Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 3: Canberra Raiders

Another day, another team preview. This time, in pt 3, we cast our eye over the Canberra Raiders. One of the sides to have made some of the best additions ahead of the 2016 season, their roster is one that on paper, has the calibre and quality to challenge the top sides. But as we all know, games are not won on paper but on the field, and that is where the players will have to aim up. Led by captain Jarrod Croker, the Raiders are a side capable of beating any team on their day and will be hoping that a mix of youth and experience can get them over the line come Rd 1.

The Raiders have always had talented players at their disposal but in recent years, they have always been pipped at the post when it mattered or lost games that they should have won. Some would say it is the players, others would say it is the coach. A lot of people would say that it is simply because Ricky Stuart is the coach of the Raiders. But with handy additions like Aidan Sezer and Elliott Whitehead, the crux of the Raiders side has now been set in stone.

For those generally unaware of who Elliott Whitehead is, he becomes the latest Englishman to join the NRL. A back-rower who has most recently played for Catalans and previously Bradford, he enjoyed a stellar season with the Bulls in 2015 and strengthens the Raiders back-row stocks and general forward stocks. Whether Whitehead starts or plays off the bench is still unknown, as Ricky Stuart keeps his cards close to his chest. Should he start, it is likely that Josh Papalii moves into the front-row where he has had some success in the past but if the QLD representative remains in the back-row, it is more likely that Whitehead will come off the bench given the already plentiful stocks in the Raiders starting back-row.

Perhaps one of the more interesting points with the Raiders is the partnership set to be formed in the halves between Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer. Both are tremendously talented players as individuals and will have different roles within the Raiders system, but how long will it take for them to gel as a halves duo? Sometimes, a team gets rather lucky and players can gel quite quickly but the majority of occasions will see a slow start from one or both of the halves, as they become accustomed to each other’s game and style of play.
Further to the point regarding Blake Austin, after what was a career best year for him in 2015, teams will crack down on his style of play and his running game, which will require him to bring new skills and elements to his repertoire. A talented player in his own right, adapting and adjusting is key, as he remains one of the most crucial players for the Raiders in 2016.

Perhaps one worrying element for the Raiders to some extent, is the general lack of forward depth in the front-row especially, a point that has been raised countless times before across various mediums. Whilst the props they do have are quality players in Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd, outside of that trio, the reliance on youngsters becomes even more important. Whilst individually, those youngsters are emerging players that have long futures in the NRL, making the transition into the NRL is never easy. Should a couple of injuries occur in the Raiders front-row stocks, those youngsters will be thrown into the fire earlier than expected and the reliance and expectation on them to perform efficiently increases. That expectation is something some players will thrive in and use to their advantage to stake their claims but for others, the prospect is daunting if they are not prepared for rigours of first-grade.

Ultimately, this is one of the best rosters the Canberra Raiders have had in some years and one that on paper, are an intriguing prospect to perform well and potentially an underdog to some extent. Led by captain Jarrod Croker and with a solid back-line and forward pack around him, the calibre and quality of the players among the Raiders would have fans excited with their chances in 2016. If all players play to their potential and gel as unit for the majority of the season, a top eight opportunity beckons and possibly, even a top 4 spot.

Best buy: A talented half that excelled during his time at the Gold Coast Titans, Aidan Sezer moves to the Raiders side with much fanfare. Set to play alongside Blake Austin in the halves at halfback, Sezer has enjoyed sound personal success as a player, showcasing his array of skills as a crafty player over recent years. Much like other players, adapting to a new system at the Raiders may take time but his quality is such that many would be expecting him to make a rather smooth and quick transition into the Raiders system. A handy goal-kicker also, he may have to put that trait behind him, particularly with such a talented kicker in Jarrod Croker within the team. He, along with Austin, form the crux of the Raiders side and will be expected to lead from the front and guide them towards success in individual games and potentially in further finals games when it matters.

Most Promising Player: Every so often, a player comes along that fans rave about constantly for the way they play, their level head and their all-round game that would fit the NRL perfectly. For the Raiders fans, that one young player is Lachlan Croker. The nephew of Raiders great Jason Croker but not related to Jarrod Croker, the younger Croker has the potential to succeed brilliantly in the NRL and is only getting better year after year. A crafty half, Croker’s own personal admissions is that he wishes to expand his game and begin his career in the NRL as a potential utility if it means regular first-grade action but regardless of when he does get that opportunity, he has all the tools and skills to succeed in first-grade.

2016 gains: Aidan Sezer (Gold Coast Titans, 2018), Elliott Whitehead (Catalan Dragons), Adam Clydsdale (Newcastle Knights).

Our predicted line-up:

1. Jack Wighton
2. Sisa Waqa
3. Jarrod Croker (C)
4. Joey Leilua
5. Jordan Rapana
6. Blake Austin
7. Aidan Sezer
8. Paul Vaughan
9. Josh Hodgson
10. Josh Papalii
11. Elliot Whitehead
12. Iosia Soliola
13. Shaun Fensom

14. Frank-Paul Nuuausala
15. Shannon Boyd
16. Jarrad Kennedy
17. Mitch Barnett

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