Canberra Raiders season preview
After falling agonisingly short of their first grand final appearance since 1994 last season, Canberra are poised for another premiership assault. With a skipper who scores points for fun, a Test dummy-half, a monstrous pack, halves just hitting their prime and the inseparable duo of Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana, Ricky Stuart has assembled the most impressive squad the nation's capital has seen in decades. Maintaining the nucleus of their 2016 side while adding Jordan Turner, Dunamis Lui and potentially David Taylor, now is as good a time as any for the Green Machine to return to the NRL summit.
Gains and losses
Gains: Jordan Turner (St Helens), Dunamis Lui (Dragons), Makahesi Makatoa (Bulldogs), Scott Sorensen (Mounties), Brent Naden (Mounties)
Losses: Lachlan Lewis (Bulldogs), Sisa Waqa (rugby union), Zac Woolford (Bulldogs), Sam Williams (Wakefield), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Paul Vaughan (Dragons), Edrick Lee (Sharks)
What we know
Without doubt this is Canberra's year to challenge for the premiership, but just how the Raiders handle expectation as one of the competition heavyweights will go a long way to testing their title credentials. Certainly one of Stuart's most important tasks will be keeping his charges from getting too far ahead of themselves, particularly given the pressure associated with being the only NRL club in town.
Canberra haven't been handed any favours when it comes to the draw, with their opening six games set to give a good indication of their standing in the NRL. It all begins with a trip to Townsville to face the Cowboys in Round 1, followed by home games against the Sharks and Wests Tigers. They'll travel to Queensland a further two times (Brisbane in Round 4, Gold Coast in Round 6) with a home clash with the Eels in between. This stretch won't be made any easier due to the injury sustained by Jarrod Croker, who's expected to miss the majority of these matches. Junior Paulo won't face North Queensland due to suspension.
 Telstra Premiership: Jarrod Croker
Tries, Points, Goals, Line Break Assists.
Given the depth they possess the Raiders are unlikely to blood too many rookies in 2017, but the most likely to crack the 17 (possibly as early as Round 1) is the highly-rated outside back Nick Cotric. Still just 18 years old, Cotric is a chance of taking Croker's spot in the backline (perhaps just behind Jordan Turner). Mounties try-scoring machine Kato Ottio could make his first grade debut later in the season after he overcomes a knee injury, while Eddie Aiono, Makahesi Makatoa and Brent Naden could find their way into the NRL side should more established players miss through rep selection or injury.
When at full strength there doesn't seem to be any room in the 17 for Shaun Fensom (assuming he remains at the club), Jeff Lima or Lui in the pack, while David Taylor will also come into calculations should he sign with the club. Lachlan Croker has had a taste of first grade and will provide cover for Austin and Sezer; and due to a long-term injury to Kurt Baptiste, Josh Hodgson will be supported by Adam Clydsdale. Zac Santo, Cotric and Aiono all can cover injuries across the backline, while English import Jordan Turner can cover centre, five-eighth and the back row.
Right-edge trio Rapana ($447,000), Leilua ($464,000) and Elliott Whitehead ($492,000) were all near essential in NRL Fantasy last season but won't come cheap to start 2017. Prolific captain Croker ($449,000) would generally be a great premium option in the centres but won't be there from Round 1. Stand-in skipper Josh Hodgson ($461,000) provides a slightly cheaper alternative to Cameron Smith at hooker.
Given the squad they've assembled and the experiences of 2016 – where they finished the regular season in second spot and exited one game shy of the grand final – Canberra are well-placed to again challenge for premiership honours. The injury to Croker won't help their cause and they must adjust to no longer being competition surprise-packets, but we're expecting Raiders supporters will need to start planning their trip to ANZ Stadium on October 1.
All 16 NRL club season previews for 2017