Canberra Raiders 2019 season preview

Ricky Stuart called a spade a spade when he sat down with NRL.com at the start of February amid predictions he is a lead candidate as the next coach on rugby league's chopping block.

"Why wouldn't I be? I haven't made the eight in the last two years."

The Raiders boast a talented roster but haven't turned a surprise run to the 2016 preliminary final into tangible success since.

They remain one of the most entertaining outfits in the game. But their inability to convert their razzle dazzle into results – with 11 games lost by nine points or less and eight of those by just a converted try – frustrates plenty in the nation's capital.

And in a land more than familiar with a leadership spill, most all in lime green are under the pump in 2019 as a result.

The 2019 outlook

What’s New

Plenty. Up front 240 kilos of prime beef has departed, with starting front-rowers Junior Paulo (Parramatta) and Shannon Boyd (Gold Coast) out the door, as well as back-ups Charlie Gubb and Liam Knight.

Coming into the pack are English forwards Ryan Sutton and John Bateman, adding more mobility to what was once the NRL's biggest forward contingent.

Elsewhere the scrum base gets a shake-up with Jack Wighton pencilled in as Stuart's first choice five-eighth as Blake Austin's replacement.

While Wighton slots into the No.6 jumper with Aidan Sezer "the steerer and I’ll do the running" according to the enigmatic utility, Stuart is reluctant to shift gun youngster Nick Cotric from wing to fullback.

Michael Oldfield, Brad Abbey and latest recruit Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad shape as the most likely custodian options.

Raiders recruit Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
Raiders recruit Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. ©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

The Draw

Ten Sunday afternoon outings should suit Canberra's freewheeling approach to their football, though only two prime time free-to-air TV appearances is par for the course with Canberra.

The Raiders are traditionally slow starters, never winning more than 50 per cent of their opening six games each year over the last decade.

They have a favourable start to 2019, with games against last year's bottom eight dwellers Gold Coast, Newcastle, North Queensland and Parramatta in the first six rounds.

Early wins aren’t Canberra's forte, but just like last season they could well prove crucial. The Raiders run home features tough encounters with Penrith, the Warriors (twice), Cronulla and heavyweights Melbourne and the Roosters.

The stat that gives you hope

Teams still struggle to contain the Raiders' genuine ball-runners – see Joey Leilua, Cotric, Josh Papalii and friends – with Canberra's 4.6 line breaks a game second only to Souths in 2018. The Raiders broke the line aplenty despite registering only 45 decoys per game, the third fewest across the competition.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise

Papalii ($734,000) is well on his way to becoming an NRL Fantasy keeper, while Cotric ($561,000) is already one of the game's elite tackle-breakers and could step up a level if he becomes Canberra's full-time fullback. Sezer ($378,000) has the potential to pile on a ton of kick metres if he plays alongside a ball-runner like Wighton ($477,000) in the halves and Emre Guler ($292,000) could be a bargain as he steps up in a front-row rotation that has lost a few big names this year. – Lone Scout

The Coach

In a game full of polarising figures, 'Sticky' does it better than most and knows it.

Signed until the end of 2020, he will find himself in the critics' cross hairs if the Raiders struggle early on, especially given a favourable early run.

Stuart is rarely paid his dues for the turnaround in Canberra's culture and the club's standing in the eyes of potential recruits – which was a few feet underground at the start of his rebuild.

But with one finals appearance in five seasons, 2019 shapes as one of the most important of Stuart's coaching career.

Contract Matters

Last season contract capers came to a head at Raiders HQ, with big names Austin (Warrington), Paulo (Parramatta) and Boyd (Gold Coast) exiting and Josh Hodgson, Papilii, Sia Soliola, Cotric, Sezer and Joseph Tapine all re-signing.

As a result Canberra’s is a settled roster, though that will change if it doesn’t deliver. Kiwi international Jordan Rapana is the highest profile coming off-contract alongside Luke Bateman and Ata Hingano in 2019.

But more pressing is where to for a fullback/winger with the $175,000 salary cap relief to replace Rapana, who will miss the first half of the season with a dislocated shoulder playing for New Zealand last November.

The Burning Question

Can Canberra close out a game?

With points aplenty the Raiders are always in the contest, only to be found wanting so many times when the game is on the line. In 2018 it cost them a finals berth. 

Representative bolter

Twenty-year-old Cotric is not exactly a bolter for NSW Origin honours, more well and truly shaping for a spot on Brad Fittler's flanks after going into camp with the Blues last year and breaking more tackles (149) than any other player in the competition.

A Kangaroos recall for the first time since 2016 is also on the cards for Papalii if he can maintain his strong form from last season.

The player you should follow on social media

Sia Soliola. If you can find a nicer bloke in the NRL, you follow him. The veteran hard man does a mountain of charity work and is genuinely passionate about a post-footy career in the social side of the game. He also had to be rescued out of the surf during a pre-season trip last year and paid tribute to the teenage lifeguard who pulled him out of the water in front of very amused teammates.

The Quote

"I'm not making attack a priority. We haven't practised anywhere near the amount of attack we've practised over the years. It's been defensive orientated this off-season." - Ricky Stuart

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.