Andrew Pelechaty reviews the 2023 Season of the Canberra Raiders where they finished eighth on the ladder.
Most Tries: 11, Matt Timoko
Most Points: 130, Jarrod Croker
Mal Meninga Medal Player of the Year: Joe Tapine
The Muppet Show
After returning to the finals in 2022, Canberra backed it up with a strange 2023.
While they won 13 games, ALL their wins were between 1-12, and they had heavy losses to three of the top four teams (53-12 vs Penrith, 36-14 vs NZ Warriors, 48-2 vs Melbourne), which added to their -137 differential.
Canberra made the most of a friendly draw, winning 10 from 12 from Round 6 to Round 19. While they should have locked down a top four spot, they regularly squandered comfortable leads (especially against the Wests Tigers in Round 14 and St George Illawarra in Round 19, blowing 18-0 and 30-10 leads respectively), but still found ways to win. It’s a turnaround from 2017, 2018, and 2021, when Canberra missed the finals after numerous close losses.
The Easter Saturday win against Brisbane at Lang Park was a highlight, while they had a brave win against Souths in Round 13, rallying after Corey Harawira-Naera’s frightening seizure. But, with just two wins in their last seven games, Canberra fell to eighth spot.
The Raiders threw everything at the Knights in the elimination final: leading 16-6 at half-time and rallying in the last 15 minutes as Newcastle led 28-16. A contentious penalty in the 88th minute sealed their 30-28 loss – the first time in the Ricky Stuart era that Canberra didn’t at least make the second week of the finals.
And while Stuart has turned Canberra into a regular finals contender (including three preliminary finals and a grand final), his behaviour in some press conferences was bizarre. The “muppets” rant after the first Tigers win was the unintentionally hilarious highlight. The Green Machine Podcast boys named their next episode The Muppet Show in honour of Stuart’s presser. On the flipside, Stuart was proud of the “Raiders DNA” following the elimination final loss.
Jarrod Croker’s 300th game should have been a historic night, but was disappointing. The club went all out in the lead up, giving Croker a lot of wonderful tributes. And the Raiders ran onto a packed out Bruce Stadium with plenty to play for. But the Warriors absorbed Canberra’s early emotion, only trailed 8-6 at half-time, and scored three tries in 12 minutes to bury them. Croker nearly had one more magic moment in the return clash in Auckland: Jack Wighton scored a try on full-time to tie the scores at 20-20, but Croker missed the sideline conversion as the game went to Golden Point, which the Warriors won 21-20. Croker leaves as Canberra’s all-time leading point scorer (2,374) – a record that’s unlikely to be broken.
Canberra also said goodbye to Wighton, Brad Schneider, and Matt Frawley, while Semi Valemei moved to North Queensland mid-season. And 2024 will be the last season for Elliot Whitehead and Jordan Rapana. But Manly Warringah’s Kaeo Weekes is a new signing: though – after limited first grade opportunities at the Sea Eagles – it remains to be seen if/when/where he’ll fit into Canberra’s first 17.
Joe Tapine (24 games, 1466.2 post-contact metres, 155 average running metres) was a deserved Mal Meninga Medal winner; Jamal Fogarty embraced the responsibility of leading the team and his kicking game was vital; Sebastian Kris did his best filling in at fullback for Xavier Savage (who only played one NRL game); Matt Timoko was one of the Raiders’ most dangerous attacking players; Jordan Rapana was as competitive as ever (11 tries in 21 games); and Corey Horsburgh had one of his most consistent seasons and earnt a Queensland Origin jersey.
Key Player Stats
Most Try Assists: 15, Jamal Fogarty
Most Line-breaks: 14, Jordan Rapana
Most Run Metres: 3,951, Matt Timoko
Most Post Contact Metres: 1,466, Joseph Tapine
Most Tackles: 855, Corey Horsburgh
Most Errors: 35, Jordan Rapana