Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Gains… Joel Edwards (Knights), Jake Foster (Bulldogs).
Losses… Bronson Harrison (Dragons), Michael Chee Kam (Sea Eagles), Mark Ioane (Titans).
If you were to grant coach David Furner a lone wish for his football side ahead of the 2013 season, it would surely be for his frustratingly erratic band of merry men to finally shed the inconsistency that has plagued his four-year Canberra Raiders tenure.
Much like 2010, when they won eight of their final nine regular-season matches to steal an unlikely finals berth, the Raiders did it again last year to finish sixth after sitting second-last at the halfway point of the season.
But just why a side with as much natural talent can so often put itself in such a predicament must have Furner tearing out his hair. No doubt he is fully aware that, having narrowly kept the wolves at bay in 2012, he’ll struggle to last another 12 months should Canberra again languish for the first half of 2013.
On the surface at least, the Raiders appear to have all the ingredients of a genuine premiership contender. They boast arguably the most physically ominous forward pack in the Telstra Premiership with giants David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Dane Tilse and Brett White leading the way up front. Meanwhile, no backline boasts such raw speed across the park with Josh Dugan, Reece Robinson, Jarrod Croker, Blake Ferguson and Sandor Earl proving to be near unstoppable once they clicked into gear at the back end of last season.
However, it is Dugan and captain Terry Campese who hold the key to Canberra’s success, and the first goal of the Raiders training staff in 2013 will be to keep them on the park.
Campese in particular has barely been sighted since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during the 2010 finals – leaving a huge hole in the side’s playmaking ranks – while Dugan has been in and out of the side through a litany of nagging injury complaints, with just 17 appearances last year and 13 in 2011.
Should Campese return to full fitness during the early rounds, having chosen to sit out all of the club’s pre-season trials, much interest will centre around who partners him in the halves. Josh McCrone has stepped up to the mark in Campese’s absence the past two years but will be pressured by rising star Sam Williams, and the Raiders can only benefit from such competition for places.
That said, there has been more upheaval in the coaching ranks than the playing squad over the summer, with Andrew McFadden and Matt Ford both quitting to take up opportunities elsewhere and Justin Morgan becoming the second assistant in as many years to be let go after just 12 months in the job.
With few changes on the field, it will be interesting to see whether Furner’s latest coaching team has what it takes to put an end to the Raiders’ propensity for early-season conniptions. If they do, this could well prove to be a memorable year for Raiders fans – but until then the jury is still out on just how much damage the Green Machine can wreak.
How They’ll Play It
Despite boasting such a monstrous front row, the Raiders are well and truly at their most dangerous when spreading the football, and coach Furner would do well to encourage them to attack the edges again in 2013.
Canberra ranked fifth for line-breaks (107) and fourth for total tries scored (97) last season – yet only three sides scored fewer tries up the middle (16), with the Green Machine crossing 42 times on their left edge and 39 on their right.
Notably, they made fewer errors than any other side in 2012 so cutting down mistakes isn’t of any great concern. Instead, they should recognise that speed is their greatest asset and utilise it whenever possible.
Expect a HUGE Year From
Josh Dugan. One of the most devastating runners in the NRL, Dugan was too often below his best in 2012 with a series of nagging injuries impacting his ability to gain any real momentum.
He has admitted to a crisis of confidence at times as a result; however, a full off-season has him eager to return to the sort of form that helped spark Canberra’s stunning run to the finals in 2010.
Dugan will also be keen to win back his No.1 jersey for NSW. Having made his debut in the opening game of the 2011 series, an ankle injury ruled him out of the next two and he missed selection last season, with Manly’s Brett Stewart picked instead. He certainly shouldn’t be lacking for motivation this time around.
The Raiders will need to tighten up their goal-line defence if they have ambitions of challenging the big guns at the business end of the year. In fact, while they finished the regular season in sixth in 2012, they conceded more tries than any other side from between their tryline and the 10-metre line - a whopping 64. Even wooden-spooners Parramatta held out better than that under pressure (58).
Defensive discipline, or lack thereof, was a recurring theme across the board for the Raiders last year – they ranked 13th for effective tackle percentage (with 85.6 per cent) and just 14th for ‘good’ kick-chases with 269. They also produced far fewer dominant tackles than any other side with just 186. By comparison, the next lowest was the Sydney Roosters with 239... while Manly produced a whopping 425!
The Question Mark
Can Terry Campese’s body hold up to the rigours of the NRL this season? And if so, how long will it take him to find his best form? Having injured his knee during Canberra’s loss to Wests Tigers during the 2010 finals series, Campese played just eight minutes in 2011 after injuring his groin in his mid-season comeback match. Then, a second season-ending knee injury restricted his 2012 to just seven games.
Campese is not only club captain but also their most prominent playmaker, so it is fair to say that Canberra’s fate in 2013 is likely to come down to how big a role he plays.
Who Needs To Lift?
Canberra’s front-row rotation is the envy of the NRL – yet they didn’t impose themselves on the opposition with the dominance they should have at times last season. With the exception of Queensland prop David Shillington, who averaged 122 metres per game, their two biggest boppers – Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Dane Tilse – both fell short of triple figures, with Learoyd-Lahrs averaging 92 metres and Tilse 96.6.
The Raiders sorely missed the experience of front-row enforcer Brett White last year and his return from injury means the side has no excuses for not winning the battle through the middle.
How’s Their Depth
Reasonable for the most part – particularly in the backs. Expect young gun Jack Wighton to press for a starting berth this season, while speedster Reece Robinson was scintillating at fullback when injury sidelined Josh Dugan last year.
Terry Campese’s return leaves Josh McCrone and Sam Williams fighting it out for the No.7 jersey, although the Raiders’ primary position of concern is their lack of dummy-half options. Travis Waddell and Glen Buttriss remain their two primary hookers.
Dream Team Bankers
One of the most reliable performers in NRL Dream Team in recent years has been Raiders forward Shaun Fensom. The tireless back-rower averaged a whopping 56 points in 2012 and although he isn’t cheap at $439,000, he is guaranteed to boost your team’s performance. We see plenty of value in captain Terry Campese at $262,000 should his body give him more game time. He averaged 37ppg in his seven appearances in 2012.
The Raiders boast a number of quality Dream Team performers out wide, with Jarrod Croker and Blake Ferguson among them, but we like the prospects of a fit-again Josh Dugan at $365,000 (46.4ppg last season).
Despite reaching the finals twice in his four years with the Raiders, Furner’s job has consistently been scrutinised and he would surely come under extreme pressure to stay in the role should Canberra finish outside the top eight in 2013. The best scenario for Furner would be to ensure his side is in the thick of the top-eight mix from the outset.
Having reached last year’s NYC grand final the Raiders have high hopes again for 2013 – although they will gave some challenges if they are to give the title another shake. Andrew Dunemann’s elevation to assist David Furner with the top squad sees Mick Mantelli take over the coaching reins and he has a whole heap of new faces to mould over the coming months. Notably, he has lost almost the entire forward pack that laid the groundwork for their 2012 campaign, while Edrick Lee and Jack Wighton have been elevated.
Still, the club is confident it has found another batch of quality juniors. Watch for lock Shane Duck and prop Jeff Lynch to lead the way in the forwards, while 17-year-old centre Brenko Lee is tipped to be a star of the future, having represented Queensland Under-18s last season.
Canberra truly is the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ outfit of the NRL – and just which personality they bring to the fore in 2013 remains to be seen. That said, injuries to key players have played a significant role in their lack of consistency over the past two seasons and will again prove telling in 2013. If the likes of Terry Campese and Josh Dugan can stay fit throughout then perhaps the Raiders will develop into the premiership contender they have always threatened to become. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and bracket them 6th to 8th.