A GRAND YEAR BUT NOT GRAND ENOUGH
Records tumble but late stumble leaves Raiders feeling unfulfilled
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.