We've proved plenty of people wrong: Croker
Tipped by many to be 'also rans' in 2016, the Canberra Raiders proved most people wrong to finish the Telstra Premiership in second spot to head into the finals series as the hottest team in the competition.
Having started the year 7-1-6, their season could have gone one of two ways after being beaten 26-18 in Brisbane in a match many people saw as a litmus test for their top-eight hopes.
The same naysayers that predicted them to miss out on the finals would have felt somewhat justified but they were very much mistaken as the Green Machine finished 2016 with 10 wins on the trot including victories over fellow top four sides the Storm, Sharks and Cowboys.
Raiders captain Jarrod Croker told NRL.com at the start of the year that his side would be a threat in 2016 if they could turn around last year's heartbreaking run of six losses by four points or less, and while they finished the season with a 3-1-3 record in tight games, it was still a marked improvement.
They will head into the finals series as the best attacking team in the competition on the back of their 688 points, and they have already shown that they can defend their way to victory as demonstrated by their tackling masterclass against the Storm in Round 23.
While Canberra's best finish since the 1995 ARL season might have shocked some on the outside, internally it came as no surprise.
"We're very proud of what we achieved," Croker said at the Captains call on Monday morning.
"A lot of people wouldn't have expected us to finish second after the regular season. We're very proud of what we achieved and we've probably exceeded a lot of people's expectations."
Asked why he thought his side could go all the way in 2016, Croker said the spirit amongst the playing group was at an all-time high.
"I just believe the confidence we've got and the momentum we've got coming into the finals is really good," he explained.
"While it's a new competition and everyone starts fresh, we've definitely got some momentum coming into it.
"There's no one individual standing out for us at the moment. It's 17 blokes putting in their one-percenters and their extra efforts and we're playing as a team. We don't have one bloke standing out.
"Our roster - we haven't got a lot of injuries - we've been pretty good with that. Hopefully a nice roster and good depth can get us through."
That depth could be put to the test against the Sharks on Saturday evening with fullback Jack Wighton facing a three-week ban for his shoulder charge on Wests Tigers forward Joel Edwards.
Wighton is set to plead not guilty and will head to the NRL judiciary on Tuesday night to prove his innocence. If he is found guilty, the 23-year-old will have his ban increased to four weeks thus ruling him out for the rest of the season.
Zac Santo shapes as one of the candidates to replace Wighton should he be suspended, while the Raiders will also toy with the idea of moving Jordan Rapana to fullback and recall Brenko Lee on the wing.
In better news for the Green Machine, injured five-eighth Blake Austin is making progress as he continues to recover from a broken hand suffered at training a fortnight ago.
"He's been doing a lot of running… he's been getting flogged a bit but I'm not 100 per cent [when he'll return]," Croker said.
"He's been doing warm-ups and a bit of fitness with the boys so he's been back with the boots on. I think he's still a few weeks away to tell you the truth."
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