Friday, May 12, 2017

Raiders to be No. 1 in season’s middle third

As the NRL season begins to enter to its disjointed but highly important ‘middle-third’, a number of NRL teams will look to either capitalise on their origin-effected counterparts, or make use of their own origin-free squads.

The Raiders were arguably the best 'team' in 2016, despite no making the Grand Final

While the NRL’s perennial mid-season achievers – the New Zealand Warriors – will once again take advantage of their predominately Kiwi-based side; free of the Origin discomforts some clubs bear, the big-movers in 2017 will likely be the men from Australia’s capital.

If from round 10 to 19 is considered the middle of the season following rep-round and after the last bye, then Canberra went 6-2 last season.

But they then continued their charge to the end of the 2016 regular season with a remarkable 13 wins from their last 15 games, leaving them with an impressive 2nd place finish.

Arguably just a dropped pass away from a Grand Final last year, the Raiders have seriously become a force since Ricky Stuart returned home in 2014. While they ran 15th in his first season in charge, a 10th place finish in 2015 preceded their near unchallengeable run home last year.

However the Green Machine have experienced a mixed start to 2017, falling to four teams who finished inside the Top Eight last season. Their wins coming against battlers; the Titans, Warriors, Tigers and Eels.

If they’re serious about making a play for the title this year, they need to begin to get their act together.

Having lost their last two games in tight fashion against unheralded Manly and the mixed-bag Bulldogs, there will be no doubt Coach Ricky Stuart will be looking for a highly-dominant performance against the Newcastle Knights this Sunday at McDonald Jones Stadium.

The fiercely competitive Ricky Stuart will know Canberra must make 2017 their year.

Given hope by many at the start of the season as genuine-contenders for the Premiership, the Raiders largely enjoyed a player turnover-free off season.

Losing just regular-starters Paul Vaughan and Edrick Lee from their main 17, along with Brenko Lee and Shaun Fensom from the extended squad, it could be argued Canberra were one of the best clubs who carried consistency amongst their playing squad through to this season.

The addition of Junior Paulo midway through last season proved to be a gamble that has paid dividends, with the troubled forward making huge improvements to his game. And, as a consequence, adding another element to the Raiders’ already formidable pack.

Never a club to be short of a man-mountain in their range of forwards, Stuart added the enigmatic Dave Taylor over the off-season, who returned from the South of France after a year in the English Super League.

Taylor has played just one-game for the Raiders this season, but knowing Ricky Stuart it would be foolish to think he hasn’t added Taylor to the squad without having a plan in place.

The ‘Volcano that has never erupted’ has returned to an extended bench for this Sunday’s clash against the Knights and if he plays, it could just be the extra piece of the puzzle the Raiders have been lacking.

Why is Dave Taylor in the Lime-Green in 2017?

While things won’t be easy as 2016 for the Raiders’ run home this season, they will need to turn their historically dismal away record around in their next four out of five games outside of the ACT.

Just seven out of their last 15 games this year will be at GIO Stadium and while you would expect them to make that a fortress during the colder winter months, currently sitting in 10th place on the ladder will require a number of away wins to place them in a title-winning place at the end of the season.

With a playing-group that could be completely exempt from Origin football, Canberra look ready to make a mid-season move up the NRL ladder.

Should they do so, then perhaps their ever-improving squad can live up to its puff, learn the lessons from their Finals' knockout and make a committed crack of bringing a 4th Premiership back to the Capital.

With Stuart at the helm – who was involved in winning all three – they probably have their best chance since 1994 to take home the trophy.