As the National Rugby League season draws closer, we look at how the Canberra Raiders will go in 2020.
Canberra will be looking to improve on an amazing 2019. Can they celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1990 title with their fourth premiership?
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
George Williams (Wigan), Curtis Scott (Storm).
Aidan Sezer (Huddersfield), Joey Leilua (Wests Tigers), Jordan Rapana (rugby union), Brad Abbey, Ata Hingano, Royce Hunt, Reuben Porter (released).
TOP 30 SQUAD: John Bateman, Luke Bateman, JJ Collins, Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Emre Guler, Siliva Havili, Josh Hodgson, Corey Horsburgh, Sebastian Kris, Dunamis Lui, Jack Murchie, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Michael Oldfield, Josh Papalii, Curtis Scott, Bailey Simonsson, Harley Smith-Shields, Sia Soliola, Tom Starling, Ryan Sutton, Joseph Tapine, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, George Williams, Sam Williams, Hudson Young.
SPOTS AVAILABLE: three.
DEVELOPMENT SQUAD: Darby Medlyn, Andre Niko, Kai O’Donnell, Jarrett Subloo, Semi Valemi, Matt Frawley.
Gold Coast (H), Warriors (A), St. George-Illawarra (H), Manly-Warringah (H), Penrith (A).
WHAT TO EXPECT
Canberra surprised everyone by nearly winning the 2019 premiership. After a strong start, they were a tenuous 7-5 at the halfway point, but won eight of their last twelve to finish fourth. Then they upset Melbourne in Melbourne (for the second time in a month), and nearly blew Bruce Stadium apart with joy during their preliminary final win against Souths. They matched it with the Sydney Roosters for 70 minutes in the grand final, and could have won with a bit of luck.
It was a big year off-field; with the club celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1989 premiership, Canberra embracing their Raiders as they marched to the grand final, and the club’s history book Absolutely Bleeding Green was released in time for Christmas. With Manuka Oval hosting its first cricket Test in February, the Canberra Capitals winning the WNBL, and the ACT Brumbies making the Super Rugby semis, it was a wonderful year for ACT sports.
The 2020 season is crucial, as Canberra have a nasty history of struggling the following year after making the finals. The shock preliminary final appearance in 2016 was followed by tenth place finishes in 2017 and 2018. Canberra haven’t made consecutive finals series’ since 2003-04 (just scraping into the eight in 2004). Unlike last year, the Raiders won’t have the element of surprise: they’ll be seen as a big scalp. Losing John Bateman until round seven or eight (after off-season shoulder surgery) is a huge blow. How will they Raiders cope with the mental shift from ‘hunter’ to ‘hunted’ and Bateman’s early absence?
Like most successful teams, Canberra have lost a few players: Aidan Sezer has gone to Huddersfield, Jordan Rapana is off Japanese rugby, and BJ Leilua has joined his brother Luciano at the Wests Tigers. They gain Melbourne’s Curtis Scott and Wigan’s George Williams.
A couple of years ago, Jack Wighton was unpopular at Bruce Stadium. He made regular mistakes and missed the second half of 2018 due to his off-field issues. A brave move to five-eighth (allowing the amazing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to flourish at fullback) paid off beautifully. While Wighton took a while to polish his kicking game, any mistakes were followed by a big play to make up for it. He was tremendous in the grand final, scoring Canberra’s only try, and was a deserved Clive Churchill Medal winner. That form translated to Origin and Test honours. Now everyone loves the ‘God of Footy.’ With George Williams replacing Sezer, Wighton will need to shoulder more responsibility while Williams gets settled. Williams has played nearly 200 games for Wigan, and has represented England, so he should be fine. The question is how quickly will he and Wighton click?
After a recent focus on international players, the Melbourne Storm’s Curtis Scott is the Raiders’ big local signing. He comes from arguably the most consistent club in the NRL. While he’s only played 49 NRL games, he’s already played in two grand finals for the Storm (2017 and 2018), which could help the Raiders if they play deep into September again. Unfortunately, Scott’s boozy Australia Day antics could jeopardise his Raiders debut. Watch this space.
Canberra play eleven games against fellow finalists from last year: they play the Sydney Roosters, Manly-Warringah, South Sydney, and Melbourne twice; with single games against Brisbane, Cronulla-Sutherland, and Parramatta. They travel to Queensland (twice), Perth (a grand final rematch against the Roosters), Melbourne, Tamworth, and take a home game to Wagga Wagga. They play just three 2019 finals teams in the first eleven rounds (Manly-Warringah, South Sydney, Sydney Roosters).
Top Tryscorer – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
Top Point Scorer – Jarrod Croker.
Club Player of the Year – Jack Wighton.
WHERE WILL THE CANBERRA RAIDERS FINISH?
Canberra should be a top four contender and push for another grand final. They’ll be driven by the pain of last year’s grand final loss, and they were too good last year not to back it up, showing more steel in defence and a mental toughness that hasn’t been there for years.