Raiders 2014 Season Preview
There is no question the Raiders underachieved in 2013 and while you'll never hear any of their players making excuses, they had their fair share of explanations to pick from if they wanted to.
From the repeated behavioural issues and eventual departures of star backs Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, to another injury layoff for skipper Terry Campese, to ongoing speculation over the future of coach David Furner and his eventual departure, the Raiders had more than enough distractions to affect their on-field performances last season.
With the disruptive influences from the playing roster having been moved on, a new coach in former club legend Ricky Stuart, and Campese having completed his first full uninterrupted pre-season in years, fans will be hoping for a settled and happy Green Machine to make a statement in early 2014.
And we say "early" because the club seems to have a habit of starting seasons poorly - they were blitzed in the opening two rounds last season away to Penrith and Gold Coast, and they start 2014 with away games at Townsville and Newcastle.
Stuart has been subjecting the players to training sessions in Canberra's blistering dry afternoon heat over summer in a bid to have them ready for those early season trips. Canberra's woeful 2-10 record away from the nation's capital hurt them last year and is a key area they need to correct.
A quick skim of the gains and losses above doesn't look pretty, but don't forget the Raiders are just about the best in the business at breeding quality juniors (Anthony Milford and Paul Vaughan were two of the breakout stars of 2013). There is another crop - led by Mitch Cornish, Jack Ahearn and Shannon Boyd - ready to make their mark in 2014.
Gains: Lagi Setu (Storm), Kyle O'Donnell (Panthers), Kurt Baptiste (Broncos).
Losses: Blake Ferguson (released), Joel Thompson (Dragons), Shaun Berrigan (retired), Sam Williams (Dragons), Sandor Earl (banned - length pending), Joe Picker (Rabbitohs), Jonathon Reuben (Roosters), Hayden Crockett (Mackay Cutters), Dimitri Pelo (Burleigh Bears), Michael Picker (retired).
How They'll Play It
You can expect Stuart to pretty much start from scratch this year. For starters Canberra's giant forward pack, including the likes of Dane Tilse and David Shillington, has been told to get their skin folds down with a renewed focus on fitness and mobility over sheer size. It was already a plan before the new NRL rules came in with a focus on speeding up a game, but will be even more crucial in light of those changes.
Utility playmaker Josh McCrone has been moved to hooker fulltime where the likes of Glenn Buttriss, Matt McIlwrick, club junior Mitch Cronin and Broncos recruit Kurt Baptiste will ensure furious competition for spots there. With Sam Williams gone to St George Illawarra and Milford likely to start at fullback, Junior Kangaroos captain Mitch Cornish could partner a fully fit Terry Campese - although Junior Kangaroos fullback Jack Ahearn and utility Jack Wighton are also in the mix there.
Expect HUGE Things From
After some injury ruined seasons, one-time Kangaroo Terry Campese is reportedly as fit as he's been in years and ready to make his mark. He showed glimpses last year but with a full pre season under his belt now is the ideal time for the 29-year-old to lead the club forward. Fellow club leader Josh McCrone is off contract after 2014 and has been touted by some as a potential Origin player at hooker, so he really couldn't have a better set of reasons to make the most of his move to dummy half.
Expect the guys just outside the initial best 13 or 17 to put massive pressure on the incumbents, particularly in the front row. Experience-wise you'd expect Canberra's initial four-man prop rotation to feature Shillington, Tilse, Brett White and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs. But Paul Vaughan was one of the stars of last year for both Canberra and Italy in the World Cup, Shannon Boyd is highly rated and in line for a debut some time in 2014, Mark Nicholls has been good in his limited opportunities, and Kyle O'Donnell - younger brother of former Kangaroo and Roosters premiership winner Luke - has reportedly been eye-catching so far at training. Whoever holds down a spot in the Raiders front row this year will need to be doing a damn fine job.
The Question Marks
The make-up of their spine isn't settled, so that is the first question, but if the Milford-Campese-Cornish-McCrone combination at 1-6-7-9 features at the start of the year, it throws up four question marks right there:
- Will a homesick Milford have his head in the right place now that he's signed with Brisbane from 2015, and will he be able to reproduce or improve on his 2013 form?
- Will Campese's notorious knees be able to withstand a full season of NRL?
- How quickly will Cornish adapt to life in the top grade? Or if Wighton gets the nod how will he adapt to the playmaking role?
- How will McCrone fare as a specialist hooker, and will he be able to fight off challenges to hold down the starting dummy-half role?
Who Needs To Lift?
Plenty of players, if we're being honest. Their best metre-eater in 2013 was Shillington, but his 110.5 metres per game only makes it to 38th-best in the NRL, with the 13th-finishing Raiders placed 13th-best for running metres (1,255 per game) last year. The butter-fingered Raiders dropped more ball than any side in 2013 (11.0 errors per game) to repeatedly squander opportunities and put themselves under pressure. Milford made 25 and Croker made 20, while Wighton and McCrone (17 each) also have work to do in that department.
How's Their Depth?
It's one of the club's greatest assets. As mentioned above there are as many as five genuine options at hooker, at least eight genuine first grade or even representative level props, a host of options in the halves and at fullback, and - as a conservative estimate - eight or nine players vying for spots in the three-quarter line. If there's an area that looks slightly skinny it's the back row behind the likely starting configuration of Papalii, Shaun Fensom and Joel Edwards. But with a few of the front row candidates able to fill in along with the likes of Jarrad Kennedy and Jake Foster, as well as some juniors coming up, it would still take a fair few injuries to get to panic stations.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Shaun Fensom ($412,100) has been one of Fantasy's elite players over the past few years, largely on the strength of mountains of tackles (41.0 per game in 2013). Josh Papalii ($357,400) became a genuine option last year on the strength of increased minutes and attacking stats and Anthony Milford ($310,100) will be popular if he nails down the fullback spot. Terry Campese ($260,400) has been a keeper in the past and could also be a money-maker if he stays fit.
Club legend Ricky Stuart returns home and will be one of the most closely scrutinised coaches in the early part of the season - and more so if the club doesn't start winning. Having left his previous two coaching contracts (at Cronulla and Parramatta) early and with a winning percentage of just 21 per cent across his last two NRL seasons (at the Eels in 2013 and Sharks in 2009) and less than 40 per cent over six seasons from 2005 onwards, questions will inevitably begin to be asked over the length of Stuart's three-year deal if positive signs don't appear sooner rather than later.
Last year's minor premiers were disappointingly bundled out by the Panthers in the Grand Final qualifier, and that team has since lost some real stars - Junior Kangaroos Mitch Cornish and Jack Ahearn have graduated from the junior system but fellow Junior Kangaroo Patrick Mago is still eligible for the NYC team. Branko Lee, cousin of NRL star Edrick, has been wowing the senior squad at training and can be expected to light up the NYC competition in 2014 barring a call up to the top squad.
With so many unknowns, so many promising players, and a new coaching roster, the Raiders are one of the real lottery sides of 2014 - if there's a side that could just as conceivably finish in the top four or bottom four this is it. But we've got to stick them somewhere so we'll tip them to improve but not quite enough to make the finals: ninth.
1. Anthony Milford, 2. Reece Robinson, 3. Jarrod Croker, 4. Jack Wighton, 5. Edrick Lee, 6. Terry Campese, 7. Mitch Cornish, 8. Dave Shillington, 9. Josh McCrone, 10. Brett White, 11. Josh Papalii, 12. Joel Edwards, 13. Shaun Fensom, Interchange: 14. Glen Buttriss, 15. Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, 16. Paul Vaughan, 17. Dane Tilse.