Powerhouse Canberra prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs says frank team discussions about the Raiders’ dismal 2011 season had left the players upbeat about returning to the semi-finals in 2012.
And the former Kangaroos and New South Wales representative remains hungry for a return to the representative arena after injuries restricted him to just 12 games this year.
The 26-year-old, on the comeback trail after missing the last nine games of 2011 with a biceps tear, would not reveal the nature of their candid, behind-closed-doors assessment but said he was confident it would reignite the fire in the team and lead to greater consistency from the outset of 2012.
“We copped a lot of pressure externally this year – I think as a unit we’ll just keep it in-house and that way we know what we are doing and hopefully we won’t have to tell anyone… hopefully they’ll see the results on the field,” Learoyd-Lahrs told NRL.com today.
“We’ve touched on a lot of things about where we went wrong in 2011 and we’ve come up with a pretty strong system or plan to make sure that doesn’t happen in 2012.
“I think our training so far has been exceptional; the guys have bought in to what we’ve talked about and I can see the changes already so it’s just a matter of keeping that going throughout the pre-season and taking it onto the field when Round 1 comes.”
There’s no doubt an improvement in defence will be key to the Raiders’ revival in 2012 after the Green Machine registered the third most missed tackles and conceded the most tries and the most points per game this season, finishing a lowly 15th on the NRL ladder. Also, they made the fourth most errors of all teams.
The Test and New South Wales prop, who played all four Four Nations internationals in 2010, will focus on improving his stamina in a bid to reclaim the representative jerseys his latest injury forced him to surrender. He averaged 42 minutes on the field in 2011.
“Obviously that’s a main goal of mine. First of all, getting back to playing the sort of footy I know I am capable of and hopefully those things will come off the back of that,” he said.
“Certainly in the past I think maybe I’ve played an impact role; often times I probably haven’t had the staying power of the key front-rowers in the game,” he continued. “So I’d like to build up my fitness, and probably a better work ethic and be able to stay out there for longer periods of time.”
“For the time being, coming off the back of a major operation, it’s all about recovery now and making sure I get my body right first… and if I do that I give myself hopefully a chance to get back into that sort of form and make those teams.”
Learoyd-Lahrs is mindful that the next few years could define his career. He says he’s determined to not leave anything in the tank in his efforts to become the best player he can be.
“Obviously last year was a little bit lean for me, I think in terms of injuries and form at times it wasn’t up to scratch as well, so  for me is just about getting back on track and getting back to the football I know I can play,” he said.
“I’m a firm believer that if training is anything to go by, yeah I think my best years are hopefully ahead of me.
“Certainly at this stage of the year it’s safe to say I’m happy with the way I’m training and the effort I’m putting in at training… I think if I can get myself as fit as possible, hopefully that will lead to strong performances.”
As for his Raiders team-mates, Learoyd-Lahrs expects exciting 20-year-old back-rower Josh Papalii to leave his mark in 2012.
“Josh has a huge future – he surprised me, just how well he’s come on and how quickly he came on and just the level of confidence he’s had from his first game,” he enthused.
“I’m expecting big things from Joshie this year, and so are the rest of the boys. I’m certainly glad I’m playing alongside him and not having to run at him!”
Also, the hulking prop has his fingers crossed his name is read out when the Indigenous All Stars team is announced next Wednesday, having played a pivotal role in the side in its first two years.
“It’s a great test – and I suppose the fact that it’s one-all at the moment too, there’ll be blokes wanting to win to get the ascendancy,” he said. “And it’s a chance to play against and with the best players in the game, so it’s a very unique concept and a great way to start the year.
“It’s obviously a one-off game so it’s not hard to get up for, and obviously getting the chance to play alongside other blokes with the same culture in the third year now, we’ve formed a few good friendships and it’s exciting times and I think everyone enjoys the week.”
Learoyd-Lahrs admitted the season opener was always a struggle, however.
“It’s always hard… the first game of the year is always tough,” he said. “Hopefully if everyone is injury-free you’ve had a long pre-season but there’s nothing like match fitness to get you in the swing of things, so I think everyone usually battles through the first game.
“Normal trial games are pretty much just going through the motions of your club level but the All Stars has a lot of atmosphere and a lot more atmosphere than what you’d usually experience throughout a trial game, so it’s definitely an exciting way to start the year and hopefully I can be part of it again.”
Learoyd-Lahrs said he was looking forward to playing alongside Broncos second-rower Sam Thaiday after he missed this year’s All Stars game through injury, and also with Sea Eagles dynamo George Rose.
“Despite the obvious fact that [Sam’s] been around for a long time and he’s played a lot of games and he’s got that experience, being a proud Aboriginal man, he’s proud of his culture, he instils a lot of that in the young guys away from the field,” he said.
“And on the field, just his leadership qualities and the fact he’s been such a strike weapon now for so many years in the competition, it gives players a lot of confidence knowing he’s beside them.
“Georgie I suppose is probably more flamboyant than most front-rowers in the game; he’s got a different dimension to his football than most blokes in that position,” he said. “He’s got good footwork and good ball skills. So he’s not just your run-of-the-mill front-rower… you never know what he’s going to produce.
“He’s a funny bloke and fun to be around – there’s a lot of guys in the team who are fun to be around and make you laugh so that’s what makes the week such an enjoyable time… but it will be interesting to see what haircut he comes with this year, too!”
• The Indigenous All Stars team will be announced on NRL.com on Wednesday December 7.
• The first stage of voting for the NRL All Stars commences on Friday December 2 on NRL.com.