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2014 NRL Preview: Canberra Raiders

Canberra Raiders Stats

2013 Record: 10 wins from 24 premiership games (13th placed)
5-year record: 51 wins from 120 premiership games (43% win record)

Player Movements

Gains: Lagi Setu, Kyle O’Donnell, Kurt Baptiste

Losses: Blake Ferguson, Joel Thompson, Shaun Berrigan, Sam Williams, Sandor Earl, Joe Picker, Jonathon Reuben,           Hayden Crockett, Dimitri Pelo, Michael Picker

Coach: Ricky Stuart

Fixtures to start and end 2014

First five fixtures: Cowboys (A), Knights (A), Titans (H), Rabbitohs (A), Panthers (A)
Final five fixtures: Eels (A), Dragons (H), Sharks (A), Tigers (H), Eels (H)

The Canberra Raiders will be looking to breath new life in season 2014 as a new era begins under Ricky Stuart.

The drama that was 2013 must now be put behind the green machine, who will look at a top eight finish for the first time since 2012.

And while many will not back them to do so, there is little doubt the Green Machine still has the playing roster that can succeed.

This preseason has been very different to many gone by.

While many have involved bone grinding and muscle tearing fitness preparation, new coach and rugby league legend Stuart has adopted a less intensive method, which has seen the focus placed on player bonding.

In the past the team has travelled to endure extensive fitness tests, but this year they have remained at Raiders HQ, on the paddock and at the drawing board.

And with a squad that still includes the talents and experience of Terry Campses, David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Brett White, Jarrod Croker, Reece Robinson, Anthony Milford and Josh McCrone, there is still plenty of leadership to take the football to the right level.

And exactly that should have happened last year.

But the difference this season needs to be in the mindset of the squad, and this is what Stuart and new assistant coach Matt Parish have been brought in to achieve.

In an interview with Fairfax Media last year, Stuart revealed his negative emotions after seeing former bad boys Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson tarnish the club with their behavior, and admitted to seek ridding the “dick heads”.

He now seems to have the players attention, in a good way, and this is evident by the fact key starting positions are still up for grabs.

Two of the most contentious positions heading into round one are those of halfback and hooker, with confirmation yet to be seen.

Centre Jack Wighton is tipped to go down legend Laurie Daley’s path with a move from centre to five-eighth, after playing in the position in the Raiders’ two official trial matches.

Utility Josh McCrone is expected to start at hooker after also playing both trials in that position, but being a typical utility who can hook and play-make, it is arguable that both positions have been set in stone.

“In your own mind you’re set on someone, but then somebody comes out and does something really special, so we’re still always open-ended as it is with a number of positions,” said Stuart.

Stuart no doubt has big plans in his mind, but one thing that is evident is that he will not hesitate in dropping players out of form.

“I’ve said to the players-‘the players will pick the team’.”

Other mainstream players in line for either hooker or half are Glen Buttriss and the electric Anthony Milford, while NYC-product utilities Mitch Cornish and Jack Ahearn showed promising signs in the trials and Auckland Nines tournament.

And this is sure to also play in Stuart’s mind.

The pressure will be greatly felt by Buttriss, who has had a knee reconstruction and spent the majority of last season on the sideline.

The skilled rake played well in the Auckland Nines and played 40 minutes in the trial in Tamworth against Newcastle, but conceded he still needs to work at playing 80 minutes.

“We’ve got three other blokes as well as me and Josh [who could potentially play hooker], and they all played well on the weekend as well, so it will be interesting to see who he [Stuart] picks,” said Buttriss.

“I was blowing a bit after the Tamworth trial so I’m probably not ready for 80 minutes yet.”

Machine-like forward Brett White said a difference with the 2014 Raiders will be that no one will always be safe in the starting side.

“There’s competition for every spot. We’ve got plenty of young guys that are right on the cusp of playing first grade,” he said.

White said this attitude from the new coaching staff, in which assistant coach Matt Parish has also joined Stuart, has brought a new vibe to the playing group.

He said at first the playing group were nervous to see how Stuart would change the team environment, but now he has won them over.

“To win a group of blokes over doesn’t happen in one instance. It happens over time.”

“There’s a totally different feeling of confidence, and it’s the right sort of confidence, not the cockiness sort of confidence.”

The Raiders won their first trial against Melbourne in Melbourne 20-12, but went down to Newcastle 34-14.

They also stretched their legs against feeder club Mounties the weekend of the Tamworth fixture, in which other Raiders young guns also had the chance to impress playing with Mounties.

They won a single game at the Auckland Nines tournament, but sent practically a second tier squad to an event Stuart admitted was not part of his plans.

The Raiders kick off their season in Townsville against the North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday March 8 at 8pm Queensland time.

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