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Canberra Raiders 2016 NRL season preview

11th January, 2016
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Blake Austin will make his return against the Panthers. (Photo: NRL images)
Roar Guru
11th January, 2016
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The Raiders came dangerously close to making the finals last season, and with an all-new roster and a dream draw, Canberra have a red-hot chance at returning to the playoffs in 2016.

Boasting a young, talented squad featuring a spine made up of Jack Wighton, Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer and English international Josh Hodgson, Ricky Stuart faces a huge challenge to get the best out of his players. He will want to deliver a finals appearance to the team he spent eleven years playing for and captained between 1995 and 1997.

Rookie watch
Canberra have a roster full with young players who have played a handful of games and have four players in their full-time squad yet to make their first grade debut.

The best known name of the bunch is Junior Kangaroo representative Tevita Pangai Junior. The nineteen-year old lock has spent the last three years playing in the Holden Cup and despite being eligible again in 2016, will either continue playing with the Mounties in the NSW Cup where he spent the majority of 2015 or become a regular of Ricky Stuart’s starting 17.

In 38 games, Pangai scored 18 tries and is one of the Raiders’ hardest workers across all three grades. The South Newcastle Lions junior possess explosive power and was one of the best players in last year’s NSW Cup at making tackle busts and ball-carrying.

The 190-cm giant is almost a certainty to make his NRL debut in 2016 but he will face competition from fellow uncapped forwards Patrick Mago and Rhys Kennedy.

Mago and Kennedy both graduated from the Holden Cup in 2014 and spent all of 2015 playing in reserve grade. For Mago, 2016 is the most important year of his career which has so far seen him represent Queensland at the under 20s level and also the Junior Kangaroos.

Mago was slated for a debut in 2015 but couldn’t find the form to warrant selection. The back-rower has plenty of speed and skill for his size and like Pangai is great at making tackle busts and can deal major damage to the defensive line.

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Kennedy also represented his state at the under 20s level and offered plenty of promise but failed to deliver last season. His brother Jarrad has spent the past few seasons in and out of first grade and has since become a staple at Canberra. Like his older sibling, Rhys is just waiting for his opportunity to arise so he can wreak havoc on his opposition.

The real rookie to look out for however is young half Lachlan Croker. The nephew of Raiders legend Jason Croker appeared at last year’s Auckland Nines tournament and is seen as the future at Canberra. Unfortunately, it will be made very hard for him to make his debut. He has Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams to get past.

The Crookwell Green Devils had a stellar season in last year’s under 20s competition and is the one player every Raiders fan should etch into their little black books.

Under pressure
Head coach Ricky Stuart has struggled in his two years mentoring the Raiders after David Furner was sacked by his own brother at the end of 2013.

Canberra finished fifteenth in 2014 and improved to tenth last season. Fans of the Green Machine have great expectation for their team in 2016 and any result other than a finals berth will put serious pressure on Sticky.

Stuart may have recently signed a contract extension that will see him stay in the nation’s capital until at least the end of 2018. However, as is known in rugby league, no coach is safe. A poor performance could lead to their becoming unemployed no matter if they have been guaranteed a future at their club.

Can the Raiders handle the expectations?
The Canberra Raiders have the easiest draw in the league and some of the best new signings for 2016.

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Former Titans halfback Aidan Sezer joins the club alongside England international Elliott Whitehead, former New Zealand international Jeff Lima, Adam Clydsdale and Zac Santo.

The Raiders showed strong signs they are not far off making the finals last season when they finished tenth, their best finish since qualifying for the finals in 2012.

Their 2015 recruits Blake Austin, Josh Hodgson and Sia Soliola emerged as strong players with Austin receiving the Dally M Award for five-eighth of the year.

The Raiders will play every team that missed the finals last year home and away and only two of last year’s top eight – the Bulldogs and Sharks. This gives them by far the best draw based on last year’s ladder.

Added to their young roster who are getting better by the day with more first grade experience, the Raiders are under immense pressure to deliver and they will be able to handle it.

Who will play fullback?
Ricky Stuart has been gifted with the challenge of selecting a fullback from a vast pool of capable players. In the mix for the role of wearing the number one jersey previously occupied by club legends such as Gary Belcher, Brett Mullins and Clinton Schifcofske are Jack Wighton, Sisa Waqa, Jordan Rapana and Zac Santo.

Wighton fulfilled the role last year scoring seven tries from 20 games however, Stuart will assess every possible option to ensure he has the right man for the job. The incumbent is the clear favourite for the gig and his competitors will find it hard to compete with the Indigenous All Stars, Country Origin and Prime Minister’s XIII representative.

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Sisa Waqa joined the Green Machine from the Melbourne Storm at the beginning of 2015. The Fijian winger got off to a flying start and quickly became a fan favourite crossing the line six times in 21 appearances. The rugby union convert would be a much bigger threat at fullback, however it remains to be seen whether he is able to handle the pressure of being in the centre of the action.

The possible move could negatively impact the Raiders’ flank as it would decrease their size and speed on the wing.

Jordan Rapana spent the back end of the 2014 season at fullback before being pushed aside last season and spending the majority of his time in the centres. Despite his experience playing at the back, he is unlikely to get the gig given Wighton is better suited to the role.

The dark horse for the fullback position is Cowboys recruit Zac Santo. The Townsville local spent all of 2015 playing for Intrust Super Cup runner-ups Townsville Blackhawks and has plenty of experience wearing the number one jersey during his junior days.

Although he hasn’t played there for much of his senior career, Santo is a fast learner and if anyone was to make the switch it would be him. The only other downside is that he only has one game of NRL experience when he made his NRL debut for the Cowboys against the Dragons in Round 17, 2014.

Jack Wighton during the Round 25 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Wests Tigers at GIO Stadium, Canberra, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. (AAP Image/ Action Photographics, Jonathan Ng)

Jack Wighton has been solid for the Raiders so far in his brief career. (AAP Image/ Action Photographics, Jonathan Ng)

Will the Raiders be able to improve their home record?
By far the biggest surprise of Canberra’s 2015 season was their appalling win-loss record at GIO Stadium. What was once considered one of the toughest road trips in the National Rugby League, their home in the outlying suburb of Bruce did not offer any real advantage to them last year.

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The Green Machine only managed three wins over the Titans, Knights and Panthers all of whom finished below them. Despite five of their nine losses being by less than two points, Canberra need to make their home ground a fortress once again which opposition teams fear.

The possibility of a finals berth in 2016 and home matches against five of last year’s eight finalists – including the reigning premiers North Queensland Cowboys – Canberra are on the verge of attracting more fans back through the old gates of Bruce Stadium.

Can they become the force they once were when they won three premierships in the late eighties and early nineties?

Must watch

Round 2 versus Roosters
Saturday, March 12, 3pm at GIO Stadium

The Raiders have a huge opportunity to not only start their season with a tough challenge but to also start it with a strong crowd.

The opportunity to face one of the premiership favourites, last year’s preliminary finalists the Sydney Roosters, at such an early stage of the season is a huge advantage and will give Canberra the perfect leg-up setting the benchmark for the rest of their opposition.

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Not only will it help the Raiders’ on-field performance but it should also greatly improve their off-field performance with the city of Canberra all to themselves and hosting a star-studded team on a Saturday afternoon, the perfect time slot for football in the nation’s capital.

Canberra should draw a strong crowd upward of 15,000, a huge result for the team considering their home average has dropped by over 2,500 in the past five years.

A good contest against a high-quality team could be just what the Raiders need and get them back in good financial stead with strong support from their fans and strong performances from the team.

Round 5 versus Bulldogs
Monday, April 4, 7pm at Belmore Sports Ground

Last year the two sides put on a show in what was one of the most memorable matches of the season. Fans of both sides will be hoping that can be replicated again at Belmore in Round 5.

The early season game will be tough for the Raiders and will play a major part in shaping their 2016 season.

Predicted best XVII – 1. Jack Wighton, 2. Edrick Lee, 3. Jarrod Croker (c), 4. Joseph Leilua, 5. Sisa Waqa, 6. Blake Austin, 7. Aidan Sezer, 8. Paul Vaughan, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. Frank-Paul Nuuausala, 11. Iosia Soliola, 12. Josh Papalii, 13. Shaun Fensom
Interchange: 14. Sam Williams, 15. Jeff Lima, 16. Elliott Whitehead, 17. Shannon Boyd

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2016 signings
Adam Clydsdale (Newcastle Knights), Jeff Lima (Catalan Dragons), Zac Santo (North Queensland Cowboys), Aidan Sezer (Gold Coast Titans), Elliott Whitehead (Catalan Dragons)

2016 draw (AEST)
Round 1: Raiders versus Panthers (Saturday, March 5, 3pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 2: Raiders versus Roosters (Saturday, March 12, 3pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 3: Knights versus Raiders (Saturday, March 19, 5:30pm at Hunter Stadium)
Round 4: Raiders versus Titans (Saturday, March 26, 5:30pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 5: Bulldogs versus Raiders (Monday, April 4, 7pm at Belmore Sports Ground)
Round 6: Eels versus Raiders (Saturday, April 9, 3pm at Pirtek Stadium)
Round 7: Raiders versus Sharks (Sunday, April 17, 2pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 8: Raiders versus Wests Tigers (Saturday, April 23, 5:30pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 9: Panthers versus Raiders (Saturday, April 30, 3pm at Carrington Park)
Round 10: Dragons versus Raiders (Thursday, May 12, 7:50pm at Jubilee Oval)
Round 11: Warriors versus Raiders (Saturday, May 21, 5:30pm at Yarrow Stadium)
Round 12: Raiders versus Bulldogs (Sunday, May 29, 4pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 13: Raiders versus Sea Eagles (Friday, June 3, 7:50pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 14: Broncos versus Raiders (Thursday, June 9, 7:50pm at Suncorp Stadium)
Round 15: Bye
Round 16: Titans versus Raiders (Sunday, June 26, 2pm at Cbus Super Stadium)
Round 17: Raiders versus Knights (Sunday, July 3, 2pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 18: Raiders versus Cowboys (Monday, July 11, 7pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 19: Bye
Round 20: Raiders versus Warriors (Saturday, July 23, 3pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 21: Rabbitohs versus Raiders (July 28-August 1 at ANZ Stadium)
Round 22: Sharks versus Raiders (August 4-August 8 at Shark Park)
Round 23: Raiders versus Storm (August 11-August 15 at GIO Stadium)
Round 24: Raiders versus Eels (August 18-August 22 at GIO Stadium)
Round 25: Sea Eagles versus Raiders (August 25-August 29 at Brookvale Oval)
Round 26: Wests Tigers versus Raiders (September 1-September 4 at Leichhardt Oval)

Prediction
The Raiders will return to finals football for the first time since 2012 finishing eighth and exiting in the second week.

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