13/04/2024

Canberra Raiders building a new era. (Image: Canberra Raiders/X)

The Canberra Raiders enter the 2024 NRL season during a significant transition, with the conclusion of the 2023 season seeing the Green Machine eliminated week in the first round of the finals and the departure of key veterans.

The 2024 campaign marks the beginning of a rebuilding phase for the Raiders as they bid farewell to stalwarts like Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker, and some questions hover over the men from the nation’s capital as to who will make up their spine in 2024

Last Year

The 2023 season was a rollercoaster for the Raiders, even though they secured a spot in the finals.

However, their journey was defined by nail-biting moments and a late-season slump.

The team’s gritty and determined style, often described as “brawlers” by coach Ricky Stuart, saw them through challenging times, but questions arose about the sustainability of this approach.

While 2023 represented an achievement in securing back-to-back finals appearances, narrow wins and heavy losses (the 2023 Raiders won 13 games by 12 or fewer points) meant they finished their season with a points differential of -137.

Squad Changes

Ins: Zac Hosking (Penrith Panthers), Simi Sasagi (Newcastle Knights), Morgan Smithies (Wigan Warriors, Super League), Kaeo Weekes (Manly Sea Eagles)

Outs: Jarrod Croker (retirement), Matt Frawley (Leeds Rhinos, Super League), Harley Smith-Shields (Gold Coast Titans), Clay Webb (unsigned), Jack Wighton (South Sydney Rabbitohs)

More Rugby League News

Track Watch

The Raiders face challenges in key positions, particularly in the halves and fullback roles.

The much-discussed duel between Kaeo Weekes and Ethan Strange for the coveted number six jersey continued in the preseason challenges. Both players exhibited their skills, and while Weekes demonstrated his experience with a try and effective use of speed, Strange showcased his versatility with higher running and kicking meters.

The battle remains fierce, with both likely to get more chances alongside Jamal Fogarty in the upcoming matches, providing further insight into their combinations.

In the battle for the fullback jersey, Chevy Stewart’s performance at fullback left a positive impression and has him in the early poll position. Stewart displayed confidence in the role but also had some brief stints at dummy half.

Stewart’s assuredness and defensive capabilities, highlighted by a crucial one-on-one tackle on Morgan Harper, make a compelling case for him to wear the number one jersey in Round 1. Xavier Savage, although showcasing moments on the wing, appears to be falling behind in the battle after Stewart’s strong display.

Hooker is also a jersey without a clearly defined lock for Round 1, and with three strong options battling for the role in Zac Woolford, Tom Starling & Danny Levi, the number nine jersey is there for the taking .

In the first pre-season fixture, Zac Woolford started strongly but exited early due to an HIA, leaving Tom Starling and Danny Levi to showcase their skills. Starling’s seven tackle breaks demonstrated his attacking prowess, while Levi’s ingenuity turned a fumble into an unexpected try.

With Sebastian Kris suspended for Round 1, James Schiller and Albert Hopoate appeared to be battling it out for the vacant centre positions. Schiller’s strong performance against the Eels included a brilliant 80-meter try, giving him a clear edge over Hopoate. However, a glowing ball running performance from Ethan Strange in the pre-season loss to the Cowboys now sees this come down to the wire for the opening round centre berth.

What To Expect

As the Raiders navigate a rebuilding phase, expectations are tempered. The team’s ability to compete at the highest level will depend on how quickly the younger generation adapts to the demands of NRL. The forward pack, bolstered by the addition of Morgan Smithies, alongside the stars of Josh Papalii, Joseph Tapine & Elliott Whitehead, will play a crucial role.

The backline, reshaped by departures and injuries, presents both challenges and opportunities. Ricky Stuart’s tactical adjustments and the continued emergence of potential stars such as Ethan Strange, Kaeo Weekes, Xavier Savage & Chevy Stewart will be key to complementing their big-name pack.

Much will come down to how quickly Stuart can settle on a first-choice spine and how it performs. If he can assemble the 1, 6, 7 & 9 jigsaw quickly around Jamal Fogarty, it will go a long way to the Raiders contesting for finals football. However, early dysfunction or underperformance combined with ongoing changes could be a death knell for the Green Machine’s season.

It’s A Big Year For

Jamal Fogarty takes centre stage in 2024 as the senior playmaker. With the departure of Wighton from the halves, and Croker from a leadership perspective, Fogarty’s role becomes even more pivotal. The responsibility on his shoulders is heightened, while the opportunity to make this team his through his on-field leadership will be instrumental in guiding the team through this period of transition.

Additionally, the spotlight will be on emerging talents like Chevy Stewart, Ethan Strange & Kaeo Weekes, who are expected to step up and fill critical positions.

Biggest Unanswered Question

“Is This Really A Rebuild?”

Despite the departure of key players and the influx of youth, Stuart maintains optimism, framing the changes as an opportunity for the younger generation to establish themselves and become the next iteration of “The Green Machine”.

The question lingers: Can the Raiders maintain competitiveness while undergoing a significant transition and search for a new spine, or is this truly a rebuilding year?

Consistency of lineup and settling on their new spine will be the thread that determines how smooth and quick this transition period is.

Coach Index

Low-Medium

Ricky Stuart enters his 11th year as the head coach, facing one of the most challenging phases in his tenure. The security of his position and the team’s early-season performance will be closely scrutinized. The success of the rebuild and the ability to develop young talents will play a significant role in assessing Stuart’s coaching legacy as well as the ongoing security of his role.

Sanity should prevail at Canberra, with the exception of a diabolical first ten rounds, Stuart should be relatively safe. However, in the world of professional Rugby League, wins are always currency, and Stuart’s track record and club legend status will only protect him so long.

Predicted Round 1 Line Up

  1. Jordan Rapana
  2. Nick Cotric
  3. Ethan Strange
  4. Matthew Timoko
  5. Xavier Savage
  6. Kaeo Weekes
  7. Jamal Fogarty
  8. Josh Papalii
  9. Zac Woolford
  10. Joseph Tapine
  11. Hudson Young
  12. Elliott Whitehead
  13. Morgan Smithies

Interchange
14. Danny Levi
15. Zac Hosking
16. Trey Mooney
17. Pasami Saulo

The big questions clearly hover over the 1, 6 & 9 jerseys, with multiple candidates at fullback headlined by young guns Chevy Stewart & Xavier Savage, whilst experienced campaigners Jordan Rapan & Sebastian Kris (who is suspended for the early rounds) are also options at the back.

At five-eight new signing Kaeo Weekes appears to have his nose in front of Ethan Strange who the club recruited last season from The Entrance Tigers on the Central Coast of NSW, Strange will likely see time in other positions and may earn a centre spot for Round 1 in the absence of Kris.

At hooker, Canberra has three equally plausible solutions in Zac Woolford, a local junior and son of club legend Simon, Kiwi test player Danny Levi and the spark that is Tom Starling.

All will likely see time during the season and may find themselves playing as utilities off the bench in different instances, the experience of Woolford and versatility of Levi is likely to see them get the nods at hooker and bench utility respectively for Round 1.

Ladder Prediction

9th to 12th

The Raiders are poised for a transition year, and expectations for an immediate return to the top rungs of the ladder are tempered. A finish between 9th and 12th seems likely, considering the changes in personnel and the expected teething period that will be experienced while they bed down a first-choice spine.

The team’s performance in the early rounds will provide a clear indication of their ladder prospects for the 2024 season. A good start and favourable early results could well set the platform to be knocking on the door of the top eight.

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