Ricky Stuart was a man under pressure for the majority of 2022 and its impact was witnessed most during his post-match press conferences. If he wasn’t calling for the Bunker to be blown up after being on the receiving end of a dud call, he was adding new phrases to the rugby league lexicon with his infamous “weak-gutted dog” rant.
Yet Canberra’s patchy start to the season, which saw them go on a five-game losing streak before round 10, gave way to a strong run of form at the backend of the year when Jamal Fogarty returned from injury and the Raiders could finally field a stable side.
The Green Machine managed to play finals footy after finishing in eighth place and gave a good account of themselves by winning in Melbourne before being battered by a red-hot Parramatta outfit in week two.
They will be looking for a faster start this season and greater consistency to rise up the ladder, but will they be able to achieve this?
The Sporting News previews the Raiders season below – including their best 17, the key to their success and predicted finish for 2023.
RAIDERS TOP 30 SQUAD | RAIDERS OFF-CONTRACT LIST | RAIDERS ROUND 1 PREDICTED TEAM
Pasami Saulo (Knights), Danny Levi (Huddersfield)
Josh Hodgson (Eels), Adam Elliott (Knights), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Warriors), Ryan Sutton (Bulldogs)
The Raiders were found out at the start of last season when Fogarty was struck down with injury and Stuart cycled through various iterations of a spine. In fact, he used 13 different combinations throughout 2022.
Having used Josh Hodgson, Tom Starling, Matt Frawley, Adam Elliott and Zac Woolford as his starting hookers at one point or another, it’s no surprise the Raiders are stacked in that position this year.
Danny Levi will compete with Woolford and Starling for the No.9 jersey or as a utility on the bench, while there is plenty of punch through the middle with Joseph Tapine and Josh Papalii supported by the likes of Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh.
This strong forward pack will give Jack Wighton and Fogarty plenty of ball and good field position to work with but their lack of points in the outside backs may be a cause for concern.
Also, having seen Ryan Sutton and Elliott walk out the door along with former captain Hodgson, the Raiders’ experience has taken a significant hit.
Couple this with rookie Xavier Savage taking over from Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at fullback and current skipper Jarrod Croker nearing retirement, it’s clear there is a changing of the guard in the nation’s capital which may see some growing pains in the next few years.
Weaknesses: Outside backs
Joseph Tapine was a colossus through the middle of the park in 2022 with his incredible form being rewarded with a place in the Dally M Team of the Year, while he also claimed the Meninga Medal for the club’s best player.
The front-rower single-handedly carried his team at times, punching out more post-contact metres than anyone else in the comp and terrorising defences with his ability to offload or break the line.
The spine players undoubtedly hold the weight of the side on their shoulders with their ability to knit the attack together, but Tapine often stands as the barometer for Stuart’s men.
Canberra’s whole game plan is built around smashing the ball up through the middle and attempting to dominate territory. Without the Kiwi international, this plan becomes a whole lot harder to execute.
While he has technically had a small taste of NRL football as a mid-game concussion replacement, Ata Mariota will be hoping to make more of an impact this year.
The Samoan-born forward excelled in NSW Cup in 2022, finishing the year with 25 offloads and over 120 run metres per game.
Mariota tips the scales at close to 115kg but is extremely mobile for a prop, and with the club signing him on for the next two years, a permanent spot in the first grade lineup can’t be too far away.
Stuart has proven in recent years that he isn’t afraid to blood young talent, with the likes of Matt Timoko and Savage performing admirably during the Raiders’ run to the finals.
Rounds 24-27: Storm [A], Bulldogs [H], Broncos [H], Sharks [A]
Canberra has a relatively smooth draw, facing the Panthers, Eels, Cowboys and Roosters just once while meeting the Dolphins, Warriors and Knights twice.
Last year they came home with a wet sail to scrape into the eight but will be hoping they won’t have to do so again in 2023.
In round 24, they travel to Melbourne to take on the Storm before hosting the Bulldogs and Broncos who will also likely be fighting for a spot in the finals. Their regular season reaching its conclusion with an away trip to the Sharks.
PREDICTED FINISH: 9th
The Raiders have yo-yoed, finishing in 10th place twice across the past five seasons while making the finals three times.
In those two golden years of 2019 and 2020, they finished in fourth and fifth place respectively and made it all the way to a grand final.
Whether they can overcome the loss of a host of experienced stars and be led to a similar position by the likes of Wighton, Papalii and Tapine remains to be seen.