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The Canberra Raiders surpassed almost everyone?s expectations except maybe their own. When I did my season preview I tipped the Raiders to finish sixth and they did eventually finish sixth after ending the regular season in fourth place with 16 wins and eight losses. The turnaround is nothing short of remarkable as most of the Rubgy League experts had Canberra finishing well outside the top eight and some even tipped the Raiders to win the wooden spoon.
The Raiders were one of the great surprises of season 2003 and some emerging superstars gave us a glimpse at the future of the green machine. Joel Monaghan and Ryan O?Hara both made their mark this year with some fantastic performances that saw Ryan O?Hara a potential Kangaroo tourist until injury ruled him out while Joel Monaghan finished the season with 21 tries and will be a future representative player for the Raiders.
Ruben Wiki had his best ever year for the Raiders and along with Adrian Morley, is the most feared and respected forward in the NRL. In the Raiders semi final loss to the Warriors, Wiki had his Kiwi counterparts continually looking out the corner of their eye for another rampaging Ruben run or crunching hit. Ruben had great support from Luke Davico, Ian Hindmarsh, Ryan O?Hara and Terry Martin.
Clinton Schifcofske and Mark McLinden also had stellar seasons with McLinden in particular coming into his own late in the season to play some of the best footy of his career at half back, a spot no one thought he could master but full credit to Mark, he totally outclassed some of his more fancied rivals with virtuoso performances, especially in round 25 against the Bulldogs.
Matthew Elliot confirmed his standing as one of the most innovative and tactical coaches in the NRL and his one-liners were a thing of beauty. Elliott has taken the Raider from being a team of also rans to a legitimate premiership contender and season 2004 brings new hope with the Raiders victorious in Premier League but most importantly, the Raiders did not suffer wholesale player drains on the open market. The nucleus of this years side is still very much in tact and with competition for positions to be at a premium next year, the Raiders can set their collective goals higher than they did this year. There is no reason the Raiders cannot win the competition when you look at the feats of the Penrith Panthers this year.
One of the Raiders unsung heroes was conditioner Carl Jennings. Jennings, who joined Elliott from Bradford and had also worked as a conditioner for the Leeds United Football Club and boxer Frank Bruno. Jennings vowed to make the Raiders the most physically intimidating pack in the NRL and the Raiders certainly lead the way this year with some of the hardest defence in the NRL. I look forward to more of the same next year as the title makes its way south back to the nations capitol.
Players such as Ben Cross, Michael Weyman, Alan Rothery, Alwyn Simpson, Terry Campese and Kris Kahler will all get a taste of big time football in 2004.
Michael Monaghan, Rod Jensen, Jamaal Lolesi and Sean Rutgerson all left the club at the end of the season for greener pastures but the club can now keep all their promising youngsters and sign them to long-term deals.
Season highlight: 40-28 victory over the Panthers and 21-16 victory over the Bulldogs.
Season lowlight: Three losses to the Melbourne Storm and Jason Bulgarelli?s fumble against the Warriors.
2003 player of the year: Ruben Wiki.
Player to watch in 2004: Michael Weyman