Not blessed with the financial firepower of rival clubs the Canberra Raiders have reached the 2016 NRL finals the hard way.
Reached being an understatement. They’ve surpassed even the most biased expectations to finish second on the ladder for the first time since 1995.
The Raiders are the NRL’s excitement machine in 2016, scoring 688 points during the regular season – 100 more than the next best side.
They thrashed the Tigers 52-10 at Leichhardt Oval to earn a home final. Having not experienced finals football since 2012 and boasting only one Origin representative, the Raiders remain an unknown quantity.
The Raiders have continued learning over the last three seasons. 2016 is no different.
2015 for the Raiders promised plenty but returned little. Three home wins told its story.
Now, the team is one year older. A little smarter.
The Raiders recruitment over the last two years has been outstanding. Led by highly regarded recruitment manager, Peter Mulholland, the Raiders have predominately signed unwanted players in the NRL and underrated stars in England.
Hodgson, Soliola and Whitehead have joined from the Super League. Leilua, Austin, Sezer, Tapine and Paulo have signed from rival NRL clubs.
The result? The Raiders have a first choice team where only one player is over 30, Sia Soliola (30).
In 2016 the Raiders have learnt how to close out tight matches, how to cope with injuries and how to defend.
The club has transformed their home record. Last season the Raiders could only manage three wins compared to ten this year.
Also, the club boasts plenty of depth. Their feeder club, the Mounties started the season with a formidable forward pack which included Luke Bateman, Joe Tapine, Jarrad Kennedy and Mitch Barnett. In recent weeks, Shaun Fensom and Paul Vaughan have been running out in reserve grade.
When Austin or Sezer have been missing, Williams has excelled in the halves. Brenko Lee has arguably been better than his cousin Edrick when called upon too.
Their edges are strong, with Whitehead, Leilua and Rapana (or Leipana if you like) on the right and Papalii, Croker and Lee on the left, the team are capable of scoring all over the field. Rapana and Croker are ranked second and fifth respectively in the NRL try-scoring charts.
The pure size of Paulo and Boyd in the middle is a threat to any team. Combined, the starting props weigh in at 245kg.
Josh Hodgson has become arguably the best player in the NRL. His skill set from dummy half is only matched by Cameron Smith.
The halves, so often a driving force in a team are good first-grade players but lack patience in their fifth tackle options. Blake Austin’s inability to pass the ball to his right can strip his team of their most potent weapon.
However, it is Jack Wighton who has made the Raiders are premiership contender. Their premiership hopes rely on Wighton’s appeal for a shoulder charge being successful.
Early in the season, the fullback was guilty of fumbling the ball or making a rash decision. However, Wighton has proven himself to be one of the best defensive fullbacks in the game, making big last ditch tackles. Surprisingly, Wighton has the second most try assists (12) to his name at the club.
Although the Raiders could struggle without their star fullback, they should beat the Sharks at home.
The Sharks had a field day on their last trip to Canberra comfortably disposing of the Raiders 40-6, but The Green Machine are a different proposition these days.
The 22-8 win against the Storm showed how far the Raiders have come. They defended comfortably against the minor premiers, giving away penalties to slow down the play and forcing errors.
The Raiders start this match as the favourites but could struggle if Wighton is ineligible to play.
It ‘s difficult to know who the Raiders could play after that match, but one thing about the Raiders is true. They are capable of outscoring any team in the competition.
However, only four players within the current Raiders lineup played in the club’s last finals fixture in 2012. The Raiders probably won’t lift the trophy at the end of this season, but their premiership window has just opened.