For 15 minutes in the second half at Townsville, the bad old Faiders looked to have returned. For long-suffering fans (who’d seen more capitulations than Simpsons re-runs), the familiar ‘here we go again’ dread returned as Canberra made numerous unforced errors and gave away silly penalties. Leading 18-12 after a dominant first half (10-0 after 25 minutes and 18-6 after 44), they would have certainly lost this in 2018 and 2017.
This time they hung on.
Admittedly, North Queensland were worse than Canberra, with a 64 per cent completion rate, 29 missed tackles and 15 errors. A better team would have punished Canberra’s sloppiness. While the Cowboys are missing the two JTs (the retired Thurston and injured Taumalolo), for a team yet to leave Queensland after the first month, their 1-3 record is disappointing.
Canberra finished with 78 per cent completion, 25 missed tackles and nine errors, yet found a way to win.
Though it’s only round four, there’s signs Canberra might shake the dreaded Faiders tag. So far they’ve beaten Gold Coast (away), Newcastle (home) and North Queensland (away). While the Titans and Cowboys will be closer to the bottom four, Newcastle have the potential to play finals. Importantly, Canberra are beating teams they should beat and you can chalk the Melbourne loss down to a poor start after a five-day turnaround (with Melbourne enjoying a luxurious eight-day break). Last year’s strong finish, with late wins against the Sydney Roosters and Souths, gave the 2019 Raiders momentum which they’re cashing in on.
A healthy Josh Hodgson has made a huge difference. He’s averaged 152 kicking metres a game, made 143 tackles and averaged 40.7 running metres. Hodgson – combined with Croker’s tenacious leadership (he orchestrated the mini-comeback against Melbourne when a blowout loss looked likely) and Rapana’s surprise early return – gives Canberra some belief.
This is a big deal, as all those close losses would’ve affected the players mentally. Getting these early wins gives the team some confidence and belief that they can win close games. Some fresh faces in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (outstanding at fullback so far), John Bateman, Ryan Sutton, Hudson Young and everyone’s new favourite ranga Corey Horsburgh has turned the team around. No more living off the memories of 2016.
So where to now for Canberra? They have two tough home games against an impressive Parramatta and Brisbane (while the Broncos are struggling, they’re still dangerous) and play the Sydney Roosters (in Brisbane) and South Sydney in round nine and ten. Aside from Josh Papalii and maybe Nick Cotric, Canberra won’t be affected by Origin, which will help. They probably won’t threaten the top dogs in Melbourne, the Roosters and Souths, but they should push for the top eight and go from there.
After two horrible years, Canberra fans will welcome it.