Their form goes up and then their form comes down. That has been the script for the Canberra Raiders in recent years and this is the year that they hope will put an end to all that. With a changing of the guard – out with the old and in with the new – the club and their fans hope that 2015 can offer some excitement and relief for the Raiders.
Despite those recent inconsistencies with their general form, the last few years for the Raiders has unearthed some remarkable young talent that have since taken the next step and become mainstays in the side. Players who have performed well, retained a spot and thus been rewarded for the good form they have shown despite the re-shuffle among the coaching and playing staff.
With a very young, core side and some uncertainty about the final make-up of their side, the key for the Raiders team as a whole to work out and assess what works best as a team and just how well they can gel together. Their young core is likely set to feature Jack Wighton at fullback, Blake Austin at five-eighth, Mitch Cornish at halfback and Josh Hodgson at hooker.
Perhaps the player under the most pressure out of that bunch is halfback Mitch Cornish. He got a taste of first-grade in 2015, even if it was not regular action that he may have sought. He showcased his talents to the NRL world and did so again recently at the NRL Auckland Nines. Blessed with a natural ability to play the game, Cornish set the world alight in the Holden Cup with ease, often outplaying his halves opponents.
With the return of Sam Williams to the club, that is where his stiffest competition lies but given the way the club talks about Cornish and what he is capable of, fans would expect to see the young gun get first crack at halfback.
Whilst not so much under pressure as a player, Jarrod Croker will approach rugby league with a different perspective, having been named as the new club captain for the 2015 season.
Still relatively young, Croker is mature beyond his years as a player, has been a part of the Raiders system for some years now and has amassed a decent amount of games played for his age. With a chance to break some records this year, the in-form centre of 2015 has gone on record to say that he is excited about the captaincy and that he will not hold anything back.
One big question to consider in this regard, though, is how will the veteran players react? Would they want to have a captain who is younger than they are?
It is also worth noting that the Raiders, despite their inconsistencies, boast some handy players. The likes of Josh Papalii & Shaun Fensom – two fan favourites – give their all every week, particularly Fensom, who is know as a workhorse in every sense. He could be regarded as the unsung hero of the club for the effort he puts in and the effect he has on the field during games. Papalii is more of a brute force type player. Big, robust and mobile, he loves nothing more than acting as a battering ram through the middle or on the fringes, waiting for the right ball and time to shine and make a break.
Overall, despite the young side the Raiders have at their disposal, there is enough experience, versatility and creative ability there to play their natural game, score points and potentially upset teams. As the team gel and as the confidence of the younger players increases, the side should get better and if they do and string some steady wins together, they may well sneak into the eight.
Best Recruit: One of many Fijian flyers, Sisa Waqa can really motor. Leaving the Storm somewhat surprisingly, Waqa has found a new home in the nation’s capital and although the season has not started, he has made an impression on the Raiders fans in more ways than one. Whether it is the hard work and commitment at training, or the speed, skill and finesse on the field during the NRL Auckland Nines and trials, Waqa is a handy player to have at any club. Quick on the fringes but just as creative in producing opportunities that lead to breaks, the winger gives the Raiders real fire-power in the air and on the ground, to go alongside a winger similar to him, in Edrick Lee.
Most Promising Talent: If there are fans out there that are yet to see Patrick Mago, then they are in for a pleasant surprise. Regarded as the new type of forward, Mago is a big kid but very mobile, an unusual combination for someone his age. Such is his talent, he has been fast-tracked at a young age to the NSW Cup feeder team Mounties, to test his ability and how he can perform against the men and not the boys. When you watch him play, you merely admire the skill and talent he possesses. It will not be too long at all before he plays first-grade and when he does, the NRL better watch out. He will be ready for the chance and he will make the most of it when it comes his way.
2015 Gains: Blake Austin (Wests Tigers), Josh Hodgson (2016), Rhys Kennedy (2016), Frank-Paul Nu’uausala (Sydney Roosters), Iosia Soliola (St Helens RLFC), Sisa Waqa (Melbourne Storm), Sam Williams (Catalan Dragons).
Our predicted line-up:
1. Jack Wighton
2. Sisa Waqa
3. Jarrod Croker (C)
4. Brenko Lee
5. Edrick Lee
6. Blake Austin
7. Mitch Cornish
8. David Shillington
9. Josh Hodgson
10. Dane Tilse
11. Josh Papalii
12. Iosia Soliola
13. Shaun Fensom.
14. Frank-Paul Nuuausala
15. Paul Vaughan
16. Joel Edwards
17. Shannon Boyd