Picking Sam Williams to start at five-eighth over Blake Austin in Saturday’s NRL season opener against Penrith was an easy decision for Canberra coach Ricky Stuart.
Austin hasn’t played a match since having major shoulder surgery in September and will make his return via the bench in the round-one clash at GIO Stadium.
Stuart said it was a good way to re-introduce the Dally M five-eighth of the year to the NRL and monitor his minutes.
“It won’t be forever, it’s just a matter of doing the best thing for the team,” he said on Friday.
The call was made in consultation with Austin, off-contract Williams and prized new halfback Aidan Sezer.
The clincher was Williams’ form in the Raiders’ only trial against Newcastle in Orange.
“It was an easy decision knowing the fact that Sammy was fit and healthy,” Stuart added.
How he will play the trio, though, remains a mystery.
With one of the Raiders’ strongest squads in recent years, Stuart has the luxury of depth this season.
Competition is so fierce that even experienced players like Sisa Waqa has missed out on a spot and Stuart has warned that a poor performance in game one and they might not have a place in game two.
“Win, lose or draw, we have to individually play well or there’s changes,” he said.
“I need each individual to be their best.”
The Raiders have won their last two matches against the Panthers, and 17 of 25 fixtures in the nation’s capital.
But not since 2008 have they managed back-to-back wins at home against Penrith.
Even without newly-crowned skipper Matt Moylan (back) and Dean Whare (calf), Stuart still expects a tough battle – especially in the middle with recruits Trent Merrin and Suaia Matagi.
“They’ve got a new coach, they’ve got a pretty new team as well with some new buys – they’ll be tough.
“They’ll be out to impress and we always have a tough struggle against Penrith.
“So we’re prepared for a physical challenge.”
The Raiders won just three from 12 matches last year, their worst-ever season at home.
They begin 2016 with two games at GIO, and Stuart hopes the newfound faith in the club – which broke the 11,000-member mark for the first time before even taking to the field – will help them reverse the trend.
“There’s a lot of optimism out there about 2016,” Stuart said.
“We’ve been working our butts off to make our supporters and members proud and I’ve got a really good feeling going into the season that we will.”
KEY STATS: CANBERRA V PENRITH
* The head-to-head record between these sides is evenly split, with the Raiders and Panthers winning 33 matches each and one ending in a draw.
* The Raiders have lost three of their past four opening games at GIO Stadium, their last win coming in 2013 when they went on to win their first eight home fixtures.
* The Panthers have won their past three round-one games, including beating the Raiders in 2013, but all of them were at Penrith. This is the first time they will start the season away since 2009 when they lost to Cronulla.