In the first three rounds, the Ricky Stuart coached outfit led by 10 points or more each time but suffered losses to the Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle Knights by 30-28 scorelines and went down to the Warriors by 20-19. They lost three further times after leading by double-figure margins, to the Penrith Panthers twice and to the Brisbane Broncos.
The absence of classy English hooker Josh Hodgson through injury in the first half of the season didn’t help the Raiders campaign, nor did a late-season injury to captain and centre Jarrod Croker.
Also, the game management of halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer was lacking in tight situations. It seemed that the Raiders had a mental issue as a team as they continued to falter in the final 10 minutes of games. Their inability to close games out ultimately meant the difference between a finals berth and another season amongst the also-rans.
The Raiders were still up there with the best attacking teams, ranked second in attack with 563 points, only behind South Sydney. On their day they played some exhilarating Rugby League with their powerful forwards and classy outside backs, with Joseph Leilua, Nick Cotric, and Jordan Rapana all scoring over 10 tries for the year.
Sadly for Raiders fans, the team could only very rarely play their best footy for 80 minutes and that’s why they finished 10th.
Canberra Raiders supporters were left wondering what might have been as they saved their two best performances of the season for when they were already out of finals contention.
Coming into the game, Canberra hadn’t beaten a top-eight team all season but they upset eventual minor premiers the Sydney Roosters 14-12 at GIO Stadium in Round 23. The Raiders scored just one try through Jordan Rapana but their defence was outstanding as was their kicking game.
Also at home in the following round, the Raiders secured a brilliant comeback win against the highly rated South Sydney Rabbitohs by 24-12, further illustrating the team’s undoubted potential.
The Raiders forward pack played with real intensity and outplayed the Rabbitohs star studded forward pack.
Despite finishing 10th, the Raiders didn’t have too many abysmal performances over the course of the season, it was the fade outs that really cost them their season. Arguably the worst of those was against the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium in Round 16.
The Raiders, fresh from thrashing the Wests Tigers 48-12 and with hooker Josh Hodgson back in the team, were superb in racing to a 16-0 lead at halftime. However, the same defensive deficiencies and errors under pressure plagued them in the 2nd half and an Anthony Milford inspired Broncos came charging back to win 26-22.
Five-eighth Blake Austin’s defence was particularly poor in that game and resulted in him being dropped to the bench for the next couple of games. It was also a crucial loss as a win would have seen them go within two points of the Broncos, but the loss saw them fall six points behind and they were never able to make up the ground.
Despite their disappointing results the Raiders still had many impressive individuals in 2018. Josh Papalii represented Queensland again and was a powerful performer in the back-row for the Raiders while Englishmen Elliott Whitehead was a very handy try-scoring second-rower notching 10 tries.
However, the clear standout performer had to be winger Nick Cotric. Not only did Cotric score 12 tries, but he was incredibly hard to tackle, topping the NRL in tackle breaks with 149.
While other players let the side down in pressure situations Cotric, at only 19 years old was always trying to lift the team. Cotric made the New South Wales Origin squad but just missed out on taking the field in 2018. A Blues debut will surely come soon for the young flier if he keeps up his form.
The Canberra halves are the main players who need to stand up for the Raiders to make the step up to finals in 2019. Blake Austin has been released to join Warrington so the responsibility will fall on the likes of Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams to help the Raiders win the tight games they have been losing the past couple of seasons. While hooker Josh Hodgson is a class act, he needs more support from the halves who have been taking the wrong options too often.
Also, the poor discipline of the Raiders had Ricky Stuart tearing his hair out in 2018. The Raiders were the second most penalised team, conceding 225 penalties which was only one fewer than the Penrith Panthers. If the Raiders can clean up their discipline across the board then they stand to make a big improvement in 2019.
2019: A brief look ahead
Gains: Ryan Sutton (Wigan Warriors), John Bateman (Wigan Warriors).
Losses: Shannon Boyd (Titans), Junior Paulo (Eels), Blake Austin (Warrington).
Coach Ricky Stuart has again turned to the UK Super League to bolster his squad, with prop Ryan Sutton and utility John Bateman both signing from the Wigan Warriors.
The Raiders have offloaded some considerable bulk with Shannon Boyd going to the Gold Coast and Junior Paulo to Parramatta, with Austin also leaving after 4 years in Canberra.
Canberra has been one of the big underachievers in the NRL in recent seasons, making the finals just once in five seasons under Ricky Stuart despite having a team of considerable talent in both the forwards and backs. Surely Stuart has to find a way to get more consistent performances out of his squad otherwise he cannot keep his job for much longer.
Raider’s fans will be encouraged by their impressive finish to the season but will want to see a strong start to next season and a team that plays harder and smarter for 80 minutes each week.
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