Leilua into Ricky’s “fat camp” (it’s where you have to train harder and smarter).
The Raiders also managed to survive the off-season with minimal personnel disruption, although they did let go of three under-study playmakers in Baptiste, Clark and Clydsdale (how Baptiste can fit under the Roosters wafer thin cap we’ll never know). Incoming players included prodigal son Sam Williams and newcomer Charlie Gubb, along with a smattering of bargain forwards to help replenish the Raiders weirdly understocked Forwards Pantry tm.
The Raiders managed to lose their one and only trial game against the Bulldogs, and the summer rolled on, finally giving way to March and the sudden realisation that (a) Footy was less than a week away and (b) I had to write this Rumble quick smart.
In round 1 the Raiders must hit the road, making their way up to Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast, where they face off against the Titans. Like the Raiders the Titans are looking to bounce back from a lacklustre 2017 – they lost their coach and then the marquee player who ousted the coach, meaning that they were essentially free to start all over again with whatever they had left. They made a key signing of Bryce Cartwright, who had outstayed his welcome in Penrith, and managed to retain their young halves pairing of Elgey and Taylor despite approaches on Taylor from North of the Wall.
The Raiders forward pack performance was one of the lowlights of 2017. In multiple games they failed to find that extra ounce of energy that not only allows a forward line muscle up in attack but also grants them fortitude in defence.
Admittedly the roster was hit by various injuries throughout the season, but the less than stellar showing by the starting players and their bench substitutes demonstrated that only the most committed 17 can win a game.
Boyd owned up to a quiet year, and fans will be keen to see whether or not he’s ready to throw himself into the defensive line to wreak maximum havoc. Likewise Junior Paulo, who is now the teams lone barge-arse now that Dave Taylor is gone.
Papa should be match trim by this point, and can hopefully return to his Origin level intensity from the kick-off. Whitehead takes up the full time lock duties. Tapine could be on the verge of a truly bust-out-year as an 80 minute edge forward.
Against them are the likes of Proctor, James, Cartwright, Latu and Jai Arrow. The Titans forward pack is a mix of veteran toughness (Proctor and James) combined with the likes of Arrow and his younger peers. I can’t really say much about them at this point, but it goes without saying that every opposition forward pack must be treated with respect and grit. If the Raiders big men clock off against them they will be in trouble.
A Mighty Fine Spine
With Hodgson sidelined the speculation game hit overdrive. Mulholland and Stuart signed both Craig Garvey and Siliva Havili, and then spent the off-season pitting the two in a battle for the top hooking job. To spice it up Stuart then began musing about pushing Austin into the hooking role. The return of Williams meant sudden halves depth, and so Stuart found himself in the enviable spot of too many playmakers, not enough positions.
The final reveal shows that Williams has regained the #7 jumper, with Sezer sliding into #6. This is a good move, as both of them can kick, while Sezer can take up the running duties of Austin, who has been moved to the bench. Havili has edged Garvey for the starting #9 spot, although this could possibly change in future games.
Williams in particular, is a player who can do great things when in the zone (2012 Sharks final!), and if he can keep a level of good consistency may become the perfect foil for Sezer.
Opposite them are the trio of Ash Taylor, Kane Elgey and Nathan Peats. Peats is definitely one of the better hookers in the comp and can provide quick ball to his young halves. Taylor is an impressive player for one so young, and hasn’t tailed off like so many young players do after a breakout year in a crucial role. Raiders defenders will need to move up quickly, but carefully, to avoid any gaps or broken field that could be exploited by these three.
You Can Do It (Put Your Backs Into It)
The Raiders still boast one of the best backlines in the comp: Wighton, Croker, Cotric, Leilua, Rapana. If the forwards clear space for the halves then these five become near unstoppable. Wighton can be an exceptional pop-up playmaker when given space, and the two wing combos are near equal for ability and entertainment value (Croker and Cotric are just more humble).
The Titans have welcomed Michael Gordon to their custodian role, a double threat as he excels as a goal-kicker. Add in Anthony Don and Konrad Hurrell and they have a competent, if not superstar backline.
Off The Pine
Austin commences life in 2018 as a bench player, with Stuart hoping he’ll inject a shot of energy into games as oppositions start to flag. His running game has been somewhat stymied after 2015-16, so it will be interesting to see if this new role can return him to his early form. Dunamis Lui returns from his busted leg of last year to pair up with super-legend man Sia Soliola, adding a lot of desperately needed punch to a bench that was sorely missed last year.
Also Luke Bateman is there instead of Charlie Gubb. Don’t ask me why.
The Titans are running a similar bench, with the capable Mitch Rein acting as a utility, while King, Matthews and Boyle make up their subs.
Where It Can Be Won
With the absence of Hodgson it becomes a very simple plan for the Raiders – get on top early. Not necessarily on the scoreboard, although that would be ace, but in terms of game control. Chase those kicks into the red zone and pressure returning players. Muscle up in defence. Complete sets. If they can rattle the Titans in the first 15 minutes then they will have gone a long way to winning the arm wrestle.
Raiders by 10!