An intense battle for positions augurs well for Canberra’s new beginning under club legend Ricky Stuart in the 2014 NRL season.
Much is invested in the return of 47-year-old Stuart, who participated in all three of the Raiders’ premierships as a player.
He got the job despite a strong player push for former assistant coach Andrew Dunemann to take over following the sacking of David Furner last year, walking away from wooden-spooners Parramatta one year into a three-year deal to accept it.
However, after a rollercoaster season that also included the sacking of Origin stars Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan and the ASADA controversy around departed winger Sandor Earl, Stuart’s no-nonsense approach has won over the Raiders’ playing group.
“Stuart has a lot of passion,” skipper Terry Campese says.
“He was at the club during the good times at the Raiders, and we’ve definitely got one of the most experienced coaches in the league.”
“That’s the thing with a new coach, everyone is on level terms, everyone is fighting for positions.”
Two key positions up for grabs are halfback and hooker.
With Mal Meninga Medallist Anthony Milford keen to play fullback in his final year in Canberra, the front runners to partner Campese in the halves are Jack Wighton and Mitch Cornish.
Former halfback Josh McCrone has opted for a positional change and will battle Glen Buttriss, Matt McIlwrick, former Bronco Kurt Baptiste and 21-year-old Mitch Cronin for the hooker role.
Another available spot is the right centre position vacated by Ferguson, with talented youngster Jack Ahearn looking a strong prospect.
There will be less movement in the forwards, where the Raiders boast a swag of players with Origin experience, including Josh Papalii, David Shillington, Brett White and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, plus tackling machine Shaun Fensom.
That said, Stuart has declared his intention to give more emerging players an opportunity to play in the NRL in 2014 and beyond.
“If someone’s on your back and you know he can play, it makes you train better, it makes you play better,” Stuart said.
Despite finishing 13th last season, the Raiders were just two wins away from the finals, missing out after losing their last six games when the wheels started falling off.
Stuart believes making the top eight in his first year at the helm is more than achievable.
“That’s something that we’re striving for and I think it’s important to have that big picture for the coaching team, and the players themselves,” Stuart said.
However despite an electric start to his coaching career with a Roosters premiership in 2002 and a runners-up the year after, Stuart hasn’t taken a team to the finals since 2008 with Cronulla – having not coached in the NRL in 2011 and 2012.
He’ll be keen to improve on the 23.6 per cent win rate he experienced during his last three NRL seasons, at Cronulla and Parramatta, to avoid yet another false dawn for the Green Machine.
Premierships: 3 – 1989, 1990, 1994
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 13th, 2012 – 6th, 2011 – 18th
Coach: Ricky Stuart
Captain: Terry Campese
Gains: Kurt Baptiste (Broncos), Lagi Setu (Storm), Kyle O’Donnell (Panthers).
Losses: Blake Ferguson (released), Joel Thompson (Dragons), Shaun Berrigan (retired), Sam Williams (Dragons), Sandor Earl (suspended), Joe Picker (Rabbitohs)
Strength: The Raiders boast a formidable pack, with emerging Maroons wrecking ball Josh Papalii backed up by front rowers David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Brett White – all of whom have Origin experience.
Weakness: With Josh McCrone moving to hooker, the Raiders are auditioning youngsters to partner skipper Terry Campese in the halves, and getting that combination firing may take some time.
Money Man: Club player of the year Anthony Milford now has one season of NRL under his belt. The electric back has the ability to make big difference before he heads north to Brisbane.
One to watch: Jack Wighton. If his switch to a playmaking role doesn’t come off, he could still have a belter of a season in the right centre spot vacated by Blake Ferguson.
Best team: Anthony Milford, Reece Robinson, Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker, Edrick Lee, Terry Campese (capt), Mitch Cornish, David Shillington, Josh McCrone, Brett White, Josh Papalii, Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom. Interchange: Dane Tilse, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Glen Buttriss, Joel Edwards.
Predicted finish: 13th