Beware the ides of March.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Hail Sezer! That will be the catch cry if Canberra’s newest recruit burns the town down with his form.
Sezer and Blake Austin will form one of, if not the most exciting halves pairing in the NRL this year.
There is reason for genuine optimism down the Hume in 2016. And I say that as a pessimist. The Raiders have hopefully matured as a team after a series of narrow losses in 2015 that killed the Raiders season and left this writer on blood pressure medication.
Hopefully lessons on how to hang tough in the dying stages of a tight match have been learned and digested. It was tough on the fans last year. We need to see the maturity on the paddock transform into wins and at the very least, a finals berth. I would think a top six finish would be the minimum expectation in 2016.
The team is also a year older (and hopefully wiser) and they should be mature enough to close out the tight games, especially at home. Many pundits are picking the Raiders as dark horses this year, but it remains to be seen if the Raiders have the depth in the forwards to survive a gruelling season and a reduction in the interchange from ten to eight.
Junior Paulo looks to be on the Raiders radar but nothing has been confirmed as yet and I can potentially see Josh Papalii moving to the front row and that would leave Sia Soliola and Elliott Whitehead to man the second row with Fensom at lock.
The front row rotation of Vaughan, Boyd, Lima and Frank Paul Nuuausala looks solid but one injury could throw the season into turmoil, hence the potential move of Papalii to the front row. English hooker Josh Hodgson had an outstanding first season for the Raiders and now makes up a lethal spine with Sezer, Austin and Wighton. Easily one of the best in the NRL.
Exciting youngster Tevita Pangai Junior would have been a big part of the Raiders plans in 2016 but has since signed with the Broncos so you would think he would only be used as a last resort if he is playing elsewhere in 2017. No point developing him for another club to reap the benefits and he would be holding back a player who wants to be at the club.
The backline looks smokin’ hot with Sezer and Austin in the halves. Sezer should compliment Austin’s running game beautifully but it may take time to gel. Sezer is also a great kicker so he and Austin present a dual threat halves combination that will excite the Raiders faithful.
Wighton at fullback should be even better than last year, given his experience at the back and his defensive capabilities. I see Wighton on the cusp of Origin selection this year and he will really push Dugan and Moylan for the number one spot for NSW.
Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua in the centres should be a nice combination too. Croker is on track to become the highest point scorer in the history of the game and Leilua can be damaging on his day, but they are few and far between. He has to reduce his errors and keep his weight under control. The potential is there for a devastating centre combination, but that’s all it is. Potential.
Sisa Waqa and Edrick Lee will be on the wings with Jordan Rapana breathing down their neck should form wane of injury occur. Brenko Lee will probably get an opportunity at some stage but at this point he is on the outside looking in.
The Raiders will boast one of the fastest backlines in the NRL but without the platform being laid by the forwards, it’s all for nothing. For so many years, the Raiders have shown flashes of brilliance but for far too many years, it has come to nothing. This year it has to stick.
The make up of the bench will be interesting. I think Kurt Baptiste snags a bench spot with Boyd and Lima making up the two props but there is depth with Sam Williams a capable half and Adam Clydesdale also a back up option for Hodgson at hooker. That leaves Bateman and Kennedy vying for a bench spot with Whitehead, should he not get a start in the second row. These things have a way of working themselves out through injury, form and suspension, so being in the top 25 should ensure you get a run at some stage.
Ricky Stuart should feel confident about the squad he has assembled and if the home record can get to 75%, the Raiders will make the eight but that isn’t good enough. Top four is where the Raiders should set their sights. The competition in 2016 is very even with no real stand out and the Auckland Nines shouldn’t be used as a barometer for success. Teams like the Broncos, Cowboys, Warriors and Manly will all be top four candidates so the Raiders need to take some big scalps along the way.
The time for talk is over and the Raiders aren’t the young team any more. They have enough experience to match any team in the NRL and to get the respect they are after, you have to take it. Only one way to do that. Go out there and get it.
Predicted finish: Fifth
Predicted Raiders top 17:
Jarrod Croker (c)
Frank Paul Nuuausala