Canberra Raiders season preview
The return of prodigal son Ricky Stuart as head coach in 2014 didn't have the desired effect as Canberra only narrowly avoided the wooden spoon to finish 15th. With an influx of representative players among the new signings ahead of 2015, the Green Machine faithful will be hoping the new-look Raiders can return to the finals zone after two years in the doldrums.
Gains and losses
Gains: Sisa Waqa (Storm), Iosia Soliola (St Helens), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (Roosters), Josh Hodgson (Hull KR), Blake Austin (Wests Tigers), Rhys Kennedy (Storm), Sam Williams (Catalans Dragons).
Losses: Anthony Milford (Broncos), Reece Robinson (Eels), Brett White (retired), Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (Storm), Sami Sauiluma (Sharks), Matt Allwood (Warriors), Lagi Setu (Roosters), Matt McIlwrick (Roosters), Terry Campese (Hull KR).
In Nuuausala (New Zealand), Soliola (New Zealand), Hodgson (England) and Waqa (Fiji), Stuart has the big-game experience he was craving (three of those players are also premiership-winners), while the additions of Austin and Williams make the halves battle deeply intriguing.
What we know
The Raiders have had one of the most massive forward packs in the competition for several years now, and with Dave Shillington and Dane Tilse still on the books and 2014 breakout stars Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd going from strength to strength that will be the case again in 2015. How to best use that size to their advantage remains a riddle for Stuart to crack, however. Hard-working lock Shaun Fensom will once again provide the starch in the middle. Joined by the all-international combination of Nuuausala, Soliola and Josh Papalii, the Raiders suddenly have a potent back-row rotation on their hands. The likely first-choice three-quarter line of Edrick Lee, Jarrod Croker, Jeremy Hawkins and Sisa Waqa also has plenty of pace and class about it.
There are massive question marks over all the key playmaking spots at this stage, both in terms of who will fill the spots and how those players will perform. Jack Wighton finished off 2014 very encouragingly at fullback and should be given first crack there (the other option would be to start Rapana and move Wighton to centre at the expense of Hawkins) but whether he is the long-term solution to replace Anthony Milford remains to be seen. Mitch Cornish looks like getting first go at halfback but the return of Sam Williams means this is anything but certain, and it remains to be seen how long Cornish takes to adjust to life as a regular first grader after also finishing off 2014 strongly. Former Panthers and Tigers utility Blake Austin seemed most at home in the No.6 jersey last year despite filling almost every spot on the field at some point and could form a dangerous partnership with Cornish. And despite Matt McIlwrick's departure to the Roosters there are a host of options at hooker, with British Test rake Josh Hodgon looking like starting ahead of Glen Butriss but he, too, is an unknown quantity at NRL level.
Of the youngsters who were blooded last year, Cornish and Hawkins should get plenty of time in the NRL in 2015. For highly-rated young playmaker Lachie Croker it seems a case of 'when' rather than 'if' he steps up to first grade after an excellent Nines campaign but may have too many players in front of him at this stage. It's a similar case for fullback-or-half Jack Ahearn who has been outstanding at the Nines two years in a row now. Props Luke Page and Jeff Lynch, and back-rowers Tevita Pangai Jr and Patrick Mago, are also pushing strongly should injuries become a factor in the first-grade squad.
Room for improvement
The Raiders were the second-worst club defensively in 2014, ahead of only the Wests Tigers, and that will no doubt be a massive focus over their pre-season. Jarrad Kennedy (69 misses in 20 games), Josh McCrone (65 in 24) and Joel Edwards (54 in 20) in particular need to brush up. Josh Papalii had some injury troubles early in the year and finished as a Kangaroos Four Nations representative but with his ability, he'll want to improve on his averages of 91 metres and 25 tackles per game.
You could build a pretty fair footy team from Canberra players who won't get picked for first grade in Round 1, and feeder club Mounties should again be a strong side in the NSW Cup. They have options in every position – including all four key playmaking positions – and may well see first graders such as Sam Williams, Josh McCrone, Jordan Rapana, Jarrad Kennedy and Brenko Lee sitting out at the start of the year.
Shaun Fensom ($519,000) is a genuine Fantasy superstar and if he overcomes a late-2014 knee reconstruction to take his place for Round 1 will be incredibly popular once again. Josh Papalii ($396,000) is Canberra's second-most expensive player and has some upside if he can return to career-best form. New captain Jarrod Croker ($360,000) is already the fourth-most expensive centre in NRL Fantasy and having been promoted to captain could reach a new level. As the team's goal kicker he will also benefit from extra points via conversions if Canberra can improve their attack from last year. Halfback Mitch Cornish ($169,000) will see massive price rises if given an extended run in first grade and is the most-selected player in Fantasy.
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Ricky Stuart famously walked out on the final two years of a deal at Parramatta for a three-year deal in the nation's capital and it didn't start well, only just evading the wooden spoon last season. Stuart's win-rate as coach since taking the Sharks to a third-place ladder finish in 2008 continues to hover just above 25 per cent and while no degree of underperformance would have seen him ousted from Canberra after just one season, he is now in his second year, he has some big-name recruits and has now had a significant influence over Canberra's playing roster. If the results don't start coming soon the pressure will grow rapidly.
Anthony Milford sparked the vast majority of Canberra's spluttering attack in 2014 and will leave a massive gulf. But with class right across the park, big-game experience among the new recruits and a few youngsters like Wighton, Vaughan and Edrick Lee approaching what should be their best years, there should be some good days ahead for the Green Machine. If anything, the drastically reshuffled playmaking line-up may take some time to gel, and it could be a slow start for Canberra as the likes of Cornish, Austin and Hodgson get used to playing alongside each other. It's shaping as another building year for the Raiders ahead of what could well be a strong 2016. NRL.com prediction: 14th.