Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
After finishing second and coming an Edrick Lee fumble shy of a grand final berth in 2016, Canberra’s wildly inconsistent follow-up campaign was deflating to say the least.
The Raiders lost a stack of games by close margins, while their line-up of brilliant attacking stars endured frustratingly enigmatic 2017 seasons.
Few clubs have kept as stable a roster as the Green Machine ahead of 2018, but after appearing stale for much of last year the Raiders perhaps could have done with an injection of talent. Meanwhile, linchpin hooker Josh Hodgson suffered a knee injury during the World Cup that is set to rule him out for most of this season.
Building their recent success on tight-knit team spirit and exhilarating offence, Ricky Stuart needs a host of his underperforming stars to rediscover their spark to be any chance of returning to the playoffs.
BEST RECRUIT: The Raiders’ vaunted pack lost its sting somewhat in 2017, but Charlie Gubb will keep the Green Machine’s engine-room incumbents honest. Out of favour at the Warriors – playing just 11 games, despite the club’s pack struggling on a weekly basis – Gubb is about as no-frills as they come, but there’s few more wholehearted props in the game than the 27-year-old Wellington product.
STRENGTH: When the Raiders are on song with the ball in hand, they are virtually unstoppable. A big pack, dangerous playmakers and arguably the most potent outside-back contingent in the NRL make for a defending team’s worst nightmare.
WEAKNESS: Consistency week to week and within the 80 minutes was Canberra’s Achilles heel in 2017, losing a staggering eight games by six points or less. The absence of Hodgson won’t help their ambitions of closing out more of the tight ones.
KEY MAN: The Dally M Five-eighth of the Year in 2015 and arguably even better the following season as the Raiders’ stormed to a preliminary final appearance, Blake Austin struggled to have his customary impact last year. But with Josh Hodgson sidelined, the team will rely heavily on the cult hero’s off-the-cuff creativity and game-breaking ability. Austin notched just six line-breaks in 2017 – down from 10 last year and 18 in 2015. He needs to lead Canberra’s depleted spine.
PLAYER TO WATCH: A handy dummy-half who failed to make any real impact at the Warriors and St George Illawarra, Siliva Havili came of age during Tonga’s unforgettable charge to the World Cup semis – despite being unable to crack the Dragons’ 17 in 2017. Stocky and skilful with great football instincts, the 24-year-old should get first crack at plugging the No.9 hole left by Hodgson. It could be Havili’s big break.
YOUNG GUN: How long can ‘Sticky’ leave boom colt Nick Cotric on the wing? The 18-year-old was a runaway Dally M Rookie of the Year with 16 tries, 21 line-breaks and 121 tackle-breaks on the Raiders’ flank, but the big, freakishly-gifted tyro may be the best fullback and centre in the squad.
UNDER PRESSURE: Aidan Sezer and Austin were touted as a possible NSW halves pairing after leading the Raiders to a second-place finish in 2016, but the club’s decision to bring Sam Williams back for a third stint in the capital is a clear indication Sezer, in particular, is falling short of what they need from their playmakers.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Josh Papalii had developed into a key member of the Queensland and Australia packs, but despite playing all three Origin matches in 2017 the back-row powerhouse was left out of the Kangaroos’ World Cup squad at the end of the year. The snub was a reflection on a subpar campaign in the lime green jumper, and an apparently overweight Papalii instead embarked on an underwhelming tournament for Samoa. The Raiders need the 25-year-old at his best.
THE COACH: Justifiably lauded for his efforts in lifting the Raiders to second in 2016 and building watertight team spirit, Ricky Stuart was unable to replicate the magic last year. He’s contracted until the end of 2020, but another finish in the bottom half of the table – which seems likely – will start heaping the pressure on the club legend.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Ricky Stuart (2014-current)
Andrew Dunemann (2013)
David Furner (2009-13)
Neil Henry (2007-08)
Matthew Elliott (2002-06)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $17.00
PREDICTED FINISH: 12th
GAINS: Brad Abbey (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Cooper Bambling (Mackay Cutters), Craig Garvey (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (New Zealand Warriors), Stefano Hala (Penrith Panthers), Siliva Havili (St George Illawarra Dragons), Corey Horsburgh (North Queensland Cowboys), Liam Knight (Sydney Roosters), Michael Oldfield (Penrith Panthers), Sam Williams (Wakefield Trinity)
LOSSES: Kurt Baptiste (Leigh Centurions), Lachlan Croker (Manly Sea Eagles), Brent Naden (Newcastle Knights), Kato Ottio (Widnes Vikings), Clay Priest (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Scott Sorensen (Cronulla Sharks), Dave Taylor (Toronto Wolfpack), Jordan Turner (Huddersfield Giants)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Jack Wighton
2 Jordan Rapana
3 Joey Leilua
4 Jarrod Croker
5 Nick Cotric
6 Blake Austin
7 Aidan Sezer
8 Shannon Boyd
9 Siliva Havili
10 Junior Paulo
11 Josh Papalii
12 Elliot Whitehead
13 Joseph Tapine
14 Craig Garvey
15 Charlie Gubb
16 Luke Bateman
17 Iosia Soliola