AFTER 17 inconsistent years in the rugby league wilderness, exciting times loom for the team from the nation’s capital. Having yo-yoed through the NRL during the past six seasons (14th in 2005, then quarter finalists, then 14th, then qualifying finalists, then 13th, then qualifying finalists) the Raiders finally look capable of grasping a successive season of achievement.

Without getting ahead of ourselves this could be the year the Green Machine goes from sleeping giants to massive giant killers with, fittingly, their monster pack – arguably the biggest in the NRL – leading the way.

David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs are incumbent Kangaroos props; new recruit Brett White wore the green and gold as recently as 2009. Second-rower Bronson Harrison, a standout for World Champions News Zealand in the Four Nations, made 56 offloads (third most in the NRL last year). Then there’s workhorse captain Alan Tongue, champing at the bit to get a full season under his belt after injury curtailed his 2010 to just 12 games. And offloading and defensive dynamo Shaun Fensom, surely destined for some rep honours this year.

Now add the Raiders’ backs, led by fearless custodian Josh Dugan and playmaker Terry Campese; they thrilled fans last year and showed they have the speed and skill to match it with any outfit. Next, the Matt Orford factor – the former Sea Eagles premiership winner drafted in to shoulder the burden of leading the side around the park until Campese’s expected return from his knee injury in late May – and the sum parts add up to a contender.

Given their serious promise to deliver the Raiders will appeal to their fans to brave the Canberra cold and get out and support them more than in past years: in 2010 their average home crowd of 12,373 ranked the second-lowest in the competition.

The Raiders know the importance of playing up their Canberra Oval advantage, so they will be looking to do better than their 7-5 record in 2010. With their opening two games and five of their first eight encounters slated down south, expect them to be entrenched in the top eight early, even allowing for no Campese.

How They’ll Play It… The tall timber (Shillington 122 average metres, Learoyd-Lahrs 114 metres, Dane Tilse 102 metres and White 90 metres) will lay the platform, allowing crafty ball-playing back-rowers Harrison and Fensom to promote second–phase.

Closer to the line, Orford will look for snappy exchanges to get the ball wide, where Dugan, Jarrod Croker and wingers Daniel Vidot and Blake Ferguson will exploit their whippet-like speed.

Surprisingly the Raiders managed just 88 tries through Round 26 last year, only equal ninth most. Perhaps the safest bet of 2011 is they’ll better that mark and may even crack the century.

Expect Plenty From…  The dynamic of the class of 2008 – that is, the now-mature members of the Raiders’ 2008 Toyota Cup premiership-winning team.

They’re led by Josh Dugan. His late-season form and explosive display for the NRL All Stars in February have plenty suggesting he’s a misere to beat out Jarryd Hayne for the No.1 jersey for New South Wales this year. The case is compelling: in 2010 he topped his position for line-breaks (20) and was the NRL’s leading overall tackle-breaker with 170.

The others who will grow a leg running off each other include Joel Thompson, Jarrod Croker and Daniel Vidot.

They’re Going To Really Miss…  The attack and direction offered by five-eighth Terry Campese. Competitions aren’t won in the first 10 rounds but they can definitely be lost; how the Raiders cope during the first two months is one of the $64,000 questions of the new season. Campese was the lynchpin last year, providing 16 line-break assists and 15 try assists. They gained excellent field position off his prodigious boot (273 kicks, second most in the comp) and an NRL-high four 40/20s.  

They’ll also feel a little lost without Joel Monaghan, forced from the fold after seven years in the lime green following his notorious lewd dog photo scandal. Time has healed some of the wounds but plenty of Raiders players are sore that Monaghan is gone. They’ll definitely miss his input.

It’s Time To Stand Up… The Raiders look settled everywhere except in the halves. Marc Herbert’s left, Campese is injured, and Josh McCrone will be forced out of position.

Of course, the signing of former Dally M Medal winner Orford is a huge fillip – but many considered the veteran No.7 pretty much at his use-by date when he left the NRL for Bradford at the end of 2009. And the pace of the NRL hasn’t dropped off any.

Coach David Furner and Campese have spent oodles of time mentoring McCrone on his crucial shift to No.6 outside Orford, with a focus on his kicking game. Last season McCrone was simply a back-up for Campese, booting the Steeden just 111 times. He’ll be expected to hit that mark pretty much by the time Campese is due back around Round 10.

Coach Watch… Much is expected in David Furner’s third year at the helm of the Raiders’ ship. With a favourable draw, talented roster and Terry Campese likely to be back for at least half the season, there won’t be many excuses should the boat founder. While the Furner name is a Canberra icon, missing the finals may see some knives sharpened.

They’ll Be Boosted By… The arrival of Blake Ferguson from Cronulla. With Daniel Vidot, the Raiders now boast one of the most energetic and explosive wing partnerships in the NRL. Playing at a club he had little faith in last year he still managed the ninth-highest tackle busts by a winger (75), with all those ahead of him playing a bunch more than his 20 games.

And, importantly in the modern game, the Raiders now boast the two most skilful and accomplished finishing wingers in the game. Touch lines will matter little to these two.

Predicted Finish… They were seventh after 26 rounds last year and finished sixth in the order after the finals. Finishing sixth after the scheduled season would be a conservative success. Indeed with consistency at home and away, a top-four finish is likely.

Under-20s… The junior Raiders will be keen to atone for their inglorious exit last year, thrashed 64-18 by the Rabbitohs in the Preliminary Final. They’ll again get great service from last year’s TC Halfback of the Year and captain Sam Williams, now in his third year in the under-20s. Williams was a prolific try-assister, his 27 the third most in the comp, plus he scored 16 tries from 22 games as well. It’s some comfort to know he’s waiting in the wings should either McCrone or Orford not measure up.

Coach David Hamilton, who guided the Junior Kangaroos last year, will be looking to continued development from 18-year-old prop Sheen Lomax, son of former Raiders hard man John.

Comings… Blake Ferguson (Sharks), Mark Ioane (Warriors), Nathan Massey (Bulldogs), Matt Orford (Bradford Bulls), Brett White (Storm).

Goings… Cameron Bruest (Eels), Justin Carney (Roosters), Marc Herbert (Bradford Bulls), Brett Kelly (Avignon Bisons), Scott Logan (Collegians Dogs, Illawarra), Joel Monaghan (Warrington Wolves), Adam Mogg (retired), Troy Thompson (Storm).