Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. Terry Campese
After playing all 26 games in 2010 and a starring role in the Raiders’ semi-finals march, talisman-like five-eighth Terry Campese lasted all of eight minutes in 2011 – and didn’t the Green Machine seize up? This time last year Campo was regarded as not only Canberra’s saviour but also the likely linchpin for a New South Wales Blues side desperate to halt their embarrassing State of Origin slide. Two years ago, with Campese calling their shots, the Raiders made the most metres by any team each week (1416) and punched out the fifth-most line-breaks (4.7). Without him last year they slumped to the fewest metres each game (1270) and the third-fewest line-breaks (3.6). Individually Campo’s worth is immense: in 2010 he led his position for line-breaks (12), ranked second for line-break assists in the No.6 (17) behind Benji Marshall, ranked third for try assists (15), and third for tries (6). While Josh McCrone substituted magnificently last year (16 try assists, 13 line-breaks, 10 line-break assists) there wasn’t the same snappiness and sense of anticipation among the playing group as when Campo showed the ball in his hands, nor the unpredictability his running game presented.
But most importantly the Raiders missed his booming boot – in 2010 he had the best percentage for long kicks to open space (76 of 131) and ranked second to Jamie Soward for kicks in general play (273). Plus he topped the league for 40/20s (four). With Campese reassuming control behind a dominant forward pack [see below] and combining with strike weapons Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, the Raiders will create plenty of migraines for opposition defences.
2. Welcome Shaun Berrigan
The recruitment of former Bronco and Warrior Shaun Berrigan might seem a little “so what?” – that is until you realise just how much defensive muscle he’s likely to flex for the Raiders. The former Kangaroo may be well past his days of maximum impact in attack but he is still a heck of a consistent and dependable tackler. In 19 games for the Warriors last year Berrigan missed just 26 tackles and was ineffective only 27 times (1.4 average respectively). He’s a smart buy given the Raiders were simply woeful in defence in 2011, missing the second-most tackles each game (37.4) by any team. Deeper analysis shows they conceded an NRL-high 27 tries on the left fringe; it’s their major weakness and don’t be surprised if Berrigan is given the job to stiffen the region, even if it’s only off the bench. Over the course of a season expect dramatic improvement down this corridor.
3. The Dugan factor
If Josh Dugan can keep injuries at bay he’ll light up the NRL like he did in 2010 when he terrorised opposition defences running the ball back from kicks deep in his own half, or trailing through the centre of the ruck. Dugan made the most line-breaks by any fullback (20) and led the competition for tackle-breaks (192) in what was a truly stunning year. It proved the springboard to representative honours in 2011: he was man of the match in the 2011 All Stars game and earned a Blues jersey in Game One of last year’s Origin series before injury disrupted the remainder of his season. Expect Terry Campese to seek out Dugan with select passes close to the opposition try-line as the Raiders strive to become a dominant attacking outfit again.
4. Pack up their troubles
Canberra’s top eight hopes rest with their big-name pack. With a roster boasting Test and Origin stars aplenty in David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Brett White, Bronson Harrison, plus Dane Tilse, Shaun Fensom and emerging star Josh Papalii, the Raiders were expected to stamp themselves as among the most dominant in the NRL last year, but injuries and a lack of consistency hampered their progress. Given an even share of luck they should make amends this year. Expect a huge turn-around in field position: last year the Raiders clawed out the fewest metres each week, with their 12 errors a game (fourth most) a major factor. Only Learoyd-Lahrs and Tilse topped triple figures for metres each game (100 each), so they’ve got plenty of room for improvement. Expect them to be hungry to eat up the metres.
5. Doing it for Dave
David Furner doesn’t need to be told this is the most crucial year in his coaching career. Under his mentorship the Raiders have finished 13th, semi-finalists and then 15th last year, dodging the wooden spoon only on points differential. Given their injuries, Canberra’s powerbrokers may have been prepared to dismiss last year’s return as a glitch – but they may not be as understanding should the team not show an adequate turnaround in 2012. That’s a massive motivation for the players given their bond with Furner. The playing group also have to restore some faith with fans after their woeful 4-8 record at Canberra Stadium. There’s plenty of incentive to fire early: six of their final eight games are at home and if they can grind out a position around the middle of the competition table it will give Furner a good platform to launch their assault.