Ahead of the Canberra Raiders kicking off their 2021 NRL campaign, CW’s Denholm Samaras and Vincent Samaras have previewed the season ahead for the Green Machine.
After a shortened 2020 season, the NRL has returned to the usual 24 games per team which means the Canberra Raiders play nine teams twice in 2021.
The Green Machine have been given a pretty even draw, playing five teams from last year’s top eight twice, in the Storm (2nd), Eels (3rd), Roosters (4th), Knights (7th) and Sharks (8th).
The teams from last year’s bottom eight the Raiders play twice are the Titans (9th), Warriors (10th), Dragons (12th) and Sea Eagles (13th).
The bonus for Canberra is that their Magic Round game against the Bulldogs at Suncorp Stadium will be an away game so they still enjoy their full complement of 12 home matches, including one in Wagga Wagga.
A couple of highlights of their matches at GIO Stadium include Thursday night games against the Rabbitohs and Roosters in rounds 8 (29 April) and 25 (2 September) respectively.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does the premiership window close after this year?
On paper, the 2021-22 seasons appear they will be the zenith of Ricky Stuart’s rebuild he undertook upon taking the reins before the 2014 season.
Adopting what was an unbalanced roster that only managed eight wins in his first season and was a Cronulla Sharks doping scandal away from a wooden spoon, within two years they were an Edrick Lee dropped ball short of a Grand Final.
Since then, Stuart has fine-tuned his squad piece-by-piece, resulting in sustained on-field results; three preliminary finals in the last five seasons (and one GF of course).
The signing of Ryan James for the 2021 season stands as a testament to where the club is now compared to the infamous backflip of James Tedesco and snub from Josh Mansour in 2014.
The Canberra Raiders come into 2021 with an optimal spread of youth, experience and elite footballers in their prime across their squad.
Veterans like Jarrod Croker, Elliott Whitehead, Jordan Rapana, Sia Soliola and Josh Hodgson are still capable of excellent football despite all being over 30.
But what makes now the right time for the Raiders is that the world class Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii are right in their athletic prime, both 28 years old, to start the 2021 NRL season.
At 26, Joseph Tapine hit full stride last year and, if he remains on his current trajectory, could be talked about in the same air as Papalii and Wighton come season’s end.
Also aged 26, halfback George Williams showed class and skill in his first season of NRL last year and will be better for the experience.
The spritely English half has also had another full off-season to work on his combinations.
Then, all 23 or under, young guns Bailey Simonsson, Curtis Scott, Emre Guler, Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh all appear capable of becoming representative footballers.
Ultimately looking at the age profile of the club’s senior players, this year or next will be time for the current crop of Raiders to win a comp.
THE BREAKOUT STARS
2020 could be considered a breakout season for Young, but at just 22 years of age and now with a permanent spot in the second-row, expect the Canberra Raiders star to go to a whole new level in 2021.
He starred playing on the right-edge in the Raiders trial against the Roosters with his mobility and powerful ball running on display.
He has clearly impressed many at the club with John Bateman and assistant coach Michael Ennis touting him as a future NSW Blues player.
In exciting news for Raiders fans, Young has recently signed a new deal that will keep him in Canberra until the end of 2024.
Having spent his first two years in Canberra floating across the backline, Simonsson gets first shot at locking down a wing spot this year with the departure of Nick Cotric.
“That’s a big motivation for me, to put my best foot forward and lock down my spot in the team and then just be contributing each week,” he told Canberra Weekly.
Simonsson’s an athlete. He’s big, fast and strong, and his output will only improve with the continuity of holding a designated position week-in week-out.
He’s been anointed Raider number 374 and will make his long-awaited return to the NRL this weekend after consecutive ACL injuries kept James on the sidelines since round 6 of 2019.
Prior to his extended time on the injury list, the 29-year-old recruit was the heart and soul of the Gold Coast Titans both on and off field.
The 193cm hulking front rower bring defensive steel, soft hands, and strong running to the Raiders middle.
Additionally, the 2018 Ken Stephens medalist is renowned for his community work outside of football.
James also has a knack for finding the try line. He picked up the NRL record for tries by a front rower in a season when he bagged 12 meat pies in 2016.
Only playing one final in 11 years of NRL so far, he’s keen to add to that tally in Canberra.
“I’d love to come down and win a premiership,” he said earlier in the off-season.
2020 injured brigade
The Raiders did well to make a preliminary final with their hefty injury toll in 2020 and now they get a few of those players back who are basically new recruits.
Josh Hodgson is the biggest returning star as he is arguably the most important player in the Raiders team. He’s coming back from an ACL injury but looked superb in the trial, showcasing his usual craftiness out of dummy half and even showed some pace to make a line break.
Bailey Simonsson is another coming off a serious injury and looks set for a big season after bulking up over the pre-season. Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler also return from long-term injuries and add plenty of depth to the Raiders middle forwards, something they lacked last year.
Outside strike power
There’s no doubt the Raiders have got the forward pack. They have a dynamic, intimidating spine, too. The main question mark over the squad is where points will come from out wide.
With game breakers Cotric and Joey Leilua both gone, who will take up the X-factor mantle for the Green Machine?
Currently there’s no obvious answer, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few names who could step up.
At his peak, Rapana was the NRL benchmark outside strike weapon.
Still an extremely capable winger, ‘Air Jordan’ has lost a yard of pace and some spring when compared to his very impressive prime years.
There’s no doubt his first full pre-season in four years will benefit Rapana this season.
A bigger Simonsson could step up. He’s always had the pace, and now he has the size to worry defenders, break the line, and return the ball with oomph as he did in the Roosters trial.
Curtis Scott was recruited as primarily a defensive centre but showed signs with the ball last year and at 95kg, comes into 2021 a touch heavier too.
There is also the unknown quantity of Canberra’s depth outside backs like Seb Kris, Harley Smith-Shields, Matt Timoko or Semi Valemei, all of whom have provided glimpses of power and game-breaking pace.
If fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad can develop his ballplaying abilities and set up his outside men, that would help answer the outside strike power question.
Nicoll-Klokstad had three try assists last year, a step off the mark set by benchmark ballplaying NRL fullbacks like Clint Gutherson (17), Tedesco (15) and Kayln Ponga (14).
Bateman was superb for the Green Machine during his two years in Canberra and his absence leaves some big shoes to fill on the Raiders right edge.
Young is the one tasked with filling those shoes and although it may take him some to become accustomed to his new role, he certainly looks capable of doing the job.
There may be a slight issue in the depth of the Raiders second-row, with Young, Whitehead and Corey Harawira-Naera the three options.
If two of those three get injured, they may have to move Tapine out of lock or play an unproven talent like Harry Rushton.
THE OTHER CONTENDERS
The Panthers were the best team all year in 2020, until a disastrous opening 50 minutes to the Grand Final saw their season end in tears. They still have a core group of stars that should see them contend again this year. The likes of Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Api Koroisau, James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo form the nucleus of a top side. Their hopes in 2021 may come down to how well they handle the disappointment of 2020.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs have been the most hyped team all off-season and although they were playing inferior opposition, they looked irresistible in the Charity Shield. With Latrell Mitchell back from injury, his combination with Cody Walker looked lethal and should provide many points for them this season. The addition of Jai Arrow bolsters their forward stocks and with the likes of Cam Murray, Damien Cook and Adam Reynolds, it’s easy to see why people are picking them to win the premiership.
The Roosters are an ageing side but still have plenty of quality its impossible to write them off. Tedesco is arguably the best player in the game and along with the likes of Luke Keary, Joey Manu, Angus Crichton and the returning Victor Radley, they form a core group good enough to beat anybody. The big question mark over the Roosters is the age of some of their stars and also how their new halves pairing fares. They somehow managed to fit young gun Joseph Suaalii under their salary sombrero so look for him to come into the side late in the season.
The Storm are perennial contenders much like the Roosters. In fact, the only season they have missed the finals under Craig Bellamy was in 2010 when they copped their salary cap penalties. While he can never be fully replaced, they seem to have found their heir apparent to Cameron Smith in Harry Grant with the extremely capable Brandon Smith able to fill in at hooker or lock at a pinch. The big three of C. Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are now officially gone, but it’s almost like they have replaced them with the new big three in Cameron Munster, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Grant. Will no doubt be amongst the top contenders again in 2021.
CANBERRA RAIDERS 2021 PREDICTIONS
Top try scorer – Jack Wighton. He crossed the line 13 times last year, just one short of club leader Cotric. 2021 is shaping up as a big year for Jack.
Most improved – Curtis Scott. His first season in the capital didn’t go as expected for obvious reasons. Here’s hoping more off-field stability leads to on-field results for the talented centre.
Mal Meninga Medalist – Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton. It’s hard to go past the world class duo going back-to-back.
Ladder finish – Top four (1). I see no reason the Green Machine can’t claim their second minor premiership this year. A finish outside the top four would be considered a failure.
Top try scorer – Jordan Rapana. Predicting the old boy to get his mojo back and score plenty of meat pies on the wing.
Most Improved – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. Even though he’s been extremely solid in his time at the Raiders, 2021 is the year for him to expand his attacking game.
Mal Meninga Medalist – Josh Hodgson. The veteran will have a massive impact on the team this season and judging by the trial, he could easily be back to his best form.
Ladder position – 2nd (premiers). Provided we stay healthy, anything outside the top four would be a disappointing finish. The team now has plenty of finals experience, so this is the year we go all the way.