Reinforced Raiders eye step up in 2016

Some have branded Canberra the NRL dark horse in 2016, citing arguably the best Raiders squad in recent seasons.

But coach Ricky Stuart doesn’t want a bar of it.

Having learnt to ignore constant “negativity” about the club since his arrival in 2014, Stuart has also learnt not to buy into any type of hype.

“Commentary changes very quickly in rugby league,” Stuart told AAP.

“We certainly don’t take any real notice of it in regards to whether you take confidence out of it or criticism.

“It’s a matter of just putting your head down, doing your work at training and getting on with your job.”

Stuart says he has set no expectations for this season, other than simply to “win the next game”.

But after finishing on the cusp of the top eight last year (10th), and now having a refreshed roster and a favourable draw, the Raiders have the opportunity to progress.

The club has recruited smartly for 2016, bringing in former Gold Coast Titan Aidan Sezer to play alongside Dally M five-eighth of the year Blake Austin.

While both are coming back from off-season shoulder surgery and won’t have any game time together before round one, they’ve been touted as potentially one of the league’s best halves combinations.

England second-rower Elliott Whitehead joins the pack, hoping to emulate fellow Super League converts Josh Hodgson and Sia Soliola who were among the Raiders’ best in 2015.

New recruits Adam Clydesdale, Jeff Lima and Zac Santo can only add value to a clutch of burgeoning stars in Shannon Boyd, Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom and Josh Papalii.

And with the likes of Sam Williams and under-20s star Lachlan Croker waiting in the wings, the stars are aligning for Stuart who is out to end the club’s three-year finals drought.

“The day I got here I said my job is to get the club back to a position where they’re proud of their team, proud of their club, and we’re a competitive football team,” said Stuart.

“That’s always been the plan and I think we’re on track.”

A poor record at home and inability to close out tight games ultimately proved the Raiders’ downfall last season.

They lost six of nine games at GIO Stadium, five of which were by two points or less.

They open this campaign with two fixtures in Canberra, against Penrith and Sydney Roosters, and won’t face another top-four side from last year until round 14 (Brisbane).

But Stuart doesn’t care who they play.

“We’ve been working really hard on getting our own team in order physically, and from a combinations point of view, on the football front,” he said.

“We’re not intimidated by any other football team.”

CANBERRA RAIDERS

Premierships: 3 – 1989, 1990, 1994

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2015 – 10th, 2014 – 15th, 2013 – 12th

Coach: Ricky Stuart

Captain: Jarrod Croker

Gains: Adam Clydsale (Knights), Jeff Lima (Catalan Dragons), Zac Santo (Cowboys), Aidan Sezer (Titans), Elliott Whitehead (Catalan Dragons)

Losses: Mitch Cornish (Eels), Joel Edwards (Tigers), Jeremy Hawkins (Storm), Mark Nicholls (Storm), Josh McCrone (Dragons), David Shillington (Titans), Andrew Heffernan (Panthers), Bill Tupou (Wakefield), Jeff Lynch (Titans)

Strength: Attack. They have one of the fastest backlines in the league, which will only be strengthened by Aidan Sezer and his impressive kicking and organisational skills.

Weakness: Defence, especially on the edges. They conceded the most running metres of any team in 2015 and flailed at crucial moments. But that experience should better their decision-making this year.

Best team: Jack Wighton, Edrick Lee, Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua, Sisa Waqa, Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer, Paul Vaughan, Josh Hodgson, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Josh Papalii, Sia Soliola, Shaun Fensom. Interchange: Sam Williams, Jeff Lima, Elliott Whitehead, Shannon Boyd.

Predicted finish: 13th

Betting: $26

* All Offers and Promotions posted in this article excludes NSW residents.
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