The Raiders overcame crucial injuries and a lot of travel to make their third preliminary final in five years.
2020 Club Record
Competition Points: 28
2020 Player Achievements
Most Tries: Nick Cotric (14)
Most Points: Jarrod Croker (162)
Coming off last year’s fairytale Grand Final run, Canberra entered 2020 as one of the premiership favourites: it’s a tag they’ve struggled to live up to in the past, as they hadn’t made consecutive finals series’ since 2003-04. While they finished one game short of another grand final in 2020, they did well to get as close as they did, considering all their travel and injuries. Captain Jarrod Croker again led from the front, with 162 points (including 71 goals).
The Raiders started well among the COVID-19 crisis, with comfortable wins against the Gold Coast and the NZ Warriors. Then the competition was suspended for two months, which hurt them.
While the Raiders beat Melbourne at an empty AAMI Park after the recommencement, the realities of the revised competition (especially the constant travel from Canberra to Sydney) soon hit them. They played three straight games at Campbelltown Stadium: two “home” games against Newcastle and Manly Warringah (both losses), and a scratchy win over the Wests Tigers. They looked set for another loss, against Parramatta at Bankwest Stadium, before a Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad double in the last five minutes forced the game into Golden Point. A Clint Gutherson field goal sealed the Eels’ win. To cap off a tough night, they also lost the tenacious Corey Horsburgh for the season. In hindsight, the loss would be crucial: had Canberra won or drawn, they would have finished in the top four.
Canberra finally returned to Bruce for the round eight clash against St George Illawarra: while Canberra fed off the emotion to lead 18-0 at halftime; they weathered a late Dragons comeback to win 22-16. Relief at getting the two points was overshadowed by the long-term injury to the inspirational Sia Soliola. He’d return in round 20 and play the full finals series.
Disaster struck in the controversial rematch against the Storm: not only did the Raiders lose (with Bailey Simonsson incorrectly sin-binned), but Simonsson and Josh Hodgson both suffered season-ending injuries. Nearly everyone drew a big, black mark through Canberra’s premiership hopes. All the travel and injuries had caught up with them, better luck next year.
Canberra went to the SCG to play the Sydney Roosters – in the Grand Final rematch – as massive underdogs. Typical of the Raiders’ fighting spirit, they won 24-20 after trailing 12-6 at halftime. With a favourable run home, maybe the Raiders weren’t done with yet?
While Canberra won eight of their next 10 games (only losing to Penrith and the Sonny Bill Roosters), a nasty habit developed. They conceded the first try in eight straight games, and trailed at half-time against Penrith (24-0), Brisbane (8-6), Canterbury-Bankstown (20-12), and the Roosters (10-6). Despite this, they had enough strike power to rebound and win most games (averaging around six tries a game), including a 30-0 second half against the Broncos, and a 22-0 second half against the Bulldogs. They also had an 8-2 away record.
While Hodgson was missed, Tom Starling and Siliva Havili did a brilliant job in the hooking role, with Havili traditionally starting and Starling coming on late in the first half to take advantage of tired forwards. They also gave a lifeline to former Bulldog Corey Harawira-Naera, who repaid the faith with some strong performances.
Entering round 20, Canberra still had a slim chance of finishing fourth, as long as they beat Cronulla-Sutherland and the Wests Tigers beat Parramatta.
Coach Ricky Stuart seemed happy to finish fifth though, resting a number of frontline players for the Sharks game, giving the ultimate clubman Sam Williams the captaincy, and debuts to Adam Cook, Darby Medlyn, Jarrett Subloo, and Matt Frawley (making his Raiders debut).
The injection of youth worked, as Canberra raced to a 24-4 lead. While the Sharks rallied, the Baby Raiders hung on. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Parramatta beat Wests, which meant a rematch with the Sharks at Bruce in the elimination final.
There was big news before the finals, with Canberra Milk announced as the Raiders’ 2021 major sponsor (and unveiling three new jerseys, including a brilliant heritage design that’s a replica of the mid-90s Milk strip). Now Raiders fans can use the popular #upthemilk hashtag for more that just nostalgic purposes.
Canberra were expected to win the elimination final: they had their stars back, and the Sharks were crucially missing Shaun Johnson.
Maybe the sense of occasion got to Canberra, as the Sharks led 14-6 leading into halftime. An opportune intercept try to George Williams (scoring two for the game) cut the deficit to four and signalled a momentum change. Two tries to Jack Wighton sealed a comfortable Raiders win, and booked another trip to the SCG against the Roosters.
Canberra finally came to play in the semi-final, racing to a 16-0 lead after 22 minutes (tries to Josh Papalii, Williams, and Joseph Tapine). While the Roosters got within four points, a wonderful try to Wighton (from an off-spinning Williams grubber that clean bowled James Tedesco), gave Canberra a 22-12 lead. While the Roosters scored a late try, Canberra hung on 22-18. Though it wouldn’t erase last year’s grand final loss, knocking the Roosters out in straight sets was sweet revenge.
While Canberra hadn’t won at Lang Park since 2010, they fancied themselves in the preliminary final against Melbourne, with three wins from their past five against the Storm (including last year’s qualifying final). There was one huge roadblock, with the Raiders forced to fly in and fly out on of Brisbane on game day, and unable to stay in a hotel, which angered Stuart. While not an excuse, the setback seemed to affect the Raiders, with Melbourne leading 24-0 after 24 minutes. Nick Cotric (in his final Raiders game) scored a try as the Raiders trailed 24-6 at halftime. Canberra had plenty of chances in the second half, but couldn’t execute: perhaps the exhaustion of 21 straight weeks of footy was starting to set in. Cotric scored his second try with nine minutes left, but it was too late, with Melbourne winning 30-10. It was a sad farewell for an emotional John Bateman, who was heading home to Wigan.
Despite the disappointing exit, Canberra can be proud of their 2020 season, backing up their fairytale 2019 season with a second-straight preliminary final. There was a nice consolation prize the following Monday night, with Wighton winning the Dally M Medal, beating his more fancied rivals Nathan Cleary and Gutherson.
Canberra finished with four Origin representatives: Cotric and Wighton for NSW; and Dunamis Lui and Josh Papalii for Queensland. Lui’s Origin cap was a fine reward for one of the Raiders’ most improved players. Again, there was no love for Jarrod Croker: while he’ll probably break every existing Raiders record before he retires, he may never win an Origin or Test jersey. Wighton and Papalii both scored tries in Origin II.
While they’ll miss Bateman and Cotric, Canberra will be eyeing a top four finish in 2021, and should push for another grand final.
NothingButLeague Players of the Season
Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton
Joint winners of the 2020 Mal Meninga Medal (Papalii’s third in row), both players were instrumental in taking Canberra to the preliminary final.
A year after his preliminary final heroics, Big Papa played in 22 of Canberra’s 23 games (only missing the round 20 game against the Sharks), a testament to his durability considering they played 21 straight games from late May. Papa had 1207.7 post-contact metres, averaged 13 hit ups, and made nearly 700 tackles with a tackling efficiency of 96.2%. While the Raiders fell into a nasty habit of slow starts against lower-ranked teams, Papa’s energy was the catalyst for their comebacks and eventual victories. He scored the opening try in the semi-final against the Roosters, which gave the Raiders the fast start they needed.
After winning last year’s Clive Churchill Medal, Wighton has raised his game to another level. While the mistakes were still there, he quickly made up for it with a big play. He also combined well with George Williams and was durable, only missing the round 20 game against the Sharks.
He started the season with a try double against the Gold Coast Titans, and always stepped up with a crucial try when Canberra needed it, especially in the first two finals. He scored a crucial double in the elimination final against the Sharks: trailing 14-10 at halftime, Wighton scored a brace early in the second half to give Canberra the lead, which they never relinquished. He also scored a crucial try in the semi-final against the Roosters. The maturity to a game-breaking player has been pleasing, and shows that “The God of Footy” (an affectionate nickname from the Green Machine Podcast boys) is ready to take his game to even higher levels.
2021 GAINS AND LOSSES
Caleb Aekins (Penrith Panthers, 2021), Corey Harawira-Naera (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2022), Ryan James (Gold Coast Titans, 2022), Harry Rushton (2023).
John Bateman (Wigan Warriors), Luke Bateman (released), JJ Collins (released), Nick Cotric (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Jack Murchie (New Zealand Warriors).