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No Hodgson… No Raiders? Andrew Jackson previews the Green Machine's 2018 chances as they look to return to finals footy.
The Canberra Raiders entered the 2017 season burdened by high expectations. After only narrowly missing out on a Grand Final berth the year prior, Ricky Stuart's men were expected to go one better in 2017. Unfortunately, such lofty anticipations were not met.
Rather, the Green Machine slumped to a disappointing 10th placed finish. An inability to win tight games proved costly for the Raiders in 2017, with Stuart's side dropping seven games by six points or less.
Their prospects for 2018 appear even grimmer. A season-ending ACL injury to regular hooker Josh Hodgson has robbed the Raiders of one of their most consistent and dangerous players. Hodgson finished 2017 with a club-high nine try-assists while his quick delivery out of dummy-half and kicking game were invaluable. Without him, halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer need to step up after a string of underwhelming seasons.
Fortunately, in comparison to 2017, the Raiders head into the new season with little expectations.
Regardless of how dejecting 2017 was, Canberra fans can still find hope in the fact that their side is still one of the most potent attacking threats in the competition. The Raiders averaged the third-most points scored in the league last year, despite the fact that they only won 11 games.
While their back five may be impressive, Canberra's weaknesses in 2018 are in key positions. In the past few seasons, Austin and Sezer have lacked the game management and authority to guide their side in the close games - this was particularly evident last year. Their roles are even more important this season without Hodgson.
Austin possesses one of the strongest running games in the competition, yet has the habit of going missing in games due to his lack of a kicking game. Sezer, however, does have an impressive boot yet has not taken full advantage of this yet. The Raiders will need both to fulfil their potential in 2018 if they are any hope of regaining a spot in the top 8.
The lack of a defined hooker is also a worry for the Raiders this year given the importance of Hodgson to their side in both defence and attack.
Joey Leilua has the potential to be one of the best centres in the competition. However, rash decisions often got the better of him in his 2017 campaign. He possesses a strong offload, yet he also needs to learn when it is needed as he otherwise runs the risk of handing possession straight back to the opposing team.
Leilua has the size and strength to be a weapon for the Raiders, yet he must discover consistency in his game first.
While he may be untested at first grade level, back-rower Murchie has demonstrated enough success in the lower grades to suggest he may be pushing for a debut in 2018. His accolades from his 2017 campaign include being named in the Junior Kangaroos, being selected as man-of-the-match in the NSW's under-20s win over Queensland and a place in the Holden Cup Team of the Year.
Canberra have a strong second-row with the likes of Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead, yet Murchie may just get his shot if a couple of injuries strike.