We've done nothing yet: Stuart
After an eighth straight win that shored up a top-four finish for his side, Canberra coach Ricky Stuart has done his best to hose down any hype around the Raiders' 2016 premiership hopes.
Speaking after his team's comeback 28-18 win over a determined Eels outfit at GIO Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Stuart repeatedly insisted this year's finals series would be an educational experience for his young squad, most of whom are strangers to September football.
Captain Jarrod Croker and back-rower Josh Papalii were the only players in action on Sunday to appear in the club's last finals campaign in 2012 and there are only a small handful of other players – centre Joey Leilua, English imports Elliott Whitehead and Josh Hodgson, and veteran Sia Soliola – who have played big matches elsewhere.
"We haven't done anything yet," was Stuart's blunt assessment after confirming the top-four finish and first finals berth in four seasons.
"I've got a very young playing group there. We're going to go into a semi-finals series without a lot of experience which will probably, it's going to be difficult, it's going to be tough.
"But the experience we'll learn going into the semi-finals this year is going to be outstanding going into the next two, three, four years for this club. We've got a very good future. Whatever happens in the semi-finals series it's going to be a wonderful education for us going forward.
"They say you need experience to win semi-final football. Maybe that will be the case but it will give us a great education going into next year and the years after that. We're very happy with where we sit but we haven't achieved anything yet.
"Outside the fact that we're in the top four and I'm very proud of their players and their efforts for putting us in that position. The future, who knows?"
Stuart also outlined concern the in-form Raiders may have peaked early or were at risk of plateauing out.
"I can only ask so much of the players. Have they got it? I don't know. I know it's going to be very hard over the coming weeks because we've been up for a long time," he said.
"Will we plateau out? Time will tell. Will a lack of experience tell in the semi-finals? Time will tell. But it's going to be a great education for them. We're on a journey here."
In something of a swipe at teams that have enjoyed more success in recent seasons, Stuart said Canberra were winning games off the back of every player putting in without any big-name stars.
"I haven't got a Johnathan Thurston or a Cameron Smith or a Cooper Cronk," he said.
"I've got a team where we don't live off one player, we've got to live off everybody's individual contributions."
Stuart praised skipper Jarrod Croker's leadership in helping the team bond, creating the belief that they could overhaul an early 18-4 deficit against the Eels, and also praised the stability around the club at present.
"[The players] care about the club now, they care about results, they don't just play for each other in there they play for the past players and they play for the club itself," he said.
Both Stuart and Croker praised the influence of the huge 18,825-strong crowd.
"I was very fortunate I was a player in the days we used to get that consistently," Stuart said. "I don't know if the actual people here understand how much they play a part of that result on the back end of the day.
"We have got great supporters. We'd like to have more of them consistently because I know it helps the players. There's a lot of heart and soul in Canberra let me tell you and I think the Canberra Raiders are bringing a lot of that out of Canberra in the community now."
Croker said it was the crowd that got the team back in the game in the second half.
"Without that 18 thousand there today we'd do it a lot tougher than we did today… through thick and thin they've got us back," Croker said.