A GRAND YEAR BUT NOT GRAND ENOUGH

Records tum­ble but late stum­ble leaves Raiders feel­ing un­ful­filled

Rugby League Week - - Rlw 2016 Annual - BY TONY ADAMS

AWORD OF WARN­ING TO RAIDERS FANS WHO may bump into pop­u­lar skip­per Jar­rod Cro­ker this sum­mer on the streets of Can­berra: don’t men­tion the grand fi­nal. The Raiders had their best sea­son in 20 years, falling just one game short of the big show. But rather than be­ing sat­is­fied with their ef­forts, the Green Ma­chine are filthy. “To come so close to the grand fi­nal re­ally hurt. I know grand fi­nal day is the high­light of the year and Cronulla did a great job to win it, but I could barely watch,” says Cro­ker. “I was just so dis­ap­pointed we weren’t there . . . it could’ve been us and that grates away at me.

“So no, I don’t want to talk about the grand fi­nal!

“If any­thing, com­ing so close has made us even hun­grier and we are go­ing to work our butts off in the off­sea­son. We achieved what we did by hard work and we know we can still up it a notch next year.”

Writ­ten off as fi­nals chances by many crit­ics and book­ies at the start of the year, the Raiders were eas­ily the sur­prise packet of 2016.

They fin­ished sec­ond on the ladder, putting to­gether a won­der­ful run of 10 straight wins late in the sea­son to stun the NRL and an­nounce them­selves as gen­uine con­tenders. And they played sparkling at­tack­ing foot­ball along the way, rack­ing up more points than any club in the NRL, and com­ing close to break­ing the club scor­ing record.

It was a stun­ning achieve­ment, com­ing at a club that boasted names like Meninga, Mullins, Daley, Stu­art, Nadruku and Clyde in the 1990s.

“If some­one had told us at the start of the year we would’ve fin­ished two games from win­ning the premier­ship, we would’ve taken that,” Cro­ker ad­mits.

“But hav­ing said that, there was a be­lief within the squad that we could do well, even though oth­ers didn’t share it.”

Cro­ker has no doubts as to the se­cret be­hind the Raiders’ epic sea­son.

“We did not have one stand­out star or player we re­lied on but we had 17 blokes who all went out there and did what we had to do,” he says.

“Ricky let us back our­selves, and the boys did that. There was com­pe­ti­tion for places in the squad and that pushed ev­ery­one that lit­tle bit harder.”

Many play­ers in the team had ca­reer-best sea­sons – none more so than Cro­ker him­self.

He walked home with three gongs on Dally M night and would’ve toured with the Kan­ga­roos but for a knee in­jury.

“I’d have to say it was prob­a­bly my best year,” the cen­tre con­cedes.

“I had a good prepa­ra­tion, I started well, but the key was the fact was the other blokes around me were play­ing so well – they made it easy.”

The Raiders’ back­line, with speed­sters Cro­ker, Jor­dan Ra­pana, Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee dan­ger­ous out wide, trou­bled ev­ery team in the NRL.

Ra­pana was a rev­e­la­tion, scor­ing 23 tries from 27 games. Cen­tre Joey Leilua was an ab­so­lute beast and his ag­gres­sive run­ning made him one of the premier­ship’s most dan­ger­ous play­ers.

Halves Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin formed a fine com­bi­na­tion and their work with crafty hooker Josh Hodg­son made the Raiders a con­stant me­nace around the rucks.

Hodg­son was a stand­out and led the Dally Ms for much of the sea­son.

“I thought he would win it,” Cro­ker says. “He was so dom­i­nant.”

The Raiders pack was tipped to buckle in the big games but they held solid – and then some.

Gi­ant prop Shan­non Boyd av­er­aged just 35 min­utes per game but made the most of ev­ery mo­ment he was on the pad­dock, carv­ing out 87 me­tres per match and bend­ing de­fen­sive lines with such force that he earned Kan­ga­roos selection for the Four Na­tions.

Hodg­son’s fel­low English­man El­liott White­head played ev­ery match in a sen­sa­tional de­but sea­son in the NRL, get­ting through a moun­tain of tack­ling.

Josh Pa­palii was a me­nace with his wide run­ning and big hits, and Ju­nior Paulo and Joseph Tap­ine proved great ac­qui­si­tions.

Un­der­rated back-rower Iosoia So­li­ola did much of the spade­work and rookie Clay Pri­est, back-up hooker Kurt Bap­tiste and the ever re­li­able Shaun Fen­som contributed when given a chance.

Stu­art was a pop­u­lar win­ner of the coach of the year award and he is the per­fect man to fine-tune this Raiders team over the sum­mer.

There’s no hun­grier bloke in the game than ‘Sticky’, and he’ll make it his mis­sion to en­sure the Raiders turn the pas­sion and prom­ise of 2016 into an­other top-four fin­ish next sea­son and per­haps a shot at a fourth premier­ship.

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