Canberra started 2019 as top eight hopefuls. They ended as valiant runners up.
2019 Club Record
Competition Points: 32
2019 Player Achievements
Mal Meninga Medal Player of the Year: Josh Papalii
Most Tries: Jarrod Croker (13)
Most Points: Croker (228)
Canberra had an incredible year, rising from mid-table ‘faiders’ to the top four and their first grand final in 25 years, fittingly during the 30th anniversary of their 1989 premiership.
Canberra recruited smartly, looking overseas to sign NZ Warriors reserve grader Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and Wigan’s John Bateman (Dally M Second Rower of the Year) and Ryan Sutton (joining fellow poms Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead). Bateman and CNK had brilliant years and were instant fan favourites. CNK delighted with his on-field dependability, his “Green Arrow” celebrations and his off-field generosity, while Bateman drove the Raiders with his winning attitude (playing in an impressive 17 wins and 6 losses). Local debutants Bailey Simonsson (21 games) and Corey Horsburgh (22) became established first graders and both played in the grand final.
After two years of throwing away wins, Canberra based their resurgence on defence, conceding 374 regular season points, an average of 15.58. They held the Gold Coast, Parramatta and the Wests Tigers to nil, only lost one game by double figures (twelve against Melbourne in round two). The other nine losses were by six points or less. This time Canberra were competing every week, rather than blowing big leads (except against Parramatta in Darwin).
After 11 rounds, Canberra were a wobbly 6-5. While they lost Jack Wighton, Nick Cotric and Josh Papalii to Origin, Canberra won 9 of their next 13 to finish fourth with a 15-9 record. Arguably the biggest win was against Melbourne in round 22. Criticised for a poor record against fellow top four teams, Canberra looked gone at 18-0 down, before two tries to captain Jarrod Croker, and one each to Jordan Rapana and Josh Papalii gave Canberra a 22-18 win. They returned to Melbourne for the qualifying final and did it again, winning 12-10 and going straight to a home preliminary final.
Arguably the biggest game in Bruce Stadium/Canberra Stadium/GIO Stadium history, over 26,000 watched Canberra beat Souths 16-10, sealed by a late Papalii try. Canberrans were overjoyed, with the city painted green in the pre-grand final week.
While the Roosters were logical favourites, Canberra were overwhelming sentimental favourites. Raiders fans travelled down for the long weekend, while neutrals wore lime green for the night. After an electric Viking Clap (with Mal Meninga blowing the horn), the Roosters led 8-0 early, though the lead up to Sam Verrills’ try was controversial. Jack Wighton (a worthy Clive Churchill Medallist), pulled Canberra within two at halftime, before Croker levelled the scores early in the second half. Canberra were gaining momentum, the Roosters looked tired, and it seemed a matter of time before they broke. Jordan Rapana came closest to scoring, but BJ Leilua’s pass was forward. It took THAT six again call to interrupt Canberra’s flow, before James Tedesco’s try broke Canberra’s hearts.
Despite the loss (and the social media storm that followed), Canberra lost few friends: they held their composure on the game’s biggest stage, against the defending premiers, and nearly won. When the hurt eventually fades, pride will take over. Canberra not only made the grand final, they galvanised a city. Coach Ricky Stuart, who looked in trouble if Canberra had another poor year, was the Raiders’ favourite son again. It was a good year for ACT sports: Manuka Oval hosted its first cricket Test match, the Canberra Capitals won the WNBL title, and the ACT Brumbies made the Super Rugby semi finals.
There were plenty of Raiders who enjoyed brilliant years:
Co-captains Jarrod Croker and Josh Hodgson led the side brilliantly. Croker passed 250 games (kicking 88 goals and eclipsing Jason Croker as the club’s leading try-scorer) and should break every Raiders’ point-scoring record before he retires, though he’d probably swap it all for a premiership.
Hodgson missed a few games with injury, but when fit, he steered the side around from dummy half and engineered Canberra’s attack. He’ll enjoy having fellow Englishman George Williams as a potential halves partner.
Iosia Soliola was brilliant both on-field and off-field. Playing his 200th game in the grand final, he made 615 tackles this year (92.7% efficiency rate), averaged nearly 100 running metres a game and also averaged nearly 10 hit-ups a game. He delighted fans with the post-game Viking Clap, banging on superfan Simon Tayoun’s drum. He was a worthy winner of the Ken Stephen Medal for all his off-field work. He epitomised the community spirit that surrounds the 2019 Raiders. They’re not just an NRL club, they’re Canberra’s team.
Aidan Sezer didn’t establish himself until round 12, but didn’t miss a game after that. His improved kicking game led to three field goals in the Golden Point win at Shark Park that sealed a top four spot. With George Williams’s arrival, will Sezer stay and fight for his spot, or will he go elsewhere?
Arguably the biggest redemption story was Jack Wighton. After missing a chunk of 2018 with his off-field issues, Wighton switched to five-eighth (allowing new cult hero Nicoll-Klokstad to establish himself at fullback), made his Origin debut, won the Clive Churchill Medal and will make his Kangaroos debut later this year. While Wighton made some mistakes as he refined his kicking game, any errors were followed with a big redeeming defensive effort. Hopefully the rumours of Wighton wanting to leave are unfounded.
Canberra’s 2020 pre-season will be crucial, as the progress of 2016 was ruined by disappointing 2017 and 2018 seasons. Losing the grand final will ensure they’ll be desperate for redemption. They’ll continue getting strong support at Bruce Stadium next year, so if they can build on 2019, Raiders fans could see something special on the 30th anniversary of the 1990 premiership.
NothingButLeague Player of the Season
While Jarrod Croker lead the season in tries and overall points, Josh Papalii was a deserved Mal Meninga Medal winner. He played 26 games in 2019, scoring 6 tries, including the match-winners against Melbourne in round 22 and South Sydney in the preliminary final. He could have added to that in the grand final if not for Cooper Cronk’s early tackle on him. While the referees decided not to award a penalty try, Papa would’ve been hard to stop so close to the line. Papa was dangerous with the ball (1373.6 post-contact metres, 13.3 average hit ups, 31 offloads, 147.3 average running metres) and without the ball (736 tackles at 93.8% tackle efficiency). He also played all three Origins for Queensland.
2020 GAINS AND LOSSES
George Williams (Wigan Warriors, 2022).
Brad Abbey (released), Ata Hingano (released), Royce Hunt (released).
Luke Bateman (2020), Emre Guler (2021), Corey Horsburgh (2022), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (2023), Bailey Simonsson (2023), Ryan Sutton (2022), Elliott Whitehead (2022).
Sebastian Kris, Andre Niko, Brendan O’Hagan, Kyle Paterson, Reuben Porter, Jordan Rapana, Harley Smith-Shields, Sam Williams.