Season Preview: Canberra Raiders

PERENNIAL wooden spoon candidates Canberra Raiders will go into 2010 as they do each season: knowing they’re under-rated and out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It’s how they like it. Indeed they thrive upon it. Under-rated underdogs usually do.<br><br>Yet this well-coached, disciplined football team will surprise plenty not just at home but on the road. They do it every year. Canberra Stadium has long been a graveyard for visiting teams, and not just when the great Green Machines of the late ’80s and ’90s were dusting all-and-sundry. Simply, Canberra on a cold Friday night is not a place teams like to play. It can be freezing cold, the local fans are as parochial as any in rugby league, and opposition fans often don’t make the trip. Taking two points out of Canberra is no misere.<br><br>Yet cast an eye over the best 17 Canberra can trot out and it’s obvious they’ll need to keep them all fit. Their best players are quality – but their depth is shallower than Lake George.<br><br>Still, that’s not too different for most NRL clubs. And if you get healthy odds about Canberra finishing top-eight? Take ’em. (That is, if you’re confident they can get along adequately without strike weapon Joel Monaghan for the opening month or so of the premiership. Ouch, that’s gotta&nbsp; hurt.)<br><b><br>Their Keys To Success…</b> The Raiders’ forward pack could be extras in a re-make of ‘Land of the Giants’. These are as big as boppers get. Prop forwards Dane Tilse, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and David Shillington cart the ball into the meat of the defence and bend it pretty effectively. They’re mobile and take some stopping. The ball is then sent to ball-playing forwards like Trevor Thurling and Bronson Harrison who try the same out wide. It’s simple stuff; but brutally effective. <br><br>In the backs Canberra don’t have a halfback who’ll run the whole show like Matt Orford did at Manly or Brett Kimmorley has done everywhere else. But in Marc Herbert they’ve got a young ball-player who doesn’t make mistakes. Now 23 and in his third year of first grade, Herbert plays smart, controlled rugby league – the perfect foil for his more exuberant halves partner Terry Campese. Indeed they form a pretty good combination; both capable of long, driving 40-20s; both capable of slick service to the outside backs.<br><br>But it’s Campese who gives the Raiders an X-factor. Herbert’s job will be to send good ball to Campo, who’ll do whatever it is he feels like: run, pass, kick – the guy has a fine bag of tricks. <br><br>And if boom fullback Josh Dugan – who had a brilliant debut season in 2009 – can learn to run the right angles around Campese’s sniping and Joel Monaghan’s intelligent lines, then the Raiders will form a potent back division.<br><br>Combine that with solid defence – Raiders fans know they’ll get 80 minutes from Alan Tongue, for example – and the discipline required to hang onto the ball and restrict penalties, and Canberra will again surprise in 2010. <br><b><br>Expect Plenty From…</b> Josh Dugan drew parallels with Gary Belcher in his boom debut season but the 19-year-old from Tuggeranong has shades of – gasp – Darren Lockyer about him. He’s fast, long-legged and lithe, has an eye for a hole and runs with the grace of the 400-metre runner. <br><br>And he’s tough: check out YouTube for his tackle that barrelled a rampaging Dave Taylor into touch in Round 26. Second-year syndrome has befallen plenty of players, as have comparisons with champions (sorry, Josh). But the kid can play. Just watch him.<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> Phil Graham, now at the Roosters. An electric runner and finisher, Graham put the icing on plenty of Canberra cakes. <br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> Trevor Thurling spent a fair chunk of 2009 off the field following injury and a drink-driving charge after showing signs of being a very good, free-running back-row forward. Thurling reminds Raiders fans a little of David Furner in his prime and if the 25-year-old can get out of the blocks running in 2010 he’ll remind Country Origin selectors that he has a lot of game. <br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> There’s no-one at Canberra more pleased than David Furner that his team rarely enjoys the limelight. Furner likes to go about his business without fuss. Now in his second season as first-grade coach Furner probably has this year and even the next one to get his side humming. <br><br>He’s a favourite son and there’s patience in the capital based on the premise that young backs need to grow behind giant forwards. Furner’s job is safe in 2010 and (probably) 2011. After that, he’s on his own.<br><b><br>They’re All The Better For…</b> Danny Galea is a nice addition to the Canberra squad. After beginning his career with Penrith in 2002 as an 18-year-old (debuting against Andrew Johns) Galea had 34 first-grade games with Wests Tigers. He’s now a hugely experienced 26-year-old centre and should be into his prime. A good buy.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish…</b> With Joel Monaghan on the paddock all year we were prepared to say as high as sixth. But with his injury comes uncertainty; they can’t afford any loose links in their premiership chain. Or a slow start.