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COACH Matthew Elliott
CAPTAIN Simon Woolford
In the past the Raiders possessed one of the truly great backlines of the modern era, now in 2004 they have a group capable of making a name for themselves. While they will not match the legends of the past, they can impose themselves on the present. Fullback Clinton Schifcofske has been their most consistent performer for the past three years and despite his form tapering off at the back end of 2003, he is a dangerous attacking spark from the back. Joel Monaghan showed a liking for the try line with 21 tries and looks set at winger for years to come. Adam Mogg proved a very astute buy at centre, consistently delivering solid performances for the club. The addition of Brad Drew was vital to the side forming direction either side of the ruck and with Mark McLinden they were a creative halves combination. Jason Bulgarelli needs a truckload of tries early in the season to help him forget about the one he missed in the semi final loss to the Warriors, while Phil Graham is the wildcard of the backline, capable of topping the try scoring charts. 19-year-old Terry Campese and 18-year-old Todd Carney both register highly on the list of future first graders at the club, and Campese should see NRL action this year. Depth is provided by the enthusiastic Michael Robertson, point-scoring wizard Matthew Gafa, and utility back James Evans.
The success of the Raiders in 2003 directly related to the form of their huge pack. Especially at the start of the season when the Raiders were unbeaten after seven games, the forwards dominated games, and not surprisingly, when the fatigue of mid-season kicked in, the Raiders lost an edge. They found it again as the season wound up and remain one of the most feared units in the NRL. It starts up front with the tireless go-forward of Luke Davico, Ruben Wiki and Ryan O?Hara. Wiki was the Raiders best forward again last season and is the best hitter in the game, while Davico and O?Hara both pressed for representative football with stellar seasons. Captain Simon Woolford matured into the leadership role but he is yet to fully deliver on his potential in the hooking role. Jason Croker may return to the lock forward position after a season or two at five-eighth and the move will pay off for the Raiders as he provides even more starch to the ruck. Ian Hindmarsh did a mountain of work without any fuss and Parramatta missed his reliability. While Tyran Smith made a resurgence at lock, proving to his critics he is a quality player. Opportunities from the bench will be tough to come by with regular squad members Alan Tongue, Michael Hodgson, Troy Thompson, and Terry Martin fighting each other for possibly only two bench roles. Michael Weyman and Ben Cross are two younger props itching for more first grade experience.
McLINDEN ? By the end of last season McLinden was the catalyst of the Canberra attack. Shifted to halfback when Brad Drew was struggling with a hamstring injury, McLinden matured into a genuine playmaker. He seemed far more comfortable within the organizing role and not out of place when further out from the ruck. McLinden can still make his name at five-eighth and may start the season there but he proved in the latter stages of 2004 that he is ready to be the next dominant Canberra halfback.
ONE TO WATCH
GRAHAM ? Anyone who saw Phil Graham?s performance in the Premier League Grand Final last season, knows this three-quarter is special. Just how special he becomes is up to him. Despite 24 tries in only 33 NRL games, Graham needs to put on some bulk and do more dirty work out of dummy half to keep his position in the team. Speed has never been a problem, he is arguably the best long-distance speedster in the NRL, but his durability and involvement levels have been his downfall so far. There is a touch of Steve Renouf in the way Graham finds the gap, but he has a long way to go to realise his potential.
Team Continuity ? 2003 was a year when the Raiders surprised many good judges and took a giant step towards a premiership, and the team has stayed relatively intact for another crack at the big one. Only Jamaal Lolesi and Michael Monaghan are significant deductions from the side, and Premier League won their competition suggesting plenty of talent exists within the club. This is a close-knit unit and the consistent performances of 2003 suggest they play for each other as much as for themselves. BIGGEST DISADVANTAGE
Lack A Genuine Superstar ? Mark McLinden, Clinton Schifcofske and Ruben Wiki are the Raiders stars but none are in the Johns, Lockyer, Fittler type class. Penrith won the title last year thanks to Craig Gower elevating himself to that level and for the Raiders to win the big games in the Finals they need a breakthrough season from at least one player. McLinden is the man most likely, as he plays in a vital position to break games open. There are big raps on young Terry Campese but he is untried at this level. Teamwork is vital to consistency but without a genuine superstar, a title is not achievable.
Not even the most optimistic Canberra fan would have picked the Raiders to finish in 4th place after the regular season in 2003. Now the challenge for the team is to perform under the weight of expectation that follows a relatively successful season. Coach Matthew Elliott believes in his players has been the right man for the job, but with a number of under performing squads from last season chomping at the bit to start the season, he faces a challenge to get his team back to the Top 4.
2004 STRONGEST LINEUP
1. C Schifcofske 2. M Robertson 3. A Mogg 4. P Graham 5. J Monaghan 6. J Croker 7. M McLinden 8. R O?Hara 9. S Woolford ? 10. L Davico 11. R Wiki 12. I Hindmarsh 13. T Smith Bench 14. B Drew 15. M Hodgson 16. T Martin 17. M Weyman
Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected]