Gains: Shaun Berrigan (Warriors), Malcolm Congoo (Sunshine Coast).
Losses: Alan Tongue (retired), Daniel Vidot (Dragons), Josh Miller (Dragons), Danny Galea (Panthers), Nick Skinner (Sea Eagles), Matt Orford (released), David Milne (Mackay), James Stuart (Burleigh).
Perhaps with the exception of the Gold Coast, no side proved quite as underwhelming as Canberra in 2011. Finalists the year before after a stunning run home that saw them win eight of their last nine regular-season games, expectations were exceedingly high that their monstrous forward pack and exciting young backs would lead the Green Machine into their next great era.
That they failed so spectacularly in 2011 presents quite the dilemma for Raiders fans, who no doubt still recognise the immense potential within their club but are more reluctant than ever to have their hopes raised.
For that reason, season 2012 is very much a case of ‘wait and see’ – although in the meantime it is hard to ignore the evidence that Canberra is indeed the sleeping giant of the NRL. Certainly they possess all of the ingredients of a successful side.
Dominant up front, their forward pack is the envy of the NRL, with man mountains Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Dane Tilse partnered by Australian Test prop David Shillington and veteran Brett White.
They can expect some good competition for the No.7 jersey with Josh McCrone and Sam Williams both impressing at times last season, while the return from injury of five-eighth Terry Campese is a huge boost.
And in fullback Josh Dugan they boast one of the NRL’s most devastating attacking players. Dugan is the man the Raiders hierarchy hopes to build their future around and it comes as no surprise to learn that they are preparing a massive two-year deal to ward off rivals (the Roosters and Bulldogs have both expressed an interest in Dugan’s services).
Yet consistency continues to evade the Green Machine and, last year in particular, they failed to turn Canberra Stadium into the fortress it deserves to be.
The club invested heavily in change after last year’s failures, with an external revue resulting in a series of staffing upheaval, but the proof is in the pudding and questions will remain unanswered until the season gets underway. Hopefully the Raiders finally live up to their immense potential because at their best they are one of the most thrilling sides in the Telstra Premiership.
How They’ll Play It: The goal is simple – get the forwards going forward. There is no doubt that the Raiders’ huge pack is their greatest asset and the stats prove that their success or failure hinges directly on whether or not they are going forward. In 2010, when they produced that remarkable run to the finals, Canberra topped the NRL for average metres per game with 1416 – well clear of second-best Gold Coast’s 1396.
Incredibly, the Raiders dropped from first to last in the space of just 12 months in 2011, averaging just 1271 metres per game and ultimately finishing the regular season in 15th. They’ll be looking to return to basics this season to free up the running game of Dugan.
Expect HUGE Things From: Terry Campese. After a superb 2010 season, Campese endured a nightmare last year – taking the field for the grand total of just nine minutes due to knee and groin injuries. His presence was sorely missed, not only for the fact that he is the Raiders’ chief playmaker but also his kicking game which is among the most effective in the NRL. In 2010, Campese kicked 298 times for a gain of 9731 metres – second only to St George Illawarra’s Jamie Soward. Last year, Canberra’s top kicker was Josh McCrone with a total of just 5794 metres. If the Raiders enjoy a successful campaign over the coming season, expect Campese to have a big say.
Bonus Points: The Raiders’ left-edge attack was the worst in the NRL last season, scoring just 22 tries for the year. However, defence was a problem across the field. The Raiders conceded more tries ‘up the guts’ than any other side with 25, ranked 13th in defence on their left edge (41 tries) and 14th on their right (also 41).
They’re Going To Really Miss: Alan Tongue. Although age may have slowed him a fraction in his final season, there is no doubt that retired captain Alan Tongue was the type of leader every club craves. Far from attracting the spotlight, Tongue was a tough, no-nonsense player who punched well above his weight (he topped the NRL tackle counts in 2006 with 1087 for the year) and prided himself on doing the dirty work that too often goes unnoticed. A gentleman off the field, he was also a wonderful ambassador for the Raiders brand.
It’s Time To Deliver: David Shillington. Injury restricted the representative prop to 16 games in 2011 but his average 93 metres per game was well down on what is needed from Canberra’s forward leader. The club’s most experienced front-rower on the big stage, Shillington must up the ante and lead by example in 2012.
How’s Their Depth: The Raiders look particularly strong up front in 2012 with a powerful front row rotation and a good mix of youth and experience in the back row following the emergence of Josh Papalii and Sam Mataora last season. However, they will be hoping their backline remains intact– particularly in key positions. We all know how costly injuries to Terry Campese and Josh Dugan proved last year…
Under-20s: Having endured a tough 2011 season in which injuries to both the Toyota Cup and NRL squads seriously affected the under-20s boys, Canberra are hoping for a much better showing this time around under the direction of new head coach Andrew Dunemann.
Dunemann, however, remains wary of offering any lofty predictions with further injury concerns already impacting upon his young squad.
“We’ve got probably six or seven in doubt to start Round 1 and the bad thing about that is that they’re probably our better players as well,” Dunemann lamented. “I’m hoping we get a few back but it’s been a bit disappointing that those guys have had a disrupted off-season.”
Having arrived from Newcastle in the off-season, Dunemann said he was intent on instilling a winning culture amongst his youngsters but is still going through the process of learning their capabilities.
“It’s hard to get a gauge because you tend to get rose-coloured glasses when it comes to how good your own players are,” he explained. “That said I’d like to think we’ve got a decent squad.
“At the end of the day this is all about getting them ready for the future and the only way you get them ready for that is to win games as well. You want to get that winning mentality so that if they get called up to first grade they’re confident and know what they need to do to win.”
The Raiders have high hopes for Edrick Lee this season – the classy back having impressed after spending much of his pre-season training with the NRL squad.
The Coach: The pressure is firmly on head coach David Furner this season following the disappointments of 2011. A club legend he may be – and a popular man around the traps – but the ultimatum is there for all to see: make the finals and survive, miss again and you’re likely in jeopardy.
There have also been some significant changes to the coaching staff with former Parramatta, Canberra and Warriors forward Justin Morgan arriving from Hull KR as Furner’s new assistant, Toyota Cup coach David Hamilton moving into a new position as head of recruitment and high performance manager, Mark Henry arriving as head of strength and conditioning, and Andrew Dunemann the new NYC coach.
Predicted Finish... The Raiders have a squad capable of causing some serious damage in 2012 but until they prove they are capable of the necessary consistency it’s difficult to predict them reaching any great heights. In the meantime it is very much a case of waiting to see what they have to offer. Needless to say, a top-eight spot should be their absolute minimum as a goal but as they showed in 2011 there are no guarantees in the NRL. We see them figuring in finals calculations but ultimately finishing with a cluster of other competitive units just outside the top eight – 10th to 13th.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Terry Campese is back, and he's underpriced at $248,900. Could still be an injury risk, but I say get him in your team.
The gun: Human tackle-machine Shaun Fensom is purpose built for Toyota NRL Dream Team.