Canberra Raiders season preview
The Raiders have gone three seasons without playing finals football but that could change this season if the Green Machine continues the progress they made in 2015. Some excellent signings helped Ricky Stuart's men become one of the highest-scoring teams in the league – only minor premiers the Roosters and grand finalists Brisbane and North Queensland scored more tries per game than Canberra last season – and if they can tighten things up at the defensive end the Raiders can make the eight in 2016 and should be pumped up for the season.
Gains and losses
Gains: Aidan Sezer (Gold Coast Titans), Elliott Whitehead (Catalan Dragons), Adam Clydsdale (Newcastle Knights), Jeff Lima (Catalan Dragons), Zac Santo (Cowboys), Joseph Tapine (Newcastle Knights)
Losses: David Shillington (Gold Coast Titans), Andrew Heffernan (Penrith Panthers), Mark Nicholls (Melbourne Storm), Joel Edwards (Wests Tigers), Mitch Cornish (Parramatta Eels), Josh McCrone (St George Illawarra Dragons), Jeremy Hawkins (Melbourne Storm), Bill Tupou (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats), Jeff Lynch (Gold Coast Titans)
What we know
The Raiders were one of the best attacking teams in the league in 2015, with new signing Blake Austin instantly thriving in a green jersey and getting the best out of a talented young backline around him. Former Super League stars Sia Soliola and Josh Hodgson also excelled in their first season in Canberra, and the Green Machine will be hopeful of more of the same from talented English second-rower Elliott Whitehead this year. Their attack should only get better this season with former Titans playmaker Aidan Sezer bringing a strong kicking game to compliment Austin's brilliant instinctual running game, while Whitehead can be a genuine attacking threat on the fringes and has been an 80-minute player in the past for Catalans. The Raiders will also benefit from a fairly easy draw, with home-and-away matches against just two of last season's top eight teams.
It's no easy thing to get a new halves partnership to click quickly, so it's too early to tell if the Sezer-Austin pairing will live up to expectations. Likewise, it's impossible to tell if Whitehead will be another Soliola-style instant success or just another decent bench player in the NRL. And while the Raiders look fairly strong on paper, last season their defence let them down – especially out wide – and prevented them from reaching the finals. They also struggled badly at home, a curiosity for a club that traditionally enjoys a natural advantage in the cool Canberra conditions. If they are to make the top eight this time around Ricky Stuart will have to iron out those defensive flaws and make GIO Stadium a fortress again sooner rather than later.
A towering, hard-running lock who is still in his teens, Tevita Pangai Junior is expected to get his first chance in the NRL at some stage this season. The junior Kangaroo busted through would-be tacklers plenty of times in the lower grades last season and scored 18 tries, and has already been snapped up by the Brisbane Broncos for 2017. Lachlan Croker is another young gun with plenty of promise, having combined well with Jarrod and Jason Croker at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines this year. Lachlan is a half so is likely to be waiting in the wings this season behind Austin and Sezer in the pecking order, but might get his chance to impress if injury hits one of the first-choice playmakers.
The Raiders have traditionally had a stack of depth in the outside backs, and now look very well stocked in the back row as well, with internationals Josh Papalii and Whitehead plus fan favourites Soliola and Shaun Fensom and the likes of Frank-Paul Nuuausala and fitness freak Jarrad Kennedy, who was named the best performer at Canberra's pre-season training. They're a little lighter on in the front row, despite the presence of Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd and the arrival of Jeff Lima, and like most teams the Raiders will want their first-choice spine (Jack Wighton, Austin, Sezer and Hodgson) to stay fit all season if they are to meet expectations.
Shaun Fensom is a human tackle machine and thus the most reliable NRL Fantasy scorer at the Raiders, even if he doesn't play 80 minutes a week in what is a stacked Canberra back row. Elsewhere, Paul Vaughan has a great engine and could lift his impact in the front row following the departure of David Shillington to the Titans, while Aidan Sezer has an excellent kicking game and should get more attacking opportunities than he did at the Gold Coast last season. Whitehead has a lot of potential but he'll need to force his way into the starting side to make a real impact in Fantasy.
Ricky Stuart has his critics but he got a lot out of his new-look side last season, and he's recruited smartly again this time around. He started his coaching career overseeing the meanest defensive team in the league at the Sydney Roosters and if he can help his current team to match their natural attacking flair with a tight defensive game Stuart could surprise the critics again with a finals finish this season. Another bottom-eight finish though would start piling the pressure on one of Canberra's favourite sons.
The Raiders again look to have improved this year, with Sezer and Whitehead in particular looking like good buys, but most of the rest of the league appears to have improved as well. They are likely to be in a battle for a finals spot until very late in the season, so we'll pencil them in to finish somewhere between 7th and 10th.