Through green eyes 2021

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greeneyed
Don Furner
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Through green eyes 2021

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Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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2020. It was a year that arrived with high hopes for Canberra fans. The Raiders were coming off their best season in 25 years. The Raiders had not made the Grand Final for a quarter of a century - and they got "oh so close" to a fourth premiership in 2019. 2020 would surely be the year that their long title drought would be broken? Surely the old adage would apply? That you have to lose a Grand Final to win one.

But the 2020 season turned out to be one like no other in the 113 year history of the game in Australia. Bushfires, a pandemic, a season suspended and, for the Raiders, a huge travel burden and a crippling injury toll. Despite it all, the Raiders finished in fifth place and played in a Preliminary Final, their third in the space of five years. They were in there fighting for a top four finish right up until the final round of the regular season. We've not seen that consistency of performance from Canberra since 1997. It told us a lot about the players who stepped up to fill the breach. It told us a lot about the courage, grit and determination of players and coaches.

So as the New Year starts, what might the 2021 season bring the Green Machine?

Today, we will take a look at retention and recruitment. In future previews, we’ll focus on the rookies, the spine, the forwards, the backs and then give our overall verdict.


The recruits

During his tenure as head coach, Ricky Stuart has transformed the Canberra Raiders. Think back. Not so long ago, the Raiders struggled to attract top line talent. The Raiders focused on growing their own, on junior development, and rarely signed "big names". No players wanted to move to the national capital, the Raiders fans were told, repeatedly. Canberra has no beaches, it has no nightlife, it is boring. And as a result, the Raiders simply didn't have the "cattle" to be a serious premiership contender. So the fans were told.

On his arrival, Stuart adopted a new strategy. He wanted to bring in quality players from outside the club - while still aiming to bring through the best younger players. Implementing that strategy wasn't always smooth sailing. Remember the players who "back flipped" on joining the club? But, bit by bit, the Raiders became a club that players want to join.

After James Tedesco slipped through their fingers back in 2014, the club looked further afield - to NRL players looking for an opportunity, to a former NRL player like Sia Soliola, to English players like Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead. The recruitment department was boosted at the end of 2015 by the arrival of football veteran Peter Mulholland. Successful seasons on the field have obviously helped to make the club an attractive destination. But Mulholland often says that the reputation of the head coach as a man manager is a significant factor in changing perceptions of the club amongst players.

Over time, the Raiders have also become more astute in managing the salary cap. In the past the club has tied up a good part of its cap in some big name forwards and outside backs. But the club has been taking deliberate steps to change that - placing limits on how much they are prepared to spend on those positions, creating more cap space for the play makers. It is what teams like the Storm and the Roosters do. In recent years, the Raiders declined to match big money on offer from other clubs for props Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd. The club decided to release centre Joey Leilua early.

We saw more decisions like that last year. The Raiders declined to match the Bulldogs' offer to winger Nick Cotric last July. Cotric was a local junior and aged just 22. He represented the Blues and Kangaroos from the club. It must have hurt to let him go to Canterbury. But clearly, the Raiders were not prepared to spend too much of their cap on the wing position.

At the end of June, after a long and messy contract saga, the Raiders put a time limit on a decision regarding John Bateman's future - and the Raiders then proceeded to release him from his contract a year early. Ricky Stuart was disappointed to lose the star second rower, but the coach was blunt in his assessment of Bateman's manager. Stuart said a fair deal had been offered and he signaled that Canberra is not going to be a club that will be easily messed around.

"I feel the NRL need to help clubs in regards to how we have to deal with certain managers over the way they agitate clubs and manipulate communications and negotiations," Stuart said.

"But I'm glad the club took a stand in wanting to get a decision. The last thing we are going to be is a club such as the Broncos or Warriors where they've been ruined by agitation and manipulation of the roster."

Bateman and Cotric head the list of the Raiders' losses for the upcoming season. But what of the 2021 new recruits?

Ryan James

Ryan James is the Raiders' biggest name recruit for 2021, after he signed a two year deal last July. The former Gold Coast Titans captain spent a decade with the team from the glitter strip, debuting in 2010 and going on to make 144 appearances in first grade. He started 28 games for the Titans in the second row, but he's predominantly a prop - starting in the front row in 75 matches. 2015 was the last year that he played mostly on the edge.

James was born in Tweed Heads, playing his junior football with Bilambil Jets. He represented Palm Beach Currumbin in 2008 when they won the ARL Schoolboys Cup - with James awarded the Peter Sterling Medal for the player of the year. He went on to represent Queensland and Australian Schoolboys. While he's been in the running for Blues Origin selection at times, his highest senior representative honours have been the Indigenous All Stars (five games between 2011-17) and NSW Country (two games in 2013 and 2015). He scored a total of 30 tries at the Titans, 12 of them in 2016 - that year matching the record number of tries for a prop in one season.

James played only six matches in 2019, due to an ACL injury to his right knee in the Round 6 clash with the Newcastle Knights. He then missed the entire 2020 season, after a recurrence of the injury in preseason training. He reportedly took a significant pay cut to make a new start with the Raiders. The chance of lining up with a premiership contender and to be coached by Ricky Stuart were significant factors.

"The players always seem like they want to play for him [Stuart]. He's a great genuine bloke and he does great things for that club," James said.

"I've never really been super selfish in my career and I've always wanted to help the Titans and rebuilds take a couple of years. As much as I know they'll do really well next year, Canberra have got a really great squad and I have the opportunity to go down there and play some solid football with a team that's well established and has a good core group of players."

"I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to go down there and try and make that starting team. That's the new goal now, get ready, get fit, get down there and try and rip in."



Signing James is a risk worth taking for the Green Machine. He looked to be in great shape on the eve of his arrival in the nation's capital, and if he can stay on the field, he should be a valuable asset for the squad.

Corey Harawira-Naera

Corey Harawira-Naera joined the Canberra Raiders mid-season last year, so he's not really a "new" signing for 2021. But he was signed by the Green Machine with an eye to filling the void left by John Bateman.

CHN had a controversy filled start to 2020 with Canterbury. He and Jayden Okunbor had their contracts terminated by the Bulldogs, and they were deregistered by the NRL, due to off field incidents during a pre season trip to Port Macquarie. In July, the NRL Appeals Tribunal determined that the contract terminations were too harsh and should be reversed - with Harawira-Naera handed a 10 game suspension and $15,000 fine instead. Harawira-Naera, however, refused to return to the Bulldogs - and signed a two and a half year deal with the Raiders last July. He was grateful to have an opportunity with a strong club.

"To be given a second chance by a really good club that's played in the NRL grand final last year, that sort of got me going," he said, back in August.

"Once I heard from my manager that Canberra could be keen on me I was just like, 'Oh whoah'. The second chance in itself I think that's enough to give back to the club."

CHN has previously played 46 games for the Panthers in 2017-18 and 21 games for the Bulldogs in 2019. He can play in the middle, but he's at his best on the edge. He can be a real attacking weapon - as Raiders fans will well recall when he scored one of two late tries in Canberra's infamous last gasp loss to Penrith at Bathurst in 2017. He made his debut in green in the Round 12 win over the Cowboys in Townsville, and went on to make 11 appearances for Canberra last season. He provided a good injection of enthusiasm at a tough time, due to injuries amongst the Raiders pack.



Harawira-Naera only averaged about 30 minutes per match, and it took some time for him to get back to match fitness on his return to the NRL. His attack is his relative strength, but given his low minutes, he was well down the list of Raiders forwards for total try involvements and average running metres per game in 2020. However, he was still ahead of Elliott Whitehead for average running metres. On a per game basis, he ranked fourth for line breaks and offloads and sixth for tackle breaks amongst the Canberra forwards. He was one of three Raiders forwards to manage a forced line drop out.

Harawira-Naera had the lowest average tackle count per match and the lowest tackle efficiency rate amongst the Raiders' forwards last year. He also produced three try causes, second only to Elliott Whitehead (10) amongst the Raiders forwards.

CHN isn't a walk up starter in the second row in 2021 in my view. He will be in a battle for the No. 11 jersey with Hudson Young. Most fans are expecting CHN will win that contest. He will doubtless benefit from having a full pre-season this year. But it will be interesting to see which way Coach Stuart jumps.

Caleb Aekins

Caleb Aekins, 23, has been recruited to the Raiders from the Penrith Panthers on a one year deal - so he will be keen to make an impression in 2021. He was born in Otaika, New Zealand, close to the city of Whangārei in the country's far north. He played both rugby league and union as a junior, before moving to Australia in 2015.



Aekins made his NRL debut for the Panthers in Round 18 2018, against the Cronulla Sharks and has played 12 first grade games - eight of them in 2020. He didn't cross the white stripe last year - he's yet to score an NRL try - but posted one try assist and 10 tackle breaks. He made 134 running metres and 64 kick return metres per match, while he produced a tackle efficiency rate was 78 per cent and four try causes.

Ricky Stuart has said that he was disappointed in aspects of the play of his back five in 2020 - and he's keen for there to be strong competition for spots. That includes fullback. For mine, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has a lock on the No. 1 jersey, but Aekins provides some good depth and will keep the pressure on CNK.

Harry Rushton

Harry Rushton is the latest in what is now a long list of English players to join the Green Machine. Rushton is just 19, but has immediately joined the Raiders' top 30 squad. He made his Super League debut - in the second row - for the Wigan Warriors against St Helens last year. That was his only appearance in the top league. There was some question as to whether Rushton would be able to join Canberra this year, as planned, given COVID restrictions on international travel. But he was able to get a flight and, after quarantining in Sydney, arrived in Canberra just prior to Christmas. Rushton was born in Blackpool and played amateur rugby league with the Shevington Sharks, at Wigan. He stands at 190 cms and weighs in at 98 kgs. That's pretty imposing for a 19 year old.

The Raiders have signed former Sea Eagles back Albert Hopoate - to an Under 21s contract it appears, at least at this stage. Centre Sebastian Kris is off contract and is currently on a train and trial deal. After missing last season with Canberra for personal reasons, Kris is reportedly tearing it up on the training field. The Raiders have also signed Queensland back Elijah Anderson - again, it appears, to a lower tier contract. All three will no doubt be competing hard for the 30th spot in Canberra's top squad.

Meanwhile prop Trey Mooney, winger Xavier Savage and second rower Clay Webb are new additions to the Raiders six man development list.

We'll take a look at some of those players in the next installment of our 2021 season preview: The Rookies.

Gains: Caleb Aekins (Penrith Panthers, 2021), Ryan James (Gold Coast Titans, 2022), Harry Rushton (Wigan Warriors, 2023)

Losses: John Bateman (Wigan Warriors), Luke Bateman (released), JJ Collins (released), Nick Cotric (Canterbury Bulldogs), Andre Niko (released), Michael Oldfield (Parramatta Eels)

Re-signed: Jarrod Croker (2024), Josh Papalii (2025), Jordan Rapana (2021), Iosia Soliola (2021), Tom Starling (2022), Jack Wighton (2024)

2021 top 30 squad: Caleb Aekins, Adam Cook, Jarrod Croker, Matt Frawley, Emre Guler, Corey Harawira-Naera, Siliva Havili, Josh Hodgson, Corey Horsburgh, Ryan James, Dunamis Lui, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Harry Rushton, Curtis Scott, Bailey Simonsson, Harley Smith-Shields, Sia Soliola, Tom Starling, Ryan Sutton, Joe Tapine, Matt Timoko, Semi Valemei, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, George Williams, Sam Williams, Hudson Young

2021 development players: Ata Mariota, Darby Medlyn, Trey Mooney, Kai O’Donnell, Xavier Savage, Clay Webb

RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION RATING: B+. Retention has been strong, while recruitment has been fairly modest. There was not that much room for new recruits really. The squad is absolutely stacked in the forwards, and Ricky Stuart will find it difficult to work out which forwards miss the top 17. However, the depth looks a little thin in the outside backs. Hopefully, up and coming players like Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko step up and put some pressure on the more established players.
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greeneyed
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by greeneyed »

Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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Today, we continue our series of season previews with a look at The Rookies.

The rookies

The poaching of Anthony Milford by the Brisbane Broncos was a turning point for the Canberra Raiders.

The Raiders established a relationship with the Souths Logan Magpies in the 2000s, with the Queensland Cup club becoming the Green Machine's "reserve grade" team in 2008. It produced instant results for the struggling Magpies, a premiership title in the first season of the affiliation.

The Raiders had taken over a sports club in the Logan district and expanded its junior development efforts into southern Brisbane. One of the youngsters that the Raiders put on a scholarship was Anthony Milford, a product of Souths Acacia Ridge.

Milford was a young star, but not wanted by the Brisbane Broncos. He was too small, they had eyes elsewhere. Milford moved to Canberra in 2012 and led the Raiders SG Ball team to the Grand Final. That same year, aged just 17, he made his debut for the Raiders Under 20s. Milford quickly progressed, making his NRL debut in Round 5 of the 2013 season. He was a wunderkind, and the Broncos started to take notice. At the end of 2013, the Broncos signed Milford to a two year deal for the 2015 and 2016 seasons on a massive deal.

Milford was still contracted by the Raiders for 2014, and the club refused to release him early. The then new coach, Ricky Stuart did his best to convince Milford to change his mind and stay in the national capital. The Raiders reportedly offered Milford $1 million a season to stay on, but Milford stuck with the Broncos deal. Part of the motivation for the $1 million offer was to send a message to the NRL - that something was amiss with the salary cap arrangements. Milford's deal with Brisbane was reputedly worth $900,000 a year - but much less was counted to the Broncos' salary cap, with the balance apparently made up by "third party arrangements".

Regardless, the Broncos had won. They had poached their wunderkind.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Rugby League had been busy. Trying to force the Raiders back to the New South Wales Cup. In the end, they did it, by voting to ban the Raiders from the NSWRL junior representative competitions at the end of 2011 - unless Canberra returned to the NSW Cup. Faced with that choice, that's what the Raiders did, affiliating with Mt Pritchard, a team in southwest Sydney, for the 2012 season.

And after the tug of war over Anthony Milford in 2013 and 2014, the Raiders decided to withdraw all financial support for the Magpies.

At the time, Raiders CEO Don Furner said that the salary cap arrangements - which allowed Milford to be poached, just as Canberra's investment in his development was showing dividends - gave the Raiders no incentive to develop junior football in the Souths Logan district. The partnership was over.

The Raiders signalled a deliberate shift in strategy - away from being a club that develops players and promotes from within - towards being a club that would aim to recruit more seasoned players from elsewhere.

Despite that, Canberra is still a club that invests more than average in junior development. The club's efforts in southern New South Wales and the Riverina have even expanded in recent years. But the Raiders now look far and wide for the best junior talent. Recruitment guru Peter Mulholland still looks to Queensland, but he also looks to New Zealand, to Fiji and even to England. To other codes. Ricky Stuart has done much to restore the club culture and Mulholland says that Stuart has made his job of recruiting good junior players easier. And as a result, there is a presently an exciting crop of young talent at the Green Machine.

So who are the Canberra Raiders rookies you need to know about as we head into the 2021 season?

Harley Smith-Shields

For mine, Harley Smith-Shields is the No. 1 Raiders rookie to watch in 2021. He made his NRL debut off the bench in the Round 11 win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs last year - and his starting debut at centre in the Round 20 "Rookie Raiders" clash with the Cronulla Sharks. He's Canberra born, and has come through the Gungahlin Bulls and Raiders juniors. He's a graduate of the Raiders Jersey Flegg team of 2019 which made the Grand Final. He's just turned 21, stands at 183cms and weighs in at 95 kgs. He was promoted to the top 30 squad for the 2020 season and is contracted to the end of this year. Centre is his best position, but he is also strong on the wing - and can play fullback if needed. He’s strong and quick and has a good mix of skills in attack.



Matt Timoko

Matt Timoko, 21, was Smith-Shields' centre partner in the 2019 Raiders Jersey Flegg team - before going on to make his NRL debut off the bench in the Round 16 win over the Canterbury Bulldogs last year. He got good minutes, replacing an injured Curtis Scott early in the second half. He made one more appearance in 2020 - lining up at centre alongside Smith-Shields in the Round 20 match against the Sharks.



Timoko was born in Auckland, playing his junior football with the Ellerslie Eagles. He's a strong, solid player and a powerful runner who can break tackles. He stands at 183 cms and weighing in at 99 kgs. At the end of 2019, he re-signed with the Raiders to the end of 2022 - but he did not start the season in the top 30. He was officially promoted in November last year, along with Adam Cook, to the top squad.

In my view, Smith-Shields showed a bit more potential in junior football, but Timoko seems to have pushed himself ahead in the pecking order at Raiders HQ. Timoko is being widely tipped to be the player to deputise for Jarrod Croker (shoulder) early in the season, if need be. But I'm also hearing that Smith-Shields has been one of the most impressive youngsters in pre-season training. Both players will be competing hard to be the player who steps up if a spot opens up in the outside backs. Both will probably spend a fair bit of time in NSW Cup, following the Raiders' decision to enter their own team in that competition in 2021, rather than Jersey Flegg. They will no doubt benefit from playing against more seasoned players.

Harry Rushton

English second rower Harry Rushton made his Super League debut for the Wigan Warriors against St Helens last year. It’s his only first class appearance so far. Rushton says that the Raiders were the only NRL club to make him an offer, while Wigan wanted to keep him. But he says that the Canberra offer was one he couldn't turn down.

"It's always been a dream for me to go to the NRL," Rushton said, shortly after signing.

"I know usually, people do it when they're older. John Bateman, George Williams, Ryan Sutton, when they're 25 or 26, when they've already made it in the Super League. But it's a new challenge for me, doing it when I'm 18, and that's the challenge I can't wait for."

The Raiders clearly rate him very highly, given the 19 year old has been immediately included in the top 30, but I think we can expect the club to play him in NSW Cup this year. I’m keen to see how he goes on the field.

Adam Cook

Adam Cook, 20, joined the Raiders last year from the Townsville Blackhawks - right after being named the Blackhawks' Under 20s Player of the Year. He was one of three players to make their NRL debut for Canberra in the Round 20 win over the Sharks. To be honest, he didn't make an immediate impact - but it is one of the toughest positions on the field for a young player. In that game he made 32 running metres, 23 kick return metres and posted a 45 per cent tackle efficiency rate and one try cause. I don't think we can't take much out of those numbers.

Cook played off the bench in Round 1 of the NSW Cup - in Mounties' clash with the Blacktown Sea Eagles at Brookvale. Lower grades did not take place after that due to the pandemic. He then spent the year in the "bubble", so Raiders fans have not had much chance to see him play. But he's clearly impressed the club, as he has recently been added to the Raiders' top 30 squad. He’s definitely with Canberra until the end of 2021, with the Raiders having an option in the club’s favour for 2022.

The Raiders have listed six development players for 2021: Ata Mariota, Darby Medlyn, Trey Mooney, Kai O'Donnell, Xavier Savage and Clay Webb. These players - and, under a new rule this year, NSW Cup players - are permitted to play first grade in the second half of the year, if injury strikes the top 30 squad hard.

Kai O'Donnell

Kai O'Donnell, 21, made his NRL debut last year in the Round 9 clash with the Melbourne Storm - with the Raiders in the midst of an injury crisis. John Bateman, Corey Horsburgh, Sia Soliola and Emre Guler were all out with long term injuries, while Luke Bateman, JJ Collins and Jack Murchie had all been released from their contracts early.



O'Donnell hails from Prosperpine in Queensland and came through the Cowboys' and Titans' junior systems before joining the Raiders in 2019. He was spotted by recruitment guru Peter Mulholland when playing for the Burleigh Bears. O'Donnell went on to play in the 2019 Jersey Flegg Grand Final against the Rabbitohs, having starred all season in the second row. He won the Under 20s Coaches Award on Meninga Medal night.

He made a total of four NRL appearances last year, starting at lock in the three games between Rounds 9-11. That run of games included the Round 10 Grand Final re-match against the Roosters and the Round 11 win over the Rabbitohs. He wasn't called upon again until the Round 20 clash with the Sharks, when coach Ricky Stuart rested a host of his star players. He's currently only on contract to the end of 2021, so he'll be aiming to impress if given a chance.

Darby Medlyn

Darby Medlyn, 21, comes from Parkes and is another graduate of the Raiders' 2019 Jersey Flegg Grand Final team. He joined the Raiders in 2018 and impressed in the No. 13 in Under 20s. He was also a part of the NSW Blues Under 20s team that beat the Maroons in 2019. He only played 18 minutes in his Round 20 NRL debut against the Sharks, but he played pretty well when on the field. He’s on contract until the end 2021. Hopefully he’ll get a lot more game time this season in NSW Cup.

Ata Mariota

Ata Mariota could well be the biggest ball boy in NRL history. He came to the attention of the rugby league world last year, when he joined in the Raiders try scoring celebrations, while filling in as "ball boy". Fringe players who were part of the NRL "bubble" took on the role in 2020 due to Project Apollo protocols. And there was no player more enthusiatic in the role than young Ata.



The young prop, born in Samoa, played junior football with the Manurewa Marlins in south Auckland. But he'd not played a lot of rugby league before joining the Raiders. He is still just 19 years of age, weighing in at 109 kgs and standing at 184 cms. Peter Mulholland was originally interested in Ata's younger brother, Niu, who was playing with Mt Pritchard. The boys' father suggested Mulholland should also have a look at Ata - and the Raiders recruited both brothers. Ata was promoted to the development list in the middle of last year - and to spend the year training in the club's NRL "bubble". He's still young and hopefully, we get to see a lot more of him on the park in 2021 in NSW Cup.

Trey Mooney

Trey Mooney joined the Raiders in 2020, after coming through the junior ranks of the Parramatta Eels and the rugby league program of Westfields Sports High. He's represented New South Wales at Under 16 and Under 18 level and, in 2019, the Australian Schoolboys. He was the captain of the Eels' SG Ball team in 2019 - and he started out in that grade for the Raiders last year. The junior representative season was never completed because of the pandemic, but he subsequently joined the Raiders' "bubble" to train with the top squad. In August he started playing with the Raiders Under 20s in the local CRRL Cup - a team that went on to win the premiership.

He is still eligible for SG Ball (Under 19s) in 2021, but he'll likely be playing in NSW Cup. The sky is the limit for this determined young man. I don't expect he'll play first grade this year, but I won't be surprised when he does. I can still hardly believe that the Eels somehow let him slip through their fingers.

Xavier Savage

Xavier Savage is a young winger the Raiders have signed from Queensland. He is just out of high school and moved to Canberra but has been immediately named as one of the Raiders' six development players. He's fast, having won the under 17s 100 metre sprint title in 10.95 seconds at the Queensland junior athletics championships a couple of years back. He's eligible for SG Ball (Under 19s), but expect him to get opportunities in NSW Cup. Anyone who saw him turn out for Queensland in Canberra for the 2019 Secondary Schools championship will attest he's an exciting prospect.



Clay Webb

You might not have heard much about Clay Webb. The Gundagai-Adelong Tigers junior has been coming through the junior ranks with the Raiders for some time. He was selected in a Raiders Under 15s development squad back in 2016 - and then joined the Raiders Harold Matthews team in 2017. He was signed to the Raiders on a four year deal in 2017, after attracting interest from the Broncos, Titans and Eels. He signed that deal in the same week that he represented the NSW Combined High Schools team that won the Under 15s national championships - and was named in an Australian Under 15s merit squad.

He was the Raiders Harold Matthews Player's Player and represented NSW in Under 16s Origin in 2018. He was one of two junior Raiders, along with Trey Mooney, called into a "Future Blues" camp at the end of 2019 by NSW coach Brad Fittler. A knee injury (meniscus) early in the 2020 SG Ball Cup put paid to his season last year. Aged 18, he's eligible for SG Ball in 2021, but he's so highly thought of by the Raiders, that he was elevated to the development player list for 2021 in December. No doubt, a player to watch.

There are a number of players aiming for the 30th spot in the Raiders' top squad, notably Albert Hopoate and Sebastian Kris. Recruited from the Sea Eagles this year, Hopoate has already played five NRL games, so he's no longer officially a "rookie". But Seb Kris still is. The centre played four games in his debut season with the Raiders in 2019. Kris missed the 2020 season for personal reasons, and he's now only on a train and trial contract. But he's apparently training the house down. Canberra's head of performance, Nigel Ashley-Jones, singled him out for praise last week, during an update on the pre-season. Now the Raiders will be playing in NSW Cup in 2021, I expect he'll be given a contract one way or the other.

Before I finish, I want to mention some other hot junior prospects. Remember these names for the future: Caleb Esera, Jayden Clarkson and Adrian Trevilyan. They're all from Queensland and all were with the Raiders Under 20s outfit that won the CRRL Cup last year.

Esera is a second rower, huge and super talented. He could be anything in the game. He deserves the huge raps you may have been hearing. Clarkson is a lock or prop. He has a motor and is a real leader in the middle. Both Esera and Clarkson came through the highly regarded rugby league school, Wavell High in Brisbane.

Tevilyan didn't get much game time due to injury last year, but from what little I saw of the young hooker he was impressive. In 2019, he led Townsville's Kirwan State High to the National Schoolboys Cup title and was awarded the Peter Sterling Medal for player of the year in that competition. Somehow, the Cowboys didn't lock him up. I'm looking forward to seeing more of him on the field this year.

So Raiders fans... who will it be? The 2021 Canberra Raiders Rookie of the Year? Give us your reflections on this year’s crop of rookies below.

* This article has been updated to reflect the Canberra Raiders' announcement today that they will be entering their own team in the NSW Cup, instead of Jersey Flegg, in 2021.

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Cranky Old Man
Brett Mullins
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by Cranky Old Man »

Very good writeup GE. I don't have much to add to the article but would say that I was super impressed with Trevilyan in the glimpses I had of his play. And Trey Mooney, I hate to put the mock on the guy but he has future rep player written all over him.
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BadnMean
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by BadnMean »

Going to be great watching some of these guys in NSW Cup this year.
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by RedRaider »

I really hope the plan to play First Grade, Reserve Grade and U/20s on the same day gets up. I know it is back to the future, but the opportunity to watch the current best players in the comp and the future best players in the comp really enhances the game day experience imo.
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by Cranky Old Man »

RedRaider wrote: January 29, 2021, 12:14 pm I really hope the plan to play First Grade, Reserve Grade and U/20s on the same day gets up. I know it is back to the future, but the opportunity to watch the current best players in the comp and the future best players in the comp really enhances the game day experience imo.
HEAR,HEAR!!!
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greeneyed
Don Furner
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by greeneyed »

Agree wholeheartedly... and they have to avoid huge gaps between games, as in recent years. Sitting around for an hour between a lower grade game and first grade is a certain recipe for ensuring that very few people go to the lower grade game.

Unfortunately, we won't have three grades to run on game day in 2021, but it'd be great if NSW Cup could play at Canberra Stadium on as many of the NRL game days as possible. Maybe back to three grades in 2022.
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by Johno »

GE....is it possible it could work if the first grade played first?

Times could be an issue but im sure the club want the ground in pristine condition for the first grade.

3pm KO would be good!
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greeneyed
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by greeneyed »

Johno wrote: January 30, 2021, 8:08 pm GE....is it possible it could work if the first grade played first?

Times could be an issue but im sure the club want the ground in pristine condition for the first grade.

3pm KO would be good!
I guess it could be done, and as I recall, it has been done that way for a women’s match and a schoolboys international in the past at Canberra Stadium, but I would feel like that would be a bit of an anticlimax. I don’t think it’d be optimal.
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

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Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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Today, we continue our series of season previews with a look at The backs.

The backs

Back in 2016, the Canberra Raiders scored more points than any other year in their history - and the Raiders three quarter line scored more than 60 per cent of that tally. The centres and wingers scored more points than each of the Knights, Dragons, Roosters and Sea Eagles did in total. The Raiders' three quarters were simply brilliant, the most potent in the NRL.

By the time the Raiders played in the 2019 Grand Final, they were a very different team. More defence oriented, less expansive in attack. They finished the regular season scoring just under 22 points per match, five less than in 2016 - and ranking fourth in attack. On average, they scored 3.7 tries per match, fifth in the league. By the end of the finals campaign, they ranked seventh for average points scored (20.7) and sixth for tries scored (3.5) per game. Things weren't much different in 2020. The Raiders averaged just over 22 points and 3.9 tries scored per match. They ranked sixth in the NRL for average points scored and seventh for tries scored - down one place on 2019.

The change wasn't due to a big turnover of players. In the 2016 Preliminary Final, the last game of the season for the Green Machine, the Raiders' outside backs comprised Edrick Lee, Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana. In the 2019 Grand Final, the list was Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana. There was a bit more turnover in 2020, and there'll be more in 2021, with the loss of Nick Cotric to the Bulldogs. Some of the Raiders backs are now "veterans" or close too. But the change of style didn't have much to do with personnel changes. It was a very deliberate change in strategy from coach Ricky Stuart, which emphasised safety first with the ball. The aim was to control possession and take pressure off the defence.

In 2019, Ricky Stuart would often say he was not worried about the attack, that the team knew how to attack. That changed in the middle of last year, when the Raiders were ranked 10th in the competition for tries scored. The coach admitted that the team was not scoring enough points. It was an easier draw in the second half of the year, but some renewed focus on the attack did produce some results.

Stuart acknowledges more work is needed in 2021. Improving the attack will not just be the responsibility of the three quarter line. But there's also no shadow of a doubt that Stuart is expecting more from his backs this year.

"Every spot in our outside backs is open in 2021 and I want the players to chase those spots," he said in January.

"I was disappointed with some of our play last year from our back five and they need to stand up and own the position this year. I want them to tell me who I pick over the pre-season."

That's a shot across the bows for the more established backs, and a spur to the up and coming players.

Centres

For mine, captain Jarrod Croker and Curtis Scott are the strongest centre pairing for 2021. But I don't say that with a great deal of confidence. Rookies Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko - the centre pairing for the 2019 Jersey Flegg team that made the Grand Final - are real challengers, particularly for the right wing spot.

Jarrod Croker just keeps on breaking records. In 2020, Croker became the fifth highest point scorer in NRL history, overtaking Jason Taylor. He now has the point scoring records of Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston in his sights. He has to score just 18 points to match Johns and 64 points to match Thurston. There is every prospect that in 2021, he could become one of the three top point scorers in the code's history in Australia. Croker also broke through the 2,000 career points barrier last year - becoming the youngest player to ever do so. Only seven players have ever surpassed that benchmark.



However, Croker probably didn't have his best season in 2020. His goal kicking improved, posting a success rate of 82 per cent - his best since 2017 and not far off his career best of 85 per cent in 2013. But his attacking strike was down. He scored only five tries last season - down from 13 in 2019, when he was the Raiders' top try scorer. It was his lowest season tally since 2010, when he also crossed the white stripe five times.

Croker had shoulder surgery in the off season, after suffering an injury early in the Preliminary Final against the Storm. While he's aiming to be back for Round 1 of 2021, he could miss the first five or six matches. While his form was a bit down last year, for mine, there's not much question that the co-captain is in the Raiders' strongest line up, if fit. The big issue facing Ricky Stuart will be who steps in for Croker if he cannot start the year.

Curtis Scott had a year he'd prefer to forget in 2020. Before the Raiders recruit could play a game in green, he was arrested in Moore Park, after a "big day out" in Sydney on Australia Day. Various charges hung over him for much of the season, before he was found to have been unlawfully arrested and was cleared. Body cam footage showed he'd been disgracefully treated by NSW Police during the arrest. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of his problems. He missed a few games in middle of the season with an infected arm. And then he received a knock to a plate in his leg in Round 16, producing a fresh fracture and ruling him out for the season.



Scott has played in two Grand Finals with the Melbourne Storm and was part of the 2017 premiership winning side. Since making his debut in 2016, he's had a bit of an up and down career. But he's shown in the past he is a quality player. Given injury and off field dramas in 2020, it's not surprising that it was not one of his best years. He struggled in defence, particularly early in the season - and he didn't make much impact in attack either. Hopefully, he'll come back from the break fresh, and play at his best in 2021.

We should not forget Sebastian Kris. He took last season off, for personal reasons and he is now only on a train and trial contract. But both Jarrod Croker and head of performance, Nigel Ashley-Jones, have singled him out for his efforts in the pre-season - saying he's "training the house down". He was always a big, bustling centre, but he is looking even bigger and fitter. Now the Raiders are re-entering NSW Cup - and those players can be drawn upon from the middle of the year - it'd be a surprise if he wasn't at least offered a contract for that grade.

Wingers

Veteran Jordan Rapana would be the first choice winger for the bulk of Raiders fans, including me. But there are a number of young players who will be challenging for the other wing spot... and challenging Rapana himself.

After returning from an ill-fated stint in Japanese union, Rapana was an "everywhere man" last year, playing on both wings, at centre and at fullback. That probably affected his attacking strike. He scored just two tries in 2020, down from the seven he scored in 2019 - and well below his record breaking tally of 23 tries in 2016. His tackle breaks and line breaks were also well down, while he looked out of sorts in defence when playing in the less familiar centre position.



The 31 year old Rapana signed a new one year deal for 2021 in December. Father Time is probably catching up with him, but he brings an enormous amount of experience and enthusiasm to the squad. There was not a lot of choice but to play Rapana out of position, at centre, in the final stages of last season, due to injuries. Hopefully, coach Ricky Stuart can keep Rapana in his favoured spot in 2021, on the right wing. That's where we can expect him to play his best footy.

Canberra Raiders junior, Bailey Simonsson returned to the club at the end of 2018, on a train and trial contract. By the time the 2019 season commenced, he'd become a part of the top 30 squad, on a two year deal. Before the 2019 Meninga Medal night was over, he'd shared the Rookie of the Year award with Corey Horsburgh. And just before he played in his first Grand Final, he was rewarded with a long term contract, keeping him in the nation's capital until the end of 2023.



Things didn't go quite so well in 2020. He suffered a shoulder injury in the Round 9 clash with the Storm, putting him out for the season. If the pictures from the off season are any indication, he's set to come back in 2021 a much bigger and stronger player. He is expected to be fully fit for Round 1 and in my view is first in line for the left wing spot.

Fijian winger Semi Valemei joined the Canberra Raiders in 2018, initially playing for the Raiders' NSW Cup affiliate, Mounties, in Under 20s. He was a part of the Green Machine's 2019 Jersey Flegg team which qualified for the Grand Final - and went on to represent Fiji in the World Cup Nines tournament after that season. He was reportedly targeted by the Melbourne Storm, but he was re-signed by the Raiders on a two year deal, and promoted into the top 30 squad.

He made his NRL debut in the Round 10 Grand Final rematch with the Sydney Roosters last year - and ended the season by winning the Canberra Raiders Rookie of the Year award on Meninga Medal night. He was good with the ball in hand, scoring four tries. However, he is still developing, and at times was targeted by opposition teams in defence and with the high ball. He'll want to work on both departments - but he's still just 21, and has plenty of time to develop.

Valemei is a strong contender for a regular wing spot in 2021, but he's not the only youngster in that boat. Both Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko are strong on the flanks, as well as at centre. Then there is Xavier Savage, a rookie winger the Raiders have signed from Queensland. He's just out of high school and has been immediately included on the development player list. He's fast, and that's probably something that the Raiders are lacking. The Raiders have also recruited former Sea Eagles back, Albert Hopoate, on a one year deal. He's reportedly on a modest contract and he's not in the top 30 or on the development list. He's had two ACL injuries, but it is good to see he wanted to be at the Raiders and he's backing himself.

BACKS RATING: B The backs are the Raiders' weak spot - in relative terms. Some players are now in the veteran class, and others have yet to fully prove themselves. As mentioned, Ricky Stuart wasn't entirely happy with the back five in 2020, and that's a fair call in my view. While I toyed with a C rating, that'd be harsh. The Raiders have some exciting talent coming through in the three quarters, as well as some experienced talent. It is, at the very least a top eight back line. And it has the potential to be something more than that.

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Re: Through green eyes 2021

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Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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Today, we continue our series of season previews with a look at the forwards.

The forwards

The Canberra Raiders faced one of the worst injury crises in their history in 2020. The forward pack was decimated. Star second rower John Bateman was missing for the first half of the season, while Sia Soliola, Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler were missing for most of the second, or more. The more experienced forwards, like Josh Papalii, Elliott Whitehead, Joe Tapine and Dunamis Lui really stood tall. Papalii was the best prop in the game. Lui was inspirational at times, after having been dropped mid season. And then the young forwards like Hudson Young and Ryan Sutton admirably filled the holes left by others.

The Raiders will be without Bateman in 2021, after he elected to return to England and the Wigan Warriors. But despite that, the Canberra forward pack shapes as one of the best in the NRL. The injury crisis brought the best out of many. Add to that, the Raiders have recruited former Titans prop Ryan James for 2021 and picked up Bulldogs back rower Corey Harawira Naera in the middle of last year. The quality and depth in the pack is possibly the strongest I've seen in the history of the club. And I've seen the whole history of the club.

The challenge for Ricky Stuart is this: Who should make the top 17? Who could possibly be left out? Let's take a look.

Props

There is no question about one thing. Josh Papalii will be the first Raiders forward picked. In 2018, not so long ago really, Papalii was dropped to "reserve grade". He subsequently moved into the middle, and has now won the Meninga Medal and Fans' Choice Player of the Year for three seasons in a row. In 2020, he shared the Meninga Medal with Jack Wighton and was one of four players who shared in the Fans' Choice Award. Last season he was finally recognised as the Dally M Prop of the Year - and was awarded the Dally M Tackle of the Year. He was, based on the votes of his NRL peers in the 2020 RLPA Awards, one of the top five players in the game. He finished the season with Origin selection for the Queensland Maroons.





Papalii signed a contract extension in September, keeping him in green until at least the end of 2024, with a further option for the 2025 season. It will likely make Big Papa a Raider for life. After Papalii pulled off the Tackle of the Year against the Titans, Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said Papalii will go down as one of the greats of the club. So while Papalii owns the No. 8 jersey, the big question is... who starts alongside him?

Dunamis Lui was dropped from the top 17 after the Round 5 loss to the Tigers, but was brought back for the Round 9 clash with the Storm - with Sia Soliola, Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh all on the sidelines with serious injuries. Before he was dropped he was not playing well - and had simply been overtaken in the pecking order by some of the younger props. He returned a different player. During the injury crisis, not only did Lui lift his on field contributions, the reserved prop became one of the leaders of the pack off the field. At the end of the season, he was ultimately rewarded with selection in the Queensland Maroons squad and an Origin debut.



He was not amongst the top 10 props in the NRL on any of the statistical indicators last year, but he is experienced, solid, durable, consistent and always puts in his best efforts. He was presented with the 2020 Club Person of the Year award on Meninga Medal night - for his leadership on and off the field.

I thought Lui might find it difficult to fight off the challengers for his spot in the side in 2020 - given the number of quality young forwards coming through the system. For a time, it looked like that would be the case. But he certainly stood tall in the club's hour of need. He deserves first shot at the other starting prop spot in Round 1 - but he'll again be under pressure from the younger props in 2021.

Sia Soliola is often referred to as the spiritual leader of the Canberra Raiders, such is his influence at Raiders HQ. The light-hearted term of endearment they use for him at the club is "uncle". He is now 34 years of age... and he's been contracted by the Raiders for 2021, one final season in an impressive career.

2020 was a particularly tough year for Soliola, after he suffered a serious facial fracture in the Round 8 clash with the Dragons - the result of a head clash with Dragons prop Blake Lawrie. He needed 20 screws to repair the horrific damage, the seven fractures. While he feared he'd played his last NRL game, he was eventually able to make a comeback, in the "Rookie Raiders" Round 20 win over the Sharks. In that game, Soliola's career total of 325 first grade games exceeded the combined first grade games of 11 of his team mates.

The importance of experience in rugby league - and having a mix of youth and experience in your team - is something Ricky Stuart won't be forgetting. It is why I expect that Soliola and Ryan James will be right in the running for a prop spot in 2021 - if not in the starting team, then certainly on the bench. But given the young talent in the ranks, Stuart will have a real headache working out which players miss a spot in the top 17.

Ryan Sutton joined the Canberra Raiders from the Wigan Warriors on a two year deal in 2019. He had a good debut season in the NRL and was particularly strong when given an opportunity in the starting team. But he ended up missing the top 17 during the finals. That experience had a lasting impression on him, and drove him throughout 2020. His efforts certainly paid off, and won the 2020 Coaches' Award on Meninga Medal night.



Sadly, he suffered an MCL injury on the eve of the finals campaign and was ruled out for the rest of the season. He's still fairly young for a middle forward - aged 25 - and he's now just coming into his prime as a prop. In my view, Sutton's at his best when starting and should be considered a serious challenger for the No. 10 jersey.

Emre Guler forced his way into the Canberra Raiders top 17 on the eve of the 2019 finals, and went on to play in his first Grand Final, aged just 21. He made just 11 appearances in 2019, but finished the season with selection in the Under 23s Kangaroos team, that played France in Wollongong. That said a lot about the potential of a very young middle forward - and many were expecting him to have a big impact in 2020. Unfortunately, injury intervened, with Guler suffering a fractured ankle in the Round 8 win over the Dragons. That ruled him out for the rest of the season.



Guler is off contract at the end of 2021, so he can currently negotiate with other clubs for 2020 and beyond. However, it is reported that he's in negotiations for a two year contract extension with the Green Machine - and it is certain that the club sees Guler as a big part of the future. He has huge potential and it is hard to imagine how he could miss a spot in the top 17, given his production on field.

Second row

Elliott Whitehead has a mortgage on the No. 12 jersey. He's underrated by many commentators. His coach Ricky Stuart says that "he's the most underrated footballer in the competition." Let's think back to a couple of games in 2020 to see why.



In the Round 19 win over the Warriors, he was just terrific filling in in the halves, after an early injury to George Williams. He was slammed into the ground in one tackle in the second half, and it shook him. He ended up throwing up on field, but he got to his feet and continued on. The match said a lot about his courage and character, as well as his skill with the ball in hand. Not many forwards can fill in, in the halves.

Against the Dragons in Round 8, he made a number of critical tackles and very nearly set up a try in the first-half. He left the field for an HIA, after copping a poke in the eye from team mate Emre Guler. He came back on and helped steady the ship in the final minutes. It was after that game that his coach labelled him the most underrated player in the NRL.

"He went back on, he's a tough player. I have all the admiration in the world for Elliot," Stuart said.

"A lot of the stuff he does goes unnoticed but it doesn't go unnoticed by myself. That was my message to him at half time. He doesn't like compliments but I told him I don't miss what he does."

He's an incredibly consistent player and he was definitely in my top five Raiders of 2020. The manner in which he stepped up as an on field leader, in the absence of Josh Hodgson, really impressed me. He virtually became the vice-captain. He's one of the first forwards picked, and certainly, in 2021, the first second rower picked. The big question is, who will fill the second row spot vacated by John Bateman in 2021? The Raiders are "stacked" in the forwards, particularly in the middle forward positions. But not so much on the edge.

Corey Harawira-Naera was recruited mid-season last year, with an eye to Bateman's departure. His attack is his relative strength - and made a big impact in that department at his previous two clubs, the Panthers and Bulldogs. His defence is the area which needs some work. Last year Harawira-Naera had the lowest tackle efficiency rate amongst the Raiders' forwards.

Hudson Young is the other main challenger for the spot. He had a controversial debut season in 2019. He made 12 first grade appearances, but was suspended twice for eye gouging, putting him on the sidelines for a total of 13 weeks. He served five of those weeks at the start of the 2020 season... and promptly proceeded to put all that behind him. He appeared in every subsequent Raiders match of the year, six starting in the second row, two at prop, two at lock and eight off the bench. He impressed in whatever position he was asked to play. It was in the second row early in the season, with John Bateman unavailable. It was mostly in the middle after that, including at starting prop in the finals games against the Roosters and the Storm.



Amongst the Raiders forwards, only Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead scored more tries than Young (four) last year. Only Whitehead made more line breaks. Young ranked third for tackle breaks. He's not the sort of player who throws a lot of offloads or produces a lot of try assists or line break assists. And while Harawira-Naera probably has the edge in attack, I think Hudson Young probably has the better defence.

It is looking like Ricky Stuart's choice might be made for him - at least in the opening rounds. That's because Harawira-Naera is reportedly set to be suspended by the NRL for the opening few rounds, due to a drink driving incident. But even if Harawira-Naera can force his way back into the team in the second row, that doesn't mean Young misses a place in the top 17. He was just great in the middle last year too.

Lock

Joe Tapine is the third certain selection in the starting pack, at lock. He probably produced his best ever season in green in 2020. He started in the second row in five of the opening six rounds, but then moved into the middle. He started at lock in the final seven games, and made the position his own.

Tapine has spent a fair bit of time on the sidelines due to injury or suspension in previous seasons. Not in 2020. He missed only one match through injury last year and he was remarkably disciplined on the field, with his aggression channeled into good, tough play.



He was one of only three Raiders forwards to average more than 100 metres per game in 2020 and was second only to Josh Papalii. His tackle breaks more than doubled - and he ranked equal first with Papalii amongst the Raiders forwards in that department. Only Papalii had a better tackle efficiency rate than Tapine at the club.

It became clear in 2019 that Joe Tapine was probably at his best in the middle. But his performances last year left no shadow of a doubt about that. He was just immense at either lock or prop. With the forward pack decimated by injury, he was one of the players who stood up and led in a way he has not done before. In the second half of the year, he was in career best form. For mine, he was one of the top three Raiders players of 2020.

Corey Horsburgh is the main challenger at lock. He had an impressive debut season in 2019, sharing the Raiders Rookie of the Year award on Meninga Medal night with Bailey Simonsson. He made a good start to 2020, but unfortunately his season was cut short early - after suffering a Lisfranc injury to his foot in Round 7. It was initially thought he might be able to return before the end of the year, but that did not prove to be the case.

Horsburgh is a player with huge potential. He is still aged just 23, and that is young for a middle forward. The experiment of playing him in the second row at the start of last year didn't really work out - but even then, he didn't play too badly in that game in my view. It is a shame that we saw so little of him on the field last year, because it was shaping up to be even better than his debut year. When he left the field at Western Sydney Stadium, after suffering his foot injury, his emotions came to the fore. It was awful to see the pain he was in. But I loved how he reacted, because you could see how much his football means to him. How passionate he is about it.

It is reported that Horsburgh is likely to be suspended in Round 1, at least, due to a drink driving incident over the holiday break... and that has put him offside with the coach. I won't be surprised, however, if he's pretty quickly be back in contention for a bench spot - because of what he can deliver on field.

FORWARDS RATING: A+ I'm still undecided about the best composition of the Raiders pack. And I don't think I'm going to make a call on that until I see the trial form. But the Raiders definitely have a top four forward pack. The Storm and Panthers are the other teams in the running for the title of best pack in the competition in 2021, but the Raiders are right up there. Canberra is not going to have the biggest pack. The Warriors will have nine players in their squad who weigh in at more than 110 kgs. The likes of the Storm and Eels will be bigger up front as well. But I think the Raiders have the sort of mobile pack that should excel under the rules that have been introduced to speed up the game.

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Re: Through green eyes 2021

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Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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Today, we continue our series of season previews with a look at the spine.

The spine

One of the most successful coaches in NRL history, Wayne Bennett has often mentioned old saying in football: "If you listen to the fans, you'll soon be sitting up in the stands with them." But if we do listen to 3430 of them, the Canberra Raiders have one of the top four "spines" in the NRL. A recent poll on NRL.com puts them in this order:

1. Rabbitohs 28 per cent
2. Storm 25 per cent
3. Panthers 10 per cent
4. Raiders 9 per cent

I'm not sure about the order or the implied dominance of some teams in the voting. There are plenty of Rabbitohs fans who love voting in these polls. But the fans, in this case, have probably got the top four right.

It is a huge turnaround for the Raiders.

At the start of 2019, there were commentators suggesting that the Canberra Raiders had one of the worst spines in the competition. Many were wondering whether the gamble of shifting Jack Wighton to five eighth and bringing in a late addition to the squad, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, at fullback, would pay off. Fortune smiled on that gamble. Both players made representative squads. Both players were critical to Canberra making the 2019 Grand Final.

2020 saw the addition of Wigan half, George Williams. Many were wondering whether another gamble - playing two running halves, Williams and Wighton - would pay off. As it turned out, the unconventional proved to be a strength, in a year of rule changes designed to speed up the ruck and the game. And despite the idea that the Raiders were lacking a strong organising half, when hooker Josh Hodgson was ruled out for the season with an ACL injury, Williams did a pretty darn good job of stepping into that role too.

In my view, there is no doubt about the strongest line up in the Raiders' spine in 2021: Nicoll-Klokstad, Wighton, Williams and Hodgson. But let's did a little deeper.

Fullback

In 2019, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was a revelation. He almost started the season as "Charzne who?". But he ended it as one of the top fullbacks in the NRL. He was voted the Canberra Raiders Fans' Choice Best Back, with a Grand Final appearance and a Kiwis jersey to his name. That was always going to be a tough act to follow. It certainly wasn't a case of "second year syndrome", but his form in 2020 was a touch off his break out year.



Nicoll-Klokstad ended 2020 with seven tries, compared with 11 in 2019 - meaning his strike rate was slightly down. He ranked equal third at the Raiders in the try scoring stakes - behind Nick Cotric and Jack Wighton - and eighth amongst the regular NRL fullbacks.

In 2019, Nicoll-Klokstad finished second in the NRL, to James Tedesco, for total running metres and finished first for kick return metres. Last year, he dropped to seventh for running metres and eighth for kick return metres. He also dropped out of the top 10 players for average running metres and kick return metres per game. He was more hesitant under the high ball in 2020 - an awful dislocated finger didn't help - and that had quite an impact on those numbers.

In 2019, "CNK" was seventh in the NRL for total tackle breaks and first at the Raiders, but dropped outside the top 20 players in the NRL in that department last year. He has worked on his ball playing. But with just four try assists for the 2020 season, he was well behind the benchmark fullbacks like Gutherson (19), Ponga (16), Dufty and Tedesco (15).

Nicoll-Klokstad's defence was good already, but it probably improved last year. He posted an 84 per cent tackle efficiency rate (81 per cent in 2019). That's up with the best fullbacks. In a very tough position in which to defend, he was "credited" with only 10 try causes and five line breaks conceded. His try saver on Josh Morris in the finals match against the Roosters last year was typical of his defensive mind set.

The dip in some of those numbers will be one reason Ricky Stuart said this in January: "Every spot in our outside backs is open in 2021 and I want the players to chase those spots. I was disappointed with some of our play last year from our back five and they need to stand up and own the position this year. I want them to tell me who I pick over the pre-season."

That pretty clearly includes fullback. The Raiders have new recruit Caleb Aekins and rookie Adam Cook in their fullback ranks. However, I think CNK has Aekins covered in just about every department, while Cook is still a little too green. The Raiders have signed former Manly Sea Eagles youngster Albert Hopoate, 19, to a one year lower grade deal. Given he's not in the top 30, he can only be considered after May. I think there's no doubt about who will line up in the No. 1 jersey in Round 1. But CNK will be looking to lift in 2021.

Halves

Jack Wighton has made a stunning transformation in the past two years. From fullback to five eighth. To representative player. To Clive Churchill Medalist. To Meninga Medalist. To Dally M Medalist, the NRL Player of the Year in 2020. He shared the 2020 Meninga Medal with Josh Papalii, before outpointing hot favourite Nathan Cleary in the Dally M count. He's just the third Canberra player to become a Dally M Medalist, with Laurie Daley being the last Raider to do it, a quarter of a century ago. Throw in the 2020 Dally M Five eighth of the Year award, and that's an impressive list of achievements.





In 2020, Wighton ranked second at the club in the try scoring stakes (13), and equal first amongst regular NRL five eighths. No player at the Raiders produced more try involvements (29) and he was second only to George Williams for try assists (12). He ranked first amongst the regular NRL five eighths for total running metres and third for running metres per match. He was third at the Raiders for total tackle breaks (56) and third amongst regular NRL five eighths. His kicking game continued to improve, while he's always been a tough, aggressive defender. Indeed, Wighton's defence was a key reason why Coach Stuart shifted him to five eighth in 2019.

English recruit George Williams produced a very strong first season in the NRL with the Green Machine in 2020. He finished last year with seven tries, behind only Nick Cotric and Jack Wighton at the club. Only Nathan Cleary scored more tries (8) amongst the NRL half backs. He ranked first at the Raiders for try assists, and amongst the top five regular half backs in the NRL. He was second at the club for line break assists and total try involvements, behind Jack Wighton.



A lot of Williams' try assists in 2020 were the result of his pin point short kicking game. He kicked more than any player at the club, and was second to Jack Wighton for kicking metres - with Wighton taking primary responsibility for the long kicking game. He produced 19 forced line drop outs, behind only Nathan Cleary (26) and Adam Reynolds (20) amongst the regular NRL half backs.

Williams is certainly a half who can tackle. We found that out early last year, when he dumped Ryan Papenhuyzen on his back in the Round 3 win over the Storm. No regular half back in the NRL had a better tackle efficiency rate. With six try causes and 11 line break causes, he was way down the list of NRL half backs in those departments. His error count was lower than the likes of Mitch Moses, Mitchell Pearce, Adam Reynolds and Nathan Cleary.

It'd be remiss of me not to mention that the Raiders have some very good back up in the halves, in Sam Williams and Matt Frawley. Sam is probably the best back up in the business. We can feel assured that, if called upon due to injury or suspension, both will do a good job.

Hooker

Josh Hodgson is one of the best hookers in the game. There is, bizarrely, still speculation around the future of Cameron Smith. He doesn't have a club, he's moved to the Gold Coast and he's still being linked to the Titans - despite denials all round. But should Smith actually retire, Hodgson would be in strong contention for the mantle of the best hooker in the game.



Hodgson spent half of the 2018 season on the sidelines, after suffering an ACL injury in the 2017 World Cup semi final between England and Tonga. And sadly, Hodgson again missed half of the 2020 season due to another ACL injury - this time, affecting his other knee. After he went down, most commentators instantly wrote off the Raiders' chances in 2020. The fact that the Green Machine was able to recover, and go onto contest a Preliminary Final, says a lot about the courage and determination of the team - and the efforts of substitute hooking duo of Siliva Havili and Tom Starling.

Hodgson says that he expects he'll be fit for Round 1 of 2021. One of the challenges for Ricky Stuart will be to get the "spine" combining well, when Hodgson returns. The halves took more responsibility for running the team in Hodgson's absence in the second half of 2020, to good effect. At times, Hodgson can overplay his hand and can be too dominant in the play making. In 2021, good service to the running halves will be important, with additional new rules to speed up the game.

The other issue that Stuart will be pondering is how to use the back up/substitute hookers, Siliva Havili and Tom Starling next year. In the second half of last season, Ricky Stuart mostly started matches with Havili in the No. 9 jersey. Havili took the big hits in the opening stages, before Tom Starling took over at dummy half off the bench. It was a very effective partnership, with both players bringing very different strengths to the role.

Tom Starling stands at 170cms and weighs in at 82kgs, making him one of the smallest players in the NRL. But as the old adage goes, he plays well above his weight - and he uses his size to his advantage. He's nippy and quick out of dummy half, and often showed up the big forwards in the middle of the park. He takes decisions quickly, and gives crisp, clean service to the halves. In defence, he has great technique for getting in and under much bigger players, and dumping them on their backs.

Starling has recently been given a new two year deal, keeping him at the club to the end of 2022. Josh Hodgson has been an 80 minute hooker for a while... but I think that having Starling on the bench would be a good option in 2021.

Siliva Havili says hooker is his favourite postition and he probably makes more impact in that role. He's not the most creative hooker, but he deserves a lot of credit for taking the big hits early in matches last year. That allowed Starling to more effectively show his wares. And when Starling started, he mostly didn't play as well as when he came off the bench. So it was a genuine partnership that Havili and Starling had.

Havili might find it tough to force his way into the top 17 every week in 2021. Starling is probably now in front of Havili as a bench hooker, while there are plenty of young forwards vying for spots in the middle and in the back row. But the club is fortunate to have a player like Havili, who really did step up to the challenges thrown his way in 2020.

SPINE RATING: A The Raiders definitely have a top four spine, and are capable of leading the team to a long awaited premiership. Making sure that they "gel" will be the biggest challenge.

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The Nickman
Mal Meninga
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by The Nickman »

Cam Smith about to sign with the Titans.
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BadnMean
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by BadnMean »

Perfect lead in to a season GE. Thanks for putting that together.
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greeneyed
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Re: Through green eyes 2021

Post by greeneyed »

BadnMean wrote: February 18, 2021, 4:22 pm Perfect lead in to a season GE. Thanks for putting that together.
Thanks! Still one final instalment to go next week!
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greeneyed
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Through green eyes 2021

Post by greeneyed »

Through green eyes: What will 2021 bring the Canberra Raiders?

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Today, we conclude our series of season previews with... the verdict.

The verdict

Ricky Stuart has tasted premiership success with the Canberra Raiders three times. Back then - in the late 1980s and early 1990s - he was steering the team around the park in the No. 7 jersey. He was part of what was one of the greatest rugby league club teams of all time.

Since returning to the Green Machine in 2014 - as head coach - he's faced a much more difficult task. He had the challenge of turning around the fortunes of a club that was a shadow of its former self.

The first year of the NRL - 1998 - marked Stuart's last year as a player at Canberra. The Raiders had switched to Super League, in the hope of keeping its outstanding squad together. But ultimately, Super League proved to be the thing that broke it apart.

After the game re-united, all teams were forced to bring player salaries, inflated by the ARL versus Super League "war", back under control. And sadly, at the Raiders, salary cap pressures led to two champions - Stuart and Brad Clyde - being squeezed out of the club.

After that, the club endured years of mediocrity. The club bounced between scraping into the finals - and missing them entirely.

Between 1998 and 2013, the highest the Raiders finished on the ladder was fourth - in 2000 and 2003. In both years, they were unable to progress past week two of the finals. The Raiders had some purple patches and exciting winning streaks. But in that period, the club never made a Preliminary Final.

In a few of those years, the Raiders narrowly missed the ignominy of the wooden spoon. In 2011 - when the Raiders won just six matches - they were saved from that fate only by points differential. Only the inaugural Raiders team of 1982 won fewer games (four) than the 2011 team.



The Raiders also finished 15th in Stuart's first year as head coach in 2014. But by 2016, he had re-built the club into a contender. Canberra finished second on the ladder and qualified for a Preliminary Final, the first in nearly two decades.

It happened faster than he thought it might.

After the loss to the Melbourne Storm in the 2016 Preliminary Final, Stuart said: "I'd be lying if I said I expected this. If anybody said they'd expected us to be number two in the competition this year and be playing in a prelim, you'd think they were dancing with the fairies."

The following two years were pretty bumpy, with the club again missing the finals. But a renewed emphasis on defence in 2019, saw the Raiders qualify for their first Grand Final in a quarter of a century. It was followed up by another Preliminary Final appearance in 2020.

And when you look at the past five years, it is very clearly the most successful, sustained period of performance from the Raiders in the era of the NRL.

Ricky Stuart has re-made the club in his own image: highly competitive and resilient. Not so long ago, the Raiders were young, inexperienced. The side is now starting to age, but it is certainly full of players with big game experience. An old adage in rugby league is that you've got to lose a Grand Final, to win one. I'm not so sure about that, but the 2021 Raiders team knows what it is like to be there at the business end of the season. The hurt of coming so close, but failing to taste success, will motivate, will drive the team. There are some exciting young prospects in the team too - who will inject enthusiasm.

In my view, the club's premiership window is still wide open. The coach is a key reason for that. He will be desperate, for a second premiership as a coach - and his first for the club he loves so dearly. He has every chance of achieving it.

Pre-season

Pre-season preparations have been significantly more truncated than usual due to the late finish to the 2020 season. The representative players didn't start their pre-season training until January, while many of the more experienced players returned only shortly before Christmas. The Raiders have just one trial - against the Roosters this Saturday. That will give a stronger idea of how Ricky Stuart is shaping his starting team for Round 1. It looks like only Jarrod Croker will be unavailable for the beginning of the season due to injury - but Corey Harawira-Naera and Corey Horsburgh could face some match suspensions early on, due to off field incidents. It seems unlikely that they'll be available for Round 1.

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The draw

Upon the release of the 2021 NRL draw, NRL.com told us that the Raiders have the fifth toughest draw. That was based on rating opposition teams by their finish on the 2020 competition ladder, and the number of times the Raiders play more highly rated opposition. Their 12 games against last year's top-eight teams ranks them at the third-most, alongside a number of other teams. Seven games against top-four teams is also the second-most. They have 12 meetings with bottom-eight finishers from last season but just five against the four worst.

Of course, experience shows predictions of how tough a club's NRL draw rarely prove to be correct. But it does appear that the Raiders have a "good" draw for the opening month. Things then get more difficult when they face the Panthers and Eels. That's the start of the Green Machine's toughest stretch of 2021 - eight games in April and May. Other opponents in that stretch include the Rabbitohs, Storm and Roosters. The Raiders' travel burden, as always, is higher than the Sydney teams - but that has become a little easier, following the Roosters' decision to take their home game against the Raiders to Gosford rather than Perth.

Play twice
Dragons, Eels, Knights, Roosters, Sea Eagles, Sharks, Storm, Titans, Warriors

Play once
Broncos, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Panthers, Rabbitohs, Tigers

Games played against
Top eight: 12
Top four: 7
Bottom eight: 12
Bottom four: 5

Day-by-day breakdown
Thursday – 5, Friday – 4, Saturday – 13, Sunday – 2

Turnarounds
5 days – 3, 6 days – 5, 7+ days – 15

Free to air television - 7
Rd 1 V Tigers (H), Rd 5 V Panthers (A), Rd 8 V Rabbitohs (H), Rd 17 V Sea Eagles (A), Rd 19 V Eels (A), Rd 22 V Storm (A), Rd 25 V Roosters (H)

Venues
Canberra Stadium 11
Kogarah Jubilee Stadium 1
Robina Stadium 1
Panthers Stadium 1
North Queensland Stadium 1
Wagga Park 1
Central Coast Stadium 1
Wollongong Stadium 1
Brookvale Oval 1
Western Sydney Stadium 1
Hunter Stadium 1
Melbourne Rectangular Stadium 1
Mt Smart Stadium 1 (may possibly transfer to Central Coast Stadium)

* One home game transferred to Wagga, one away game transferred by the Roosters to Gosford.

Rd 1 Sunday, March 14, Tigers, Canberra Stadium, 4.05pm
Rd 2 Sunday, March 21, Sharks Kogarah Jubilee Stadium, 6.15pm
Rd 3 Saturday, March 27, Warriors, Canberra Stadium, 3pm
Rd 4 Saturday, April 3, Titans, Robina Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 5 Friday, April 9, Panthers, Panthers Stadium, 7.55pm
Rd 6 Saturday, April 17, Eels, Canberra Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 7 Saturday, April 24, Cowboys, North Queensland Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 8 Thursday, April 29, Rabbitohs, Canberra Stadium, 7.50pm
Rd 9 Saturday, May 8, Knights, Wagga Stadium, 3pm
Rd 10 Magic Round Saturday, May 15, Bulldogs, Lang Park, 3pm
Rd 11 Saturday, May 22, Storm, Canberra Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 12 Saturday, May 29, Roosters, Central Coast Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 13 Bye
Rd 14 Saturday, June 12, Broncos, Canberra Stadium, 7.35pm
Rd 15 Saturday, June 19, Dragons, Wollongong Stadium, 5.30pm
Rd 16 Saturday, July 3, Titans, Canberra Stadium, 5.30pm
Rd 17 Thursday, July 8, Sea Eagles, Brookvale Oval, 7.50pm
Rd 18 Saturday, July 17, Sharks, Canberra Stadium, 3pm
Rd 19 Thursday, July 22, Eels, Western Sydney Stadium, 7.50pm
Rd 20 Saturday, July 31, Knights, Hunter Stadium, 5.30pm
Rd 21 Friday, August 6, Dragons, Canberra Stadium, 6pm
Rd 22 Thursday, August 12, Storm, Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, 7.50pm
Rd 23 Friday, August 20, Sea Eagles, Canberra Stadium, 6pm
Rd 24 Friday, August 27, Warriors, Mt Smart Stadium, 6pm
Rd 25 Thursday, September 2, Roosters, Canberra Stadium, 7.50pm

Ratings

RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION: B+
BACKS: B
FORWARDS: A+
SPINE: A

The verdict

Predicted finish: Top four

Overall, my ratings average out at roughly an "A" and that translates into a top four finish. The Raiders are fifth in the futures market, behind the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Storm. Canberra has better prospects than at least a couple of those teams in my view.

There are good reasons to believe that Canberra's premiership window is still open, despite the losses of John Bateman and Nick Cotric. There are good young players coming through the ranks to fill those gaps - and the club has a good mix of youth and experience. I'm not predicting a premiership. I've been burned on that before. But if the Raiders do finish in the top four, I've no doubt they'll give it a red hot crack.

Predicted Round 1 team: 1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Bailey Simonsson 3. Matt Timoko 4. Curtis Scott 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Jack Wighton 7. George Williams 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Dunamis Lui 11. Hudson Young 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Joseph Tapine 14. Tom Starling 15. Sia Soliola 16. Ryan James 17. Emre Guler

Injury/suspension: Jarrod Croker (Shoulder, Round 3-4), Corey Horsburgh (Possible suspension), Corey Harawira-Naera (Possible suspension)

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