Only time will tell whether Canberra’s lack of big-game experience will be their achilles heel in the NRL finals series, according to coach Ricky Stuart.
The Raiders sealed a top-four berth and a second chance in September after skipper Jarrod Croker led a second-half comeback against Parramatta to claim an eighth-straight win on Sunday.
Canterbury were the only top-eight team not to come away with a win in round 24 as eighth-placed Gold Coast opened up a three-point lead on ninth-placed Warriors.
For the Raiders, it is the first time they will finish in the top four since 2004, however Stuart feared his team’s shallow finals experience would count against them and that they may have also peaked early.
“I am worried about plateauing out. I can only ask so much of the players,” Stuart said.
“Have they got it? I don’t know. It’s going to be hard because we’ve been up for a long time. Will we plateau out? Time will tell. Will lack of experience tell in the semi-finals? Time will tell.
“But it’s going to be great education for them. We’re on a journey here. I haven’t got a Johnathan Thurston, a Cameron Smith or a Cooper Cronk. I’ve got a team. We don’t live off one player.”
Just five of the Canberra players who took the field against the Eels have played finals football.
“They say you need experience to win semi-final football, maybe that will be the case,” Stuart said.
“But it’ll give us a great education going into next year and the years after that.
“We’re very happy with where we sit. We haven’t achieved anything yet outside the fact that we’re in the top four.”
The Raiders celebrated the win by announcing post-game that major sponsor Huawei has signed on for three more years, making them the club’s longest-serving major sponsor at the end of the 2019.
“At the start of the year we did not have a major sponsor. Our sponsor Huawei were looking like going elsewhere,” Raiders chief executive Don Furner said.
“But through the form of the team, we’re very pleased. We’re the first team anywhere in the world they sponsored, and I want to make it clear, they stuck through us through those tough times.”
The Bulldogs went down 20-10 in Brisbane with prop Sam Kasiano facing up to a three-game ban for kicking Corey Parker in the mouth on Thursday.
Penrith and Gold Coast all but secured the last two finals spots after smashing Wests Tigers and Newcastle respectively, while Melbourne also ran away from Manly.
Defending premiers North Queensland snapped a three-game losing streak by belting the Warriors, and the Sydney Roosters leaped to a season-high 13th spot by walloping St George Illawarra.
Cronulla round out the weekend against South Sydney on Monday.