Saturday, 10 September 2016

NRL Title Contenders: Canberra Raiders (2016)

After an inconsistent opening 10 rounds, where they won four games, lost five and drew with the last-placed Knights, the Raiders have really turned their season around. The Green Machine have won 11 of their last 12 games, including the last eight straight. In the process they have racked up some big scores.

Why They Can Win
Their attack. They have scored more points than any other side this year, at an average of 26.91 per game. Only twice in the Raiders’ history have they performed better in attack: in 1994 when they scored 779 points in 26 games at 29.96 and the following year in 1995 when they scored 654 points in 24 games at 27.25. 

They have great ball-runners on both sides of the field, up front, out wide and – courtesy of hooker Josh Hodgson and five-eighth Blake Austin – in the middle as well. This running game has been the cornerstone of their recent success and it seems that no team has found a way to shut it down. Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana have formed one of the most lethal combinations in the NRL on the right, while captain and left centre Jarrod Croker is in career-best touch.

Why They Can’t
This Raiders outfit lacks the big-game experience required to win grand finals. They have six Test players in their side, four of them from New Zealand who are not current members. The only one commanding a Test spot at present also happens to be their only State of Origin player, past or current, Josh Papalii. Joey Leilua (2010 with the Roosters) is the only Raider to have played in a grand final – besides out-of-favour veteran Jeff Lima – while no other player in the squad has ventured beyond the second week of the finals. Their halves don’t have a finals appearance between them.

Key Player
Josh Hodgson. The British rake has been arguably the best buy the Raiders have made in a long, long time, possibly since current coach Ricky Stuart was lured to the club in 1988 from Rugby Union. His passing is sharp, his service is impeccable, he is controlled and isdictating the momentum of games brilliantly. He has an immense forward pack which he has been getting the maximum value out of as well.

Squad Health
The Raiders squad is in tip-top shape. They only have two depth players currently injured. Lachlan Croker is out for the season with a knee injury, while winger Edrick Lee’s calf injury will see him sidelined until the week before the finals begin.

Finals Record
Canberra has appeared in 43 finals matches, winning 20 and losing 23. However, they have won just 5 of their last 19 finals games, dating back to the 1995 preliminary final that they lost against the Bulldogs. The club has not been beyond week two of the playoffs since that ’95 campaign.

Run Home
Canberra played their last home in Round 24, running down Parramatta 28-18. They now travel to Brookvale Oval in what is always a tough encounter, no matter the form of either side. The Wests Tigers are their Round 26 assignment at Leichhardt Oval, yet another tough venue to win at – particularly if the Tigers are still in finals contention. Canberra have won just nine of 25 games at Brookvale and nine of 21 games at Leichhardt. Nevertheless, the club has secured its first top-four berth in 13 years.

**This article appeared on the Commentary Box Sports website**

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