2021 Canberra Raiders Team Review

Andrew Pelechaty reviews Canberra’s fall from grace from 2020 preliminary finalists to 2021 also-rans.

2021 Club Record

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Wins: 10
Losses: 14
Competition Points: 22

2021 Player Achievements

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Most Tries: Jordan Rapana (12)
Most Points: Jarrod Croker (80)

Season Summary

Our hopes and expectations
Black holes and revelations
– Muse, “Starlight.”

The above lyrics from UK alternative/prog/art/hard rock band Muse perfectly sums up Canberra’s horrible season:

Our hopes and expectations: nearly everyone expected Canberra to challenge for the top four again and maybe push for another grand final; like an opening batter who’s seen off the new ball on a spicy wicket, this was Canberra’s time to cash in after a tumultuous – but still successful – 2020, defying key injuries and a lot of inconvenient travel to make the preliminary final.

Black holes: the black holes of 2021 included a five-game losing streak (with unforgivable second half collapses against North Queensland and Newcastle), the return of the dreaded “Faders” tag (losing at least half-a-dozen games after leading at halftime), and the abysmal loss to the Gold Coast at Bruce Stadium. There was a real 2017/18 vibe to this season, as the Raiders struggled with the increased pace of V’landysball and wilted far too easily. If the Raiders led at halftime – regardless of how big the margin was – the same old “here we go again” dread returned when they conceded the first try in the second half.

Revelations: there was plenty of drama, including:

  • George Williams’ sudden mid-season departure due to “homesickness” (which quickly got ugly)
  • the revolving door of fullbacks.

Embiggened by Canberra Milk’s return as major sponsor (and the excellent 1994 Heritage jersey, which made all the money in the world), the Raiders started well, with three wins by Easter, though their one loss to the Warriors was almost farcical: they lost Joe Tapine (ankle), Ryan James (HIA), and Sebastian Kris (HIA), gave up a 31-10 lead, had a try to the Warriors’ Ben Murdoch-Masila allowed despite an obvious forward pass, and the game-winning try to Jordan Rapana was denied by the “Hand of Roger” tackle.

While the Round Five loss to Penrith wasn’t too bad, losing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was vital, and it started the Raiders’ fullback curse: losing Bailey Simonsson and Xavier Savage to injury, while Caleb Aekins played seven games before being dumped. At least Rapana (the Mal Meninga Medal winner and easily the Raiders’ best of 2021) was a reliable fill-in at fullback, allowing Ricky Stuart to ease CNK back in later in the season.

The Titans loss was the undeniable rock bottom: while the Raiders had comfortably beaten them on Easter Saturday night, the Gold Coast side that came to Canberra made the Raiders look amateur, leading 22-0 at halftime and winning 44-6. It was so bad that hardy Raiders fans started walking out mid-way through the second half. Unfortunately, this was Canberra’s last home game before the competition was shifted to Queensland due to COVID-19.

At least the Raiders got the message, rallying with three straight wins (against an Turbo-less Manly-Warringah, Cronulla-Sutherland, and Parramatta). The Eels win was arguably their best of the year and a throwback to their defence-oriented 2019 grand final run. Unfortunately, crucial losses to Newcastle and Manly (both at Lang Park) hurt them. A great comeback win over the Warriors meant that Canberra needed to beat the Sydney Roosters in the final round to make the finals. Appropriately for such a disappointing season, Canberra didn’t turn up, losing 40-16. Canberra (10th) finished on equal points with the Titans (eighth) and Sharks (ninth), but still didn’t deserve to make the finals.

Along with Rapana, there were a handful of star performers for the Milk in 2021, including Harawira-Naera, Tapine, Josh Papalii, Hudson Young, Matt Timoko, Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Frawley, Ryan Sutton, Josh Hodgson, Tom Starling, and Savage (who showed glimpses of his talent before his season-ending injury) to name a few.

The Raiders wasted no time having a spring cleanout, releasing Aekins, Adam Cook, Siliva Havili, Ryan James, Dunamis Lui, Darby Medlyn, Kai O’Donnell, and Scott, while Sia Soliola retired. There’s question marks over the veteran Jarrod Croker too: will this be his last season? Will he reach 300 games? Bigger questions marks are over Josh Hodgson’s future, with the Englishman linked to the Wests Tigers.

The big issue for Canberra is who will play halfback? George Williams’ departure left a huge hole that the Milk struggled to fill. While Sam Williams is the “ultimate clubman” and loved by everyone, he couldn’t step up and struggled in defence at times. Luckily, the Raiders eventually signed Jamal Fogarty from the Titans, Cowboy Peter Hola (insert “Hola/Holler/Hello” puns here), and are closing in on former Bulldog Adam Elliott (with a “behave or get out” ultimatum).

The club has also been busy re-signing their talented youngsters (with the SG Ball premiership a highlight for success-starved fans), so even if 2022 is painful, the long-term outlook is sunnier.

NothingButLeague Player of the Season – Jordan Rapana

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Matches: 22
Tries: 12
Run Metres: 3,272
Tackle Bursts: 130

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