Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
Canberra is coming off a watershed season, reaching the preliminary final stage for the first time since 1997 and recording their highest ladder position in 21 years. The Green Machine went agonisingly close to a grand final appearance, edged 14-12 by Melbourne in the prelim.
Now it’s time to capitalise on the massive promise the Raiders displayed throughout 2016 – and there will be no flying under the radar next year.
Coach Ricky Stuart should be commended for developing a host of outstanding youngsters and resurrecting the careers of a group of journeymen and unheralded recruits. And the club has managed to retain its entire first-choice 17, with Paul Vaughan, Sam Williams and Brenko Lee the only players that got significant first-grade time in 2016 who are leaving.
Meanwhile, Dunamis Lui and English utility Jordan Turner arrive to maintain the Raiders’ excellent all-round depth, and former Test and Origin star Dave Taylor is spending the summer in the capital on a train and trial basis.
A long-term injury suffered by livewire back-up hooker Kurt Baptiste creates a gap that needs to be plugged.
But with the likes of Jordan Rapana and Shannon Boyd earning Four Nations call-ups, and Joey Leilua, Jarrod Croker, Jack Wighton, Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer, Josh Papalii and Elliot Whitehead entering the prime of their careers, the timing is right for the firepower-laden Raiders to make a push for premiership glory.
The boys from the capital are our tip to win the 2017 title.
BEST RECRUIT: Samoan international Dunamis Lui’s career hit the skids somewhat last year at St George Illawarra after two good seasons with Manly, but he should provide handy forward depth with the likes of Paul Vaughan heading elsewhere.
— Dunamis Lui (@Nami_Lui) November 30, 2016
STRENGTH: A blistering array of attacking players – which is now coupled with an ever-improving defensive steel – and tremendous team spirit.
WEAKNESS: The Raiders won’t catch anyone off-guard next season – they should start 2017 as one of the premiership favourites, and those expectations may work against a team that is still relatively young.
KEY MAN: England Test hooker Josh Hodgson’s stellar campaign was critical to the Raiders’ watershed season. His creativity from dummy-half and ability to slot into first-receiver will again be one of the Green Machine’s trump cards.
PLAYER TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Joey Leilua, who should be a walk-up selection for NSW if he produces anything like the consistent game-breaking brilliance he did throughout 2016. Stringing good seasons together hasn’t been Leilua’s strong suit, but the enigma appears at home in Canberra and is arguably the game’s No.1 centre.
— Canberra Raiders (@RaidersCanberra) December 12, 2016
YOUNG GUN: Former Knight Joseph Tapine became an integral part of Ricky Stuart’s 17, keeping the likes of Shaun Fensom and Vaughan in reserve grade before winning a Kiwis Four Nations call-up. Poised to develop into one of the NRL’s elite backrowers.
UNDER PRESSURE: Edrick Lee has a whole summer to mull over his costly dropped ball in the preliminary final. Finally enjoying an injury-free run over the past two seasons, the long-striding winger can’t let the gaffe affect his confidence.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Fensom has been one of the Raiders’ best, and most consistent and wholehearted, performers of the past five years, but lost his place due to the club’s outstanding forward depth. The 140-game veteran faces a tough task being anything more than an NRL back-up in 2017.
THE COACH: The most maligned coach in the game after walking out on Parramatta three years ago, Ricky Stuart has done a marvellous job crafting an outstanding team of young guns and previously unheralded recruits. The club legend’s coaching performance in 2016 ranks alongside anything produced in the Raiders’ 35-season history.
No off season for Ricky Stuart as Raiders prepare to go one better in 2017 https://t.co/R0SiIchhRs
— 81M (@The81stMinute) December 15, 2016
THE DRAW: The Raiders have been handed the fourth-hardest draw in the NRL based on last year’s standings, facing five of their seven fellow finalists twice; the only exceptions are the Bulldogs and Titans, who finished seventh and eighth. They have a torrid start with away assignments against all three Queensland clubs in the first six rounds, while road games in Melbourne and Auckland during the last four rounds could prove critical.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Ricky Stuart (2014-current)
Andrew Dunemann (2013)
David Furner (2009-13)
Neil Henry (2007-08)
Matthew Elliott (2002-06)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 Jack Wighton
2 Jordan Rapan
3 Joey Leilua
4 Jarrod Croker
5 Edrick Lee
6 Blake Austin
7 Aidan Sezer
8 Shannon Boyd
9 Josh Hodgson
10 Junior Paulo
11 Josh Papalii
12 Elliot Whitehead
13 Iosia Soliola
14 Kurt Baptiste
15 Clay Priest
16 Luke Bateman
17 Joseph Tapine
— Canberra Raiders (@RaidersCanberra) December 13, 2016