Season review: Questions remain over Raiders with finals the pass mark
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Season review: Questions remain over Raiders with finals the pass mark

The same questions remain about the Canberra Raiders after a frustrating NRL season where they've missed the finals for the fifth time in six years.

So what's a pass mark for the Green Machine next year? A top-eight finish? The second-week of finals? Further?

Raiders captain Jarrod Croker believes their late-season wins against the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney have given them the blueprint for success in 2019.

Canberra players lament another one that got away - letting leads slip was a theme.

Canberra players lament another one that got away - letting leads slip was a theme.Credit:AAP

Now they just have to do it.

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Croker, St George Illawarra premiership halfback Jamie Soward and Raiders fan Sean Ferrari, who hosts fan website The Greenhouse's post-match Facebook Live, run their eyes over the Green Machine.

The Blueprint

The Raiders' season can be summed up with their first-round loss to the Gold Coast Titans - let an 18-point lead slip to narrowly lose in the final minutes.

They only won three of their 11 games decided by six points or less, and lost five games where they led by at least 10 points.

But they won a close one against minor premiers Sydney Roosters in round 23 and then came from 12-0 down to beat third-placed South Sydney the following week.

Croker said they needed to learn from those wins and apply them from round one next season.

"We need to look at how we won those games - completions were very high, defensively we were very good. Then take a lot of confidence out of them ... and work on that throughout the off-season," he said.

But Soward felt those results needed to be taken with a grain of salt - both teams were looking beyond the Raiders.

He pointed to the Raiders' loss to Penrith where they were up 30-18 before losing 40-31 as an example of games it was more important for the Raiders to win.

"Playing in premiership seasons myself, we lost four of the last seven because ... you know that there's bigger games ahead and I think the Roosters and the Rabbitohs saw that," Soward said.

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"We saw the effort the Raiders put in and the question is why can't they defend like that when they're up 12 points against Penrith? They're the games they need to win."

Pass mark

The Raiders finished 10th, but were five wins outside the top eight and their last three rounds were dead rubbers.

They've only made the finals once in coach Ricky Stuart's five seasons in charge, when they went within a couple of points of the 2016 grand final.

Soward said the Raiders had been massive underachievers.

"The bare minimum is the eight and I'd say at least the second week," he said.

"Ricky Stuart's a premiership coach and his standards are pretty high. It's not an outrageous comment to say they've underachieved the last five years.

"He'd be wanting to make finals every year ... they've got a big year next year."

Ferrari felt there would be pressure on everyone at the club if that bare minimum wasn't achieved.

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"We've made the finals once out of five years in Ricky's time and if we don't make it next year then there will have to be some discussions about is this list going to take us forward and have we got the right people there?" Ferrari said.

Where it went wrong

As said before, probably round one against the Titans, but the next five rounds didn't help.

Only one team from the Gold Coast, Newcastle, New Zealand Warriors, Manly, Canterbury and Parramatta made the finals, meaning the Raiders could've won their opening six games.

Instead they won two. A combination of errors, penalties, poor defence and letting big leads slip all proved costly.

And it took until the final three rounds to fix those problems up.

"We blew a golden opportunity at the start of the season. We should've been 5-1 or 6-0 and if we had've had that we would've had a lot more confidence," Ferrari said.

"Our best part of the season has been the fourth quarter, but it's been too late. We need to get off to a good start."

Half a problem

Who will replace Blake Austin at five-eighth?

Who will replace Blake Austin at five-eighth?Credit:Karleen Minney

With five-eighth Blake Austin off to England, what's going to happen with the Raiders halves?

They have Sam Williams, Aidan Sezer and Ata Hingano currently on the books, while fullback Jack Wighton's been floated for a potential return to five-eighth where he played nine games in 2014.

Soward felt Williams was the best option as halfback to run the team.

"I think they found the right mix with Austin and Williams towards the back end of the year," he said.

"Everything will revolve around [hooker Josh] Hodgson. His game suits Sam Williams and vice-versa. Sam can kick and control and direct.

"Sam needs to be told that it's his team and believe it's his team and go out and run it. Guys like Sezer and whoever plays five-eighth can just run the ball and organise the backs."

Ferrari felt what happened in the halves would define the Raiders' season.

"The burning question over summer is who's going to replace [Austin] at five-eighth?" he said.

"The only way to win the premiership and be up the top is to have good halves that control the games.

Raiders-bound forward John Bateman has been likened to Elliott Whitehead.

Raiders-bound forward John Bateman has been likened to Elliott Whitehead.Credit:NRL Photos/Gregg Porteous

"Sezer threatens to do that ... I just hope he can take the next step. Williams is at the level where he's at.

"Hingano's an unknown quantity and whether someone else is coming who knows. Wighton is an unknown quantity as well. One thing he'll be is big and strong."

Changes

Along with Austin, the Raiders will also lose props Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd, with English duo John Bateman and Ryan Sutton set to join them.

Croker said it was tough to lose the trio, who he said had all become family during their time in the capital.

"I haven't seen a lot of the Pommies. From what I've heard John Bateman's a lot like Elliott Whitehead. If you had 13 Elliott Whitehead's on the field you're going in the right direction," Croker said.

"Ryan Sutton's a big fella, a big body that we're losing a few of obviously. They're going to be tough to replace."

Success story

Raiders second-rower Joe Tapine had something of a breakout year, making one of the edge-forward spots his own, with England international Elliott Whitehead nailing down the other.

Can Joe Tapine become an NRL superstar?

Can Joe Tapine become an NRL superstar?Credit:Jamila Toderas

Josh Papalii, who moved to lock, was also one of the Green Machine's best this season.

Ferrari saw Tapine as a player ready to become one of the genuine "superstars" of the NRL.

"Tapine was the guy who keeps making massive leaps. He went from being a very, very good player to being one of the best back-rowers in the competition," Ferrari said.

"Papalii started poorly, but then really played well towards the end of the season.

"Tapine's the one who I think will go to a new level and he'll be the player at the end of next season that I'd like to think about him being one of the superstars of the game."

Soward felt Whitehead had been the standout and floated him as a possible solution to partner Williams in the halves.

"He can play anywhere in the backline. I'd even dabble at maybe putting him at six next year - defensively very sound, can ball-play a little bit," Soward said.

"If you're going to have Sam Williams as a game manager, you're going to need someone who can run the ball. I think Jack's more a fullback than a five-eighth."

Highlight: Nick Cotric making the NSW Blues squad and coming close to making his debut on the wing

Lowlight: Fullback Jack Wighton's season-ending, 10-week suspension after pleading guilty to assaulting five men and urinating in public on a night out celebrating his birthday in February.

Reason for hope: Having star hooker Josh Hodgson, Wighton and captain Jarrod Croker play more than one game together will hopefully help the Green Machine climb the ladder.

Squad - Ins: John Bateman (Wigan), Ryan Sutton (Wigan); Outs: Blake Austin (Warrington), Shannon Boyd (Gold Coast), Junior Paulo (Parramatta), Craig Garvey, Charlie Gubb (Widnes).

RAIDERS' SEASON

Round 1: Titans 30 bt Raiders 28

Round 2: Knights 30 bt Raiders 28

Round 3: Warriors 20 bt Raiders 19

Round 4: Sea Eagles 32 bt Raiders 16

Round 5: Raiders 26 bt Bulldogs 10

Round 6: Raiders 18 bt Eels 2

Round 7: Rabbitohs 42 bt Raiders 22

Round 8: Raiders 18 bt Cowboys 8

Round 9: Raiders 32 bt Titans 18

Round 10: Sharks 24 bt Raiders 16

Round 11: Dragons 25 bt Raiders 18

Round 12: Raiders 21 bt Sea Eagles 20

Round 14: Panthers 23 bt Raiders 22

Round 15: Raiders 48 bt Wests Tigers 12

Round 16: Broncos 26 bt Raiders 22

Round 17: Raiders 32 bt Bulldogs 28

Round 18: Raiders 38 bt Cowboys 12

Round 19: Sharks 28 bt Raiders 24

Round 20: Storm 44 bt Raiders 10

Round 21: Panthers 40 bt Raiders 31

Round 22: Wests Tigers 22 bt Raiders 20

Round 23: Raiders 14 bt Roosters 12

Round 24: Raiders 24 bt Rabbitohs 12

Round 25: Warriors 20 bt Raiders 16

David Polkinghorne covers the Canberra Raiders, local rugby league, Canberra Cavalry, racing and cycling, along with every other sport, for The Canberra Times.