The Raiders gave the 2020 finals a red-hot crack despite injuries threatening to pitch Ricky Stuart into their front-row halfway through the season.
Now their big men are fighting fit once more and just as significantly, so is Josh Hodgson - adding yet another bow to one of the most entertaining attacking arsenals in the competition.
Question marks do abound out wide though with player turnover on the edges, while the flip side of Canberra's impressive depth and experience is one of the older rosters running out in 2021.
On paper and their past two campaigns, the Raiders will be right up there again in premiership contention.
Digging a little deeper, this could well be the year that premiership window opens widest, or edges toward closing.
Raiders' defensive issues on the edge
The 2021 outlook
As was the case this time last year, Canberra's right edge will undergo some renovations now Nick Cotric and John Bateman have moved on. Curtis Scott and Bailey Simonsson are back from injury to contend for backline spots while Hudson Young is the early tip to replace Bateman.
Otherwise the returns of Josh Hodgson, Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler, along with recruit Ryan James pushing for his first game since early 2019, ensures familiar faces come back into an already formidable line-up.
Canberra should be able to hit the ground running given that the only 2020 finalist they face in the first month is Cronulla. April through May is a particularly tough trot for Ricky Stuart's side with games against title contenders Penrith, Parramatta, South Sydney, Melbourne and the Roosters, with Newcastle also in that eight-week run as well.
The burning question
The outside backs and how Stuart lands on the best combinations. Jarrod Croker's shoulder injury has given youngsters Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields a chance to push for a crack at left centre, while over on the opposite edge Scott and Rapana shape as the right-side pairing.
Both had their defensive issues at times last season though, and out wide looms as one of Canberra's few potential weaknesses.
The stat that gives you hope
Canberra were forced to use 32 players in 2020, equal-most along with the Warriors, but still came within a game of the grand final. With the likes of Young, Dunamis Lui, Siliva Havili and Tom Starling all emerging with impressive campaigns when given chances in the Raiders 17, Canberra now boast almost 2000 games of experience in a 14-forward rotation. No other NRL side comes close.
2021 NRL Fantasy point-scoring system
What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise
Corey Harawira-Naera ($310k) was a popular bargain buy in the second row before news broke he was likely to miss the start of the season, while Bailey Simonsson ($246k) is among the cheapest first-choice wingers in Fantasy. Josh Papalii ($722k) and Jack Wighton ($722k) are both likely to be keepers this year while Josh Hodgson ($502k) is pretty good value and could be one of the big winners from the new forced turnover scoring category.
One of the most settled rosters in the NRL with only nine of their top 30 off-contract this year – Young, Rapana and Lui being the biggest names among them. Talks have started with both while Emre Guler has also been locked in on a new two-year deal that was announced on Monday. Veteran Sia Soliola is expected to retire at season's end but he and Stuart will weigh up his future mid-season.
Everybody’s heading to Magic Round
Breakout player to watch
Unless he gets brought up into Canberra's last top 30 spot we won't see the latest Hopoate until May at the earliest given NRL rules around playing development and NSW Cup-contracted players.
But after being rated alongside Bradman Best as the best outside back in his cohort, he has put two ACL ruptures behind him and been fully fit for 12 months.
The 19-year-old is playing for another contract at Canberra and can see a chance to push his cause given the uncertainty out wide mentioned earlier.
Behind the scenes with Tedesco, Sergis and little league stars
"It is disappointing but it's not my job to be keeping their spot in the 17. That's their job… There will be somebody else there to take their spot. We've got plenty of depth and it just gives somebody else an opportunity."
Ricky Stuart lays down the law as Corey Harawira-Naera and Corey Horsburgh answer drink-driving charges. Stuart won't pick either for round one regardless of what happens with their court cases.
The good, the bad, the likely
The good: Canberra's big names stay fit and the rest make those incremental improvements that take them all the way.
The bad: Those combinations out wide just don't click and become a target for opposition attacks, or Jack Wighton or Josh Papalii cop long-term injuries and rob the Raiders of their best gamebreakers.
The likely: Certainly top eight, well and truly in the mix for top four and premiership contention. Their depth up front will hold them in good stead over the winter months, with Wighton and Hodgson holding the key to how they fare come finals time.
Raiders in 2021
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