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It is with baited breath that I await the culmination of an emotionally barren off-season and anticipate the explosion of the Canberra Raiders as a fully- fledged premiership threat. I was distraught after our heartbreaking loss to the Warriors in week two of the finals and to go out of the premiership race by a solitary point was like someone reaching into my chest, ripping out my heart and tossing it in a blender. So, I'm now kept alive by one of the battery- operated hearts which has little margin for error. Don't let me down boys and the blender doesn't take favourably to mechanical objects.
I've read in various League publications that the Raiders trained the house down over the off-season in preparation for what will be without a doubt the hardest and most even competition on record. When you look though other teams squads it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff but what sets the Raiders apart is there monstrous forward pack, led by the toughest man in the game in Ruben Wiki.
Forget about Morley and his cheap shots, Wiki is the real deal and opposing teams wait for him to pounce like a lion on a gazelle and when he hits, he does with as much force as a sledge hammer. Just ask Chad Robinson from the Roosters, who is still having his meals served through a straw and is waking every night in a cold sweat just thinking about being on the same ground as Ruben.
Ruben is well supported by the most physically intimidating pack in the NRL and with Ryan O'Hara, Luke Davico, Ian Hindmarsh and Jason Croker as backup, Ruben has free reign to terrorise opposing sides in the hope of enducing some chronic bed wetting.
Canberra's achilles heel in 2003 was their lack of experience in finals matches and with two losses in the finals, this year there can simply be no excuses. Canberra has unbelievable depth as was evidenced by the Premier League's premiership victory in which they barely raised a sweat to dispose of the Cougars and the Raiders only dropped three games all year en route to victory. Matt Elliott has the guile and nouse to turn this team of previous no names into the best team in the NRL. The players just have to believe in themselves and find a way to grind out a win in the most difficult circumstances.
Even though Canberra finished fourth there were still games where they were the better side and lost. Against the Roosters at Aussie Stadium, the Raiders had the Roosters measure for almost the entire match only to lose in the final two minutes. The same happened against the Panthers, Warriors and Broncos. All hard fought games against quality opposition but the Raiders ultimately fell at the final hurdle.
I expect to see the Raiders apply the blowtorch when in a winning position this year and put sides away when they are there for the taking. A lot of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of Mark McLinden who cemented his place as one of the premier half backs in the game and developed an outstanding short kicking game that lead to a plethora of tries for the outside backs as the year progressed. McLinden in a game against the Bulldogs dropped in a pin point kick behind the defensive line for the now departed Jamaal Lolesi to score in the corner. It was a measure of his ability to read the game as much as it was about his ever-increasing arsenal of skills which has McLinden as one of the most underrated players in the NRL. He is yet to turn 25 but has already played 140 first grade games and if he decides to be a career Raider, he may well end up the clubs highest try scorer and lead the club in appearances and join an illustrious group including Laurie Daley, Chris O'Suillivan, Ruben Wiki and Jason Croker.
The Raiders face a tough start to the season with an away opener against the Dragons and a prime time match against the Panthers and if the Raiders win both, there will be an about face from the media who will no doubt jump on the Raiders bandwagon.
It's been ten long years since the Raiders last tasted premiership success and the loyal Raiders fans would love nothing more to see the mighty Green Machine hoist the NRL trophy aloft on the first weekend in October. The time is now.
My starting side for 2004:
Clinton Schifcofske Phil Graham Adam Mogg Joel Monaghan Michael Robertson Jason Croker Mark McLinden Terry martin Ian Hindmarsh Ruben Wiki Ryan O'Hara Simon Woolford Luke Davico
Brad Drew Michael Hodgson Terry Campese Ben Cross