At the conclusion of the 2022 season, after a 40-4 thumping at the hands of the Parramatta Eels, an angry and defiant Ricky Stuart declared that, were it not for the injuries that cruelled his side's chances in the early stages of the season, that Canberra were a top four side.
Despite this, I had some reservations about the Raiders coming into this season. Canberra had moved very little in the open market, indicating the game plan and the personnel was going to remain the same from '22 to '23. The problems with that should be self-evident. Footy clubs must always be moving and adapting, and the Raiders had stood still in the off-season.
And, lo and behold, Canberra started the season with four losses in their first five games. Including a 41 point massacre at the hands of eventual premiers (for the third bloody time), the Penrith Panthers.
A little ray of green sunshine appeared as Jarrod Croker appeared to lead the side through the best period of the season, racking up wins against Brisbane, and the (at the time) in-form Dolphins and Parramatta Eels.
But it wasn't to last. Despite stringing together five wins on the trot, and reversing their fortunes to place the club on the path to finals football, the cracks were already beginning to show - and I'm not talking about the premiership-killing 50 placed on them in round 5.
A continuing theme for Canberra in 2023, as it has been in previous years, going all the way back to the club's genesis in 1982, was the inability to hold onto and defend leads.
But beyond that, the Green Machine made an art form of making the simple look absurdly difficult. Two near-fadeouts against St. George, giving up a monster lead to the Dolphins, needing a dubious penalty to get past the Tigers at Leichardt, and then for David Nofoaluma's hands to turn to stone at the worst moment at Bruce stadium - the list goes on.
When the Raiders weren't nearly choking away games, they were getting hammered by teams that seemed to be way more dialled in than they were. A big loss to Manly when the Sea Eagles were discombobulating, and the men in green completely going to water on arguably the biggest night of the year, Jarrod Croker's 300th game.
When Canberra was hot, they were warm enough to cook. But when they went cold, they went ice cold.
The game that put Canberra's season on life support was a hideous belting at the hands of a middling storm. Melbourne piled on nine tries in a game that was supposed to run for eighty minutes, but instead seemed like it would never end - at least for the men in green.
Past this point, only the most green-eyed could see anything other than an embarassing pumelling taking place in an elimination final, if the Raiders survived long enough. They were coasting on the solid, if not spectacular, middle of the year. Canberra finished the year picking up a late win, scraping home against the checked-out Bulldogs to edge their way into eighth spot.
Eventually, injuries and suspensions showed up to seal the deal for Canberra. Cory "Big Red" Horsburgh copped four weeks for a shoulder charge, Seb Kris receiving five in round 27 after trying to plant someone like a vegetable into the turf. Josh Papalii got injured, and Ricky Stuart was throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck, including relegating Jack Wighton to center, and dumping Jarrod Croker out of the side altogether.
Penrith sending North Queensland to the shadow realm in round 27 ensured Canberra would make the eight, but they certainly weren't in control of their own destiny at that point, having been thumped into submission by the Sharks.
Despite all this, and the general feeling of exhaustion that had settled on the club, the players, and the fans, the Raiders still marched into Newcastle in week one of the finals, and came within a whisker of sending the Novocastrians home early. Even leading by as much as 10 points at the half, only to run out of gas, and let a hungry Newcastle side back in the game with a vengeance.
For the entire season, Sticky's angry words at the end of 2022 were burned into the back of my mind. But, eventually, the bill came due. Canberra were not a top four side. They got close, coming within a Jarrod Croker kick against the Warriors, but it was not to be. There was never a point where the Raiders looked like a complete side, which is borne out in the hideous -137 point differential that would've seen them dumped out of the eight, were it not for the luck of the draw.
That isn't to say the season was all doom and gloom. You don't make the finals without playing some good footy somewhere in the year, and good footy the Raiders most certainly did play.
The highlight of the year has to be the round 6 win against the Broncos. With the crushing weight of history and the Broncos seemingly unstoppable, Canberra showed glimpses of what they could be, as Jarrod Croker rallied the troops on his return and led them to victory against the benchmark side of the competition.
There were also lots of individual bright spots.
Jamal Fogarty had a fantastic season, taking his kicking game to another level, and racking up 15 try assists. When he was allowed to drive the bus, the Raiders came the closest to fulfilling their potential. His best individual game coming against the West Tigers, where his magic boot resulted in all 20 of Canberra's points.
Up front, it was another career year for Hudson Young, who earned his first NSW rep jumper, alongside an appearance in the PM's XIII. Young was a threat all season, racking up nine tries, and being an integral part of Canberra's lethal left edge.
Big Red would end the season on the sidelines thanks to a shoulder charge in R26 against Brisbane, but he made the number 13 his own, earning a call up to the Queensland side, and joining the illustrious company of Raider forwards who have made their mark for the Maroons. Sadly, he would play in Queensland's only loss, but he was immense for Canberra on a number of occasions.
And who could forget the dynamic duo of Sebastian Kris and Matt Timoko. "Mokes" went to another level in 2023, being the equal leading try-scorer with veteran Jordan Rapana, averaging more than 140 run meters a game. Given enough time and form, Matt Timoko may one day join the all time great centers who have worn the green jersey.
Sebastian Kris, on the other hand, is far and away the most valuable player for the Raiders this side. And it is not close.
When Xavier Savage was injured in the preseason, panic spread amongst the green faithful as to who would wear the number one. Well, as it turns out, we needn't have worried. If anything, Seb Kris was an even better fit for the position, providing brutal carries out of the back third of the field and powering the Raiders into the game.
When the decision was taken late to shuffle Jordan Rapana into the fullback position, Seb proved to be just as lethal at right centre, producing a number of sparkling individual efforts - including a 60 meter run against the Wests Tigers at Bruce Stadium, to bring the crowd to its feet.
Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about 2024. The departures of Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker have provided Canberra with a considerable war chest with which to go to market. Exciting juniors Chevy Stewart and Ethan Strange are also getting close to pulling on jerseys. If 2023 was a year of transition, 2024 may shape up to be a far more settled year, which may bear fruit.
And of course, there's Jack Wighton. Yes, his form had dipped in recent years, but he carries our club's last Dally M medal, the Clive Churchill from the 2019 Grand Final, and my heart breaks to know he'll be wearing the wrong shade of green until the end of his career. It wasn't that long ago I had him pegged as our future captain. It appears that will be in an alternate timeline.
Despite all that went on this year, the slow start, and the shuddering halt at the back end of the year, the club has put together back to back finals appearances for the first time since 19/20. The club has put the turmoil of '21 in the rearview mirror, and can once again start looking forward, not backward.
A favourite content creator of mine, Footy A2Z, asks the question - "what does your club need to be successful next season." For mine, I think a semifinals appearance next year, with a consistent back five are key. Figure out what you're doing with Harley Smith-shields, Xavier Savage, James Schiller, and Jordan Rapana. You know Seb and Matt T will be there, but there needs to be a firm decision made with regards to the remaining spots.
And we'll see what Ricky finds in the free market for our five-eighth.
Finally, I wrote an entire blog post about the retirement of Jarrod Croker, but I would like to, for the last time, mention the proud green warrior who retired at the end of this season. An under-rated footballer, a leader, a microcosm of Canberra's values. It was sad to say goodbye to him for the last time, and it won't really set in until R1 next year, but he's been told he'll be with the club in an off-field role, and wish him all the success in the world.
That's all for me for sportsball this year - it's been a rollercoaster of a year for both codes, and we'll see who's going to stop Penrith next year. Fingers crossed, somehow, it's the Raiders that end that dominance.
Catch you next time,
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