So Close Yet So Far…

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Once nineties powerhouses, the Canberra Raiders have gradually become the NRL also-rans. While they’ve made the finals a few times, they’ve never threatened the premiership and are annual wooden spoon favourites.

After a dismal 2014, few expected Canberra to rise from the bottom four. The unpopularity of Ricky Stuart and an inability to attract key players seemingly sealed their fate.

After an opening round win against Cronulla (24-20),  Canberra lost to the NZ Warriors (6-18), St. George-Illawarra (20-22) and the Sydney Roosters (6-34). Fortunes turned with a 29-16 win over a struggling Manly at Lavington. Considering the Raiders’ poor away record, this was an encouraging win.

After losing to Melbourne at home, the Raiders travelled to Leichhardt to play the Wests Tigers. Sitting at 2-4, the Raiders needed a win to keep their season alive. Trailing 0-22 after 20 minutes, it looked like another wasted season and more ammunition for Stuart’s critics.

Shannon Boyd and Jarrod Croker scored to reduce the margin to 22-12 at halftime. It looked more respectable, but few would have expected the barrage to come.

Frank-Paul Nuuausala (45th minute), Jack Wighton (64th) and Jordan Rapana (79th) completed a marvelous comeback, from 0-22 down to 30-22 victors.

Canberra repeated their comeback heroics against Souths in Cairns the following Sunday, overcoming a 4-16 deficit to win 30-22. Add a Bruce Stadium thrashing of the Gold Coast Titans (56-16) and Canberra were now looking dangerous.

Unfortunately, Canberra couldn’t capitalise on their momentum, losing to the Dragons (18-32), Canterbury (34-41) and Brisbane (12-24). The loss to Canterbury was bizarre. With the Bulldogs coming off Origin duties, Canberra were expected to win comfortably.. When Canterbury led 26-0 after 18 minutes, it looked like a long afternoon for the Green Machine. Encouraged by their wins against the Tigers and Rabbitohs, Canberra fought back, reducing the deficit to 28-16 at halftime, then tying the game at 34-34 with five minutes left.  New signing Blake Austin missed a field goal and a crucial error allowed Josh Reynolds to kick the game-winning field goal. While heartbreaking, the game showed how much the 2015 Raiders had improved; last year they would have lost by 50, this year they were five minutes from snatching an impossible win.

Canberra entered their round 14 bye with a 44-22 win over eventual wooden spooners Newcastle to be a respectable 6-7, but more heartbreak was to come.

Canberra would have been confident of beating North Queensland coming off the second Origin game, but Johnathan Thurston sealed a see-sawing game with a late field goal and the Cowboys won 21-20. It was a controversial loss, with Thurston penalised for taking Jordan Rapana in the air but not sin-binned. Not for the first time, Canberra had to cop an “honourable loss” on the chin.

The Warriors extended Canberra’ agony with a 30-8 thumping in Auckland, but the Raiders found their sea legs two weeks later with a 36-22 win against the Knights. Canberra’s only Friday night game, Austin’s hat-trick in the first 15 minutes sealed the game. While the Knights’ ensuing comeback didn’t pose a huge threat, the inability to nail the game shut would hurt them against Cronulla.

In 2014, Canberra and Cronulla were competing for the wooden spoon. The Sharks had enjoyed a brilliant turnaround after the drug scandal and were top four contenders. In a cruel irony, the Raiders AGAIN lost 21-20, this time in Golden Point. Like the Cowboys loss, it was a see-sawing and controversial match., with a Valentine Holmes field goal the difference. While the Raiders tenacity was admirable, it was still two points missed.

Canberra boosted their tenuous finals hopes with a 34-24 win at Penrith. It was another impressive road win, with doubles to Paul Vaughan and Jordan Rapana.

Hopes of a late finals push were destroyed by another string of close losses; they lost to the Cowboys in Townsville (24-32) after leading 18-0 and suffered two more close Bruce losses against the Tigers (18-20) and Manly (24-26).

Finals hopes gone, Canberra suffered a bad loss to the struggling Titans (12-28), a team they had flogged three months earlier. It was a horrible game, with a raft of unforced errors. Canberra did well to stay in the game and were lucky not to lose by 50.

Like 2014, Canberra finished the season on a positive note, beating the Panthers again (34-18) and Parramatta 28-24 in another Golden Point thriller. With two minutes left, an Edrick Lee try, converted by Croker tied the game, with Josh Hodgon sealing victory. The Eels win was a celebration for Croker, becoming the year’s leading pointscorer  (236) ahead of the Roosters’ James Maloney. In the end, Canberra finished 10th with a 10-14 record, just two wins from the finals. The final position summed up Canberra’s year; definite improvement, but not quite good enough.

So what can Canberra learn from 2015?

There were a number of positives. A new-found steel and tenacity kept Canberra in many games they should have lost easily. Seven of Canberra’s 14 losses were by a converted try or less, eight if you include the eight point loss in Townsville. Turn at least half those into win and Canberra finish 14-10 and in sixth place.

Another positive was Canberra’s attack, they scored 577 points (an average of 24 points a game) and they were the only team outside the eight with a positive points differential (plus eight). Austin scored 14 tries in 23 games, Croker 12 in 24 and Lee 12 in 23. While not quite a return to the Green Machine heyday, they’re encouraging signs. Another encouraging sign is Austin’s re-signing for three more seasons. He was a huge part of Canberra’s resurgence; now they can plan the next stage around him. It’s given Stuart a reprieve too, while still unpopular, he’s been given some credit for Canberra’s improvement.

While the close losses were infuriating, Canberra fans can take heart that their team were a genuine chance of winning all but a handful of games. More importantly, Canberra are playing an attractive brand of football. The Raiders have an image problem and lack the profile of elite NRL teams, especially in Channel Nine’s eyes. If they can turn the razzle dazzle into wins, exposure will grow in crowd numbers and on TV.

The big question is; how did Canberra lose so many tight games, and how do they turn it around?

It’s likely a combination of mental and physical fatigue. The Raiders had to overturn some big deficits, which can take its toll. When games are so close, the smallest error or drop in concentration can cost you. Poor defence was one of the Raiders’ biggest negatives. Clean that up and they can concentrate on winning games rather than chasing down targets.

While the Raiders may have missed the finals for the third straight year, the signs are good they can return in 2016.

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