2019 marks the 25th anniversary of Canberra’s last Premiership triumph in 1994 with the Green Machine holding the second longest current Premiership drought – behind Parramatta (1986).
The Raiders have only featured in three preliminary finals from 1995 to 2018, with their most recent coming in their outstanding 2016 campaign. Canberra stampeded to second place after a run of ten consecutive victories and an exciting team that produced a remarkable 736 points, averaging 27 points a game.
The 2016 season was the best chance for Ricky Stuart’s side to bring some glory back to the Nation’s capital however the club failed to gain momentum off the back of 2016 and have struggled to qualify for the finals in the past two years despite having a side stacked with talent.
English duo Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead have been consistent performers for the struggling team while Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua and Nick Cotric have always been capable of producing match-winning attacking plays. Influential leaders like Jarrod Croker and Josh Papalii have also been two of the club’s best players over the last decade however they’ve only managed 11 finals matches between them.
Why the Raiders are under pressure
Although they didn’t lose any major starting players following their 2016 season, the Raiders slumped to two 10th place finishes in 2017 and 2018. Canberra have had problems with late-game collapses in recent seasons which ended up leaving them a couple of wins short as a result, and giving them the unwanted nickname, the ‘Faders.’
At the end of 2018, the Raiders lost their most intimidating factor – the front row duo of Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo. Weighing a combined 242 kg, the damaging enforcers were key to laying the platform for the Raiders’ attack and for their lively rake Hodgson to punch holes in the defence. Ryan Sutton and John Bateman add to the club’s English flavour but there’s still a lack of forwards depth. Josh Papalii is set to start the season as one of the starting props alongside veteran Sia Soliola, although any major injuries would test the side’s inexperienced back-ups options.
Blake Austin departed after a four-year spell with Canberra, scoring 34 tries in 88 games. Austin showed his exhilarating talent throughout his time in the ACT, even pushing claims for Origin selection however he lost some consistency and was let go. Instead of using specialist half Sam Williams, Ricky Stuart has opted to test a new halves partnership in 2019, pushing fullback Jack Wighton to the five-eighth role alongside Aidan Sezer.
Where the Raiders can succeed in 2019
The Raiders still have one of the most exciting back-lines in the league. The combination ‘Leipana’ is still alive, despite Jordan Rapana set to miss a third of the season due to injury. NSW hopeful Nick Cotric, the ever-reliable Jarrod Croker and new signing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad all have plenty of tries in them. The Raiders scored the second most points in the competition after the regular season, despite finishing 10th, displaying that their defence and mentality is their weakest link.
Josh Hodgson has had a full pre-season under his belt after an injury in the 2017 World Cup derailed most of his 2018 campaign. Hodgson is easily one of the best hookers in the game on his day and pushed for the Dally M Medal in 2016, showing how crucial he is to his side.
If Ricky Stuart keeps his team’s attack on song, and has managed to rectify their late fades in tight games, the Raiders can still reach the finals. If they fail to make the finals though it may signal the end of Stuart’s six-year tenure as coach with only one finals appearance to his name. The role of the young forwards at the club, the maintenance of a fit and healthy squad and the Jack Wighton at No.6 experiment will all have a major say in the future of ‘Sticky’ and the success of the Raiders in 2019.