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Hopes are high in the nations capital for the Canberra Raiders and with high hopes, comes high expectation. And with good reason I might add. The Raiders finished last season on fire and won their first finals game since 2000. The Raiders also came within a whisker of playing in the grand final qualifier against the Dragons, a team they own. We all know what happened next so I will refrain from speaking about that.
The major challenge for the Raiders is the absence of Terry Campese (pictured). The Raiders will be without Campese, who was in a vein of career best form until he tore his ACL in a finals loss to the West Tigers last year. The five-eighth is due back in round ten but the Raiders have signed veteran Matt Orford to steer the Raiders around the park in his absence. Orford is a premiership winning half with Manly and has the guile and cunning to keep the Raiders on track while Campese watches on from the stands.
Canberra have the biggest and most damaging forward pack in the NRL, led by David Shillington and Thom Learoyd-Lahrs up front, Bronson Harrison and Joe Picker in the back row and Shaun Fensom at lock. Hooker is still up for grabs but my tip is Glen Buttriss will get the nod over Travis Waddell.
The Raiders backline is big and fast. Josh Dugan, the games most talked about player, will lead the Raiders superbly from the back and will be supported by Daniel Vidot and Blake Ferguson on the wing. Jarrod Croker and Joel Thompson will be the centre pairing with Josh McCrone and Matt Orford occupying the halves.
The bench will be Brett White, Dane Tilse, Alan Tongue and Trevor Thurling or Josh Miller.
The Raiders have depth in both the backs and the forwards and can cover every position on the park with ease. A luxury not many other NRL teams can boast.
The big fear for me is how will the players react with the weight of expectation on their shoulders and the fact the Raiders have a team littered with representative players. Gone are the days of the Raiders being seen as perennial underachievers. It's time to deliver in the nations capital and the Raiders certainly have the team to win the premiership.
A lot will depend on where the Raiders are sitting when Terry Campese returns. Given the nature of Campese's injury, we can't expect Terry to be at his best for at least six weeks after his return from such a lengthy layoff.
I'm predicting a top four finish for the Raiders if they can handle the pressure and expectation and win at least 75% of their home games.
The Raiders need to ensure Canberra Stadium is once again a fortress and a graveyard for all teams, not just the Dragons. The Raiders form on the road has improved but they need to pick up at least six to eight wins on the road if they are serious about not only playing finals footy, but progressing past week one of the finals for the second consecutive year.
Player to Watch - Joe Picker
The obvious choice was Josh Dugan but I've made the assumption everyone has already watched him and with the hype surrounding Dugan, I thought it best to concentrate on an unheralded Raiders who doesn't get the wraps he deserves. Picker is the unsung hero of the Raiders pack and after a mixed season in 2009, Picker had an excellent year last year. Joe is big, fast and in the mould of the great Bradley Clyde. He does have a way to go before he reaches Clyde's status but he shown glimpses of what he is capable of. Joe is a fast backrower who can play wide and break tackles at will. Consistency has been his major hurdle but he was in sparkling form in the latter stages of 2010 and with another year under his belt, I expect him to his game to another level this year. My prediction is Picker will be in the country side to gain his first rep honours and will have an outstanding year for the Raiders, notching up at least ten tries this year.
Rookie to Watch - Sam Williams
Drury Low would be the obvious choice but I'm not sure he qualifies as a rookie any more. An injury to either Orford or McCrone will see rookie half Sam Williams thrust into the spotlight. He will then be given the chance to show he is the next up and coming star for the Raiders. There's nothing like a bit of pressure to get the best out of unproven rookies and the halves area has been the Raiders Achilles heel in recent seasons. Williams may not get a run but if he does I am confident he will find himself comfortable in the top grade and will make the most of every opportunity.
Gains: Matt Orford (Bradford Bulls), Brett White (Melbourne Storm), Blake Ferguson (Cronulla Sharks), Nathan Massey (Canterbury Bulldogs), Mark Ioane (New Zealand Warriors)
Losses: Troy Thompson (Melbourne Storm), Joel Monaghan (Warrington Wolves). Scott Logan (Collegians), Justin Carney (Sydney Roosters), Marc Herbert (Bradford Bulls), Brett Kelly (Avignon Bisons), Adam Mogg (retired), Cameron Bruest (Parramatta Eels)
Predicted Best Lineup
1. Josh Dugan 2. Blake Ferguson 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joel Thompson 5. Daniel Vidot 6. Josh McCrone 7. Matt Orford 8. Thom Learoyd-Lahrs 9. Glen Buttriss 10. David Shillington 11. Bronson Harrison 12. Joe Picker 13. Shaun Fensom
Interchange: 14. Alan Tongue 15. Brett White 16. Dane Tilse 17. Trevor Thurling
Rd1 v Sharks (H)
Rd2 v Broncos (H)
Rd3 v Tigers (A)
Rd4 v Titans (H)
Rd5 v Panthers (A)
Rd6 v Cowboys (A)
Rd7 v Knights (H)
Rd8 v Tigers (H)
Rd9 v Sea Eagles (A)
Rd10 v Storm (A)
Rd11 v Bulldogs (H)
Rd13 v Cowboys (H)
Rd14 v Broncos (A)
Rd16 v Eels (H)
Rd17 v Roosters (A)
Rd18 v Sharks (A)
Rd19 v Storm (H)
Rd20 v Dragons (H)
Rd21 v Warriors (A)
Rd22 v Knights (A)
Rd23 v Rabbitohs (H)
Rd24 v Titans (A)
Rd25 v Panthers (H)
Rd26 v Bulldogs (A)