After being one of the best teams in the NRL competition over the previous two years, 2021 saw Canberra slide down the table to end in 10th and miss finals football.
Will 2022 see the Green Machine reclaim their title as one of the best teams in the competition, or will it be another bottom eight finish?
The 2021 season was nothing short of a total disappointment for the Raiders after finishing in 10th place. Many pundits had tipped this side to go a long way last season, with some even predicting a premiership for the nations capital.
Unfortunately that didn’t go as planned, despite a bright enough start to the season.
The Raiders were sitting on three wins after four matches, with their only loss coming in extremely controversial fashion against the Warriors in round three.
Canberra would then go on to win just two of their following eleven matches, leaving them too much to do come the end of the year to make the finals.
Unfortunately many of the headlines about the club were not on their performances, rather on the very public exit of star English halfback George Williams.
Whilst there were negatives, Canberra can also look back on some positive signs coming out of 2021.
The injection of Xavier Savage for his two games was an extremely pleasing sight for every Raiders fan, especially off the back of his match against the Sharks.
The young fullback would run a remarkable 246 metres, breaking nine tackles in the process and scoring a try.
Jack Wighton was also finally rewarded with the NSW five-eighth jersey after years of success in the position, whilst the likes of Seb Kris and Harley Smith-Shields all broke onto the scene.
Nick Cotric (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Adam Elliott (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Jamal Fogarty (Gold Coast Titans), Peter Hola (North Queensland Cowboys), Brandon Morkos (2024)
Caleb Aekins (released), Adam Cook (released), Siliva Havili (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Ryan James (Brisbane Broncos), Dunamis Lui (released), Darby Medlyn (released), Kai O’Donnell (released), Curtis Scott (released), Bailey Simonsson (Parramatta Eels), Iosia Soliola (retired), George Williams (Warrington Wolves)
Like many teams Canberra has had many players use the off season to recover from injuries, whether they be minor or ones that required surgery.
Nick Cotric should be back for round one from the shoulder and foot injuries that have kept him out since midway through last season and has reportedly looked back to his former self in training.
Jarrod Croker, Xavier Savage, Corey Horsburgh and Elliott Whitehead should all also return either on or before the first round, with the first three set to play this weekends trial game against the Roosters.
Unfortunately young winger Harley Smith-Shields will be out for the entire season after tearing his ACL during pre-season training.
Jordan Rapana will have to wait a couple of rounds to make his season debut for the Green Machine after being suspended from the All-Stars game.
The veteran will be on the sidelines for two matches after his shoulder charge last weekend sparked a push and shove between the two sides.
Reports are also coming out that young gun Trey Mooney has been training brilliantly, with him preparing to play at second row.
Expect the 19-year-old former Australian schoolboy to get some serious game time throughout the course of the season, especially if injuries begin to take a toll.
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What to expect
Whilst 2021 was not the year that Raiders fans would have hoped for, it’s time to forget all of that and look ahead to a big 2022.
If everything goes to plan this season expect a big resurgence from the Green Machine, centred around a new and refreshed spine.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is expected to retain his fullback jersey after spending most of last year on the sidelines with a neck injury.
When he did come back in round 24 the New Zealand international looked back to his best, and after a full preseason expect him to come out firing.
The addition of halfback Jamal Fogarty to partner Jack Wighton is massive for the Raiders, with the hope that the recruit will be able to free up the five-eighth.
Tom Starling is predicted by many to take the nine jersey, especially with Josh Hodgson signing with Parramatta for the 2023 season.
His running game out of dummy half should again aid the new Canberra spine, with him being able to get plays started extremely quickly.
With this new and exciting spine the expectations for this year has to be a finals spot, rebounding up the ladder from last year.
Anticipate a team that has worked on their susceptibility to not hold the same intensity for the whole 80 minutes, something that cost them numerous wins and ultimately a spot in the top eight.
With Ricky Stuart at the helm expect a squad that is primed for a deep finals run, with the hopes that their premiership window hasn’t shut before they were ready.
It’s a big year for?
You could not have had a better two years in the NRL than Jack Wighton’s 2019 and 2020. The Raiders five-eighth made his origin debut in a winning side, made a grand final, won a Clive Churchill Medal in a losing squad and was awarded the Dally M.
2021 was meant to be the year that many tipped Wighton to help carry his beloved Raiders to a first premiership since 1994. That didn’t happen.
It was in no way all Wighton’s fault. The turbulence that defined Canberra’s season last year was simply not the environment to produce your best football.
He was however a far more passive version of himself, with a tendency to not run the ball in the same way that he did in previous years.
This was likely down to the pressure that he felt to organise the team, being the only stable member of the Raiders spine that had nearly made the grand final in 2020.
The hope for Raiders fans is that by having Nicholl-Klokstad and Fogarty alongside him for the entire season, it will allow him to be freer when he has the ball to do the special things that everyone knows he can do.
Last year was an odd year, and ultimately Wighton can’t be judged just on that. Instead, 2022 is shaping to be a massive season for him to help bring a premiership back to Canberra, whilst solidifying himself as one of the very best players in the game.
Biggest unanswered question:
Is the premiership window still open for Canberra?
No matter the sport, the question of whether a premiership window has come and gone will always be asked of a team who missed out on a title and dropped in form shortly after.
The Raiders are in this position, especially considering their extremely lacklustre 2021.
It is going to be tough for the side to bounce back immediately, especially considering the form and momentum that teams like Penrith, Parramatta, Melbourne and the Roosters bring into the new year.
Whilst they have lost a few key players from those successful teams, specifically their halfbacks from both positive campaigns, the core of the side is still there.
Wighton hasn’t lost any of the ability that saw him pick up the two most prestigious individual accolades in the game, whilst if the last few rounds of 2021 are anything to go off Nicholl-Klokstad is ready to fire this season.
This isn’t even mentioning their dominant pack lead by the likes of Joseph Tapine and Josh Papalii, both of whom played pivotal roles in their 2019 grand final run.
The Raiders premiership window hasn’t closed, they have too many quality players and exciting youth still in their squad for that to be the case.
They do however need to have success this year to prove doubters wrong and to give themselves the confidence that they can beat the best to win a premiership.
Coach pressure index
Ricky Stuart is a proven NRL coach. Whilst he may have only won one premiership, he is a perennial winner who often sees his team at the top of the ladder come September.
After the success of 2019 and 2020 expectations were high for the squad that he assembled, and ultimately they didn’t live up to the hype in 2021.
While it wasn’t all his fault, some responsibility does however have to fall on his shoulders, especially considering the talent in his squad.
With the results over the previous two seasons Stuart had the runs on the board to keep any pressure off, however last years performances have begun to count against the experienced coach.
Whilst it isn’t a case of win now or get sacked, another year without finals football would see the coach fall under a large amount of pressure.
The squad is there to compete, Stuart is a great NRL coach, he would be wanting success to be back in Canberra sooner rather than later.
Predicted round one line-up
There are a few positions that are up for grabs come the first round, with the battle for the one through five jersey’s to be arguably the most hotly contested.
Rapana’s two game suspension does make it a bit easier for Stuart, however when he comes back this creates a major headache.
It may get to a stage where he is forced to choose between club legend Croker and young gun Savage, whilst Matt Timoko, who was brilliant in his debut season, is every chance of also getting a jersey.
Starling is also likely to start over Hodgson, however it is a real possibility that the Raiders opt to give the more experienced hooker the starting spot considering the change in their halves.
Similar to last season the battle for spots in the pack is going to come down to the wire, with new recruit Adam Elliott also in the hunt for a spot.
6th – 10th
It is extremely hard to judge where this Raiders side will finish, especially off the performances over the last few seasons.
They have all of the pieces to be able to compete with some of the best sides in the comp, however the lingering effects from last year and the shifting spine could take some time to properly gel.
For this reason, the Raiders will finish between sixth and tenth, on the verge of making a return to finals football. They simply have too many elite players for a repeat of last year to occur, something which Stuart will be keen to avoid.
It will however be a serious challenge to finish any higher than that, with teams like Penrith, Parramatta, Melbourne and the Roosters all having some momentum to build off coming into the new season.
This Raiders squad have the ability to compete with and defeat these teams, we just aren’t sure if that will be the case this season.
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