Raiders Mid-Season Review
The Raiders are the smart shoppers of this year's NRL Telstra Premiership season and are so far proving their critics wrong after hobbling home last season.
They may have lost the exciting Anthony Milford to Brisbane, and then had a host of players turn their back on the club deep into contract negotiations throughout 2014, however that did not deter Ricky Stuart and his recruitment team, who managed to piece together an underrated but determined contingent of off-season purchases.
Frank-Paul Nuuausala has provided the aggression and muscle up front, Iosia Soliola the leadership and consistency, Josh Hodgson the attacking potency out of dummy half, Sam Williams the creativity and control and Sisa Waqa the class out wide.
But none have had a bigger impact on this organisation than the NRL's form player and best buy of 2015, Blake Austin. He's set about rewriting the rule-book for what makes a good playmaker this year. He plays outside of structure and his priority is always to run the ball, which is handy given his awesome mix of size, speed, agility and strength with the ball in hand.
Stuart deserves credit for his part in the turnaround in the Raiders fortunes this year.
The Green Machine certainly has their issues. Their defensive choices out wide leave a lot to be desired and they struggle to get themselves into games early but after 13 rounds they're nicely placed to have a real crack at finals footy this year.
The run home: The Raiders have one of the easiest draws on paper out of any team this year based on the current ladder positions. After a huge clash against the Cowboys in a couple of weeks their run home includes only one current top-eight team. Warriors (8th), Sharks (12th), Knights (14th), Panthers (10th), Wests Tigers (13th), Sea Eagles (16th), Titans (11th), Panthers (10th) and Eels (15th).
Game to remember: The Raiders comeback victory over the Rabbitohs in Round 8 was a huge result in the context of their season. It was the second straight week they'd come back from a big deficit and they did it in brilliant fashion. In front of a national TV audience and against last year's premiers, the Raiders showed everyone their intent in this year's Telstra Premiership.
The one that got away: The Raiders' Round 11 clash with the Bulldogs was crazy, entertaining, thrilling and everything you want in a match if you are a neutral observer. For Raiders fans, this one (34-41) was the game that got away. The Bulldogs were already riddled with injury and players on Origin duty before James Graham was a late withdrawal, but somehow they still allowed their opponents to race away to a huge early lead. It looked like the Green Machine would pull the cat out of the bag to claim a late victory, but then Josh Reynolds stepped up and ripped it away from them. Stuart's men will have to learn to win these encounters if they want to be a threat in September.
MVP: Blake Austin has been a revelation at Canberra this year. He has nine tries this year (fifth in the NRL) as well as 12 linebreaks (second). His dynamic ball running and upbeat play has been a feature of the Green Machine's attack and has certainly caused Wests Tigers fans to wonder why they ever let him go.
Stats that matter: For the first time since winning eight of their last nine games in 2010 to blast into the finals as the NRL's razzle-dazzle team, the Raiders are the top attacking team in the competition. They top all teams with 54 tries this year, four clear of the Broncos. Now all they need to do is get their defence right.
Fantasy stud: Shaun Fensom is a mainstay in NRL Fantasy and again is leading the way with an average of 56 points per game. Iosia Soliola (49.9), Josh Papalii (48.7) and Blake Austin (47.9) have also been great for Fantasy coaches with Soliolia rising $200,000 in value.
Injury report: For the first season in recent memory the Raiders have barely been affected by injury. With David Shillington returning to the top team over the last few weeks, all of Canberra's best 17 are available.
What they are saying: "There hasn't been any pressure placed on ourselves. The boys have been good. The effort and the heart is there, it's just a matter of us still learning as a team – as both a whole and as individuals," Iosia Soliola told NRL.com.
"We are going in the right direction. It's one of those things you can't really build in one season. It's one of those things which generally progresses but the way it's happened, it's happened really quick given the circumstances, so I'm really looking forward for the remainder of the year and moving forward onwards."
Predicted finish: The Raiders sit just two competition points outside the eight at the moment, but are coming together nicely and have a great run home. We think they'll finish 6th or 7th.