Round 1: Raiders v Wests Tigers preview
New stripes or Tigers of old? Raiders host opening round pop quiz
In a season that has Canberra among the title favourites, the Wests Tigers head south desperate to show they've mounted a ride capable of moving through the field.
Stranded in a finals wasteland for the best part of a decade, the Tigers' accumulation of bad boys and off cuts over the summer didn't turn heads. But if slick trial form ís reason for optimism, then Tigers fans are right to claim light at the end of the tunnel.
Discarded by Penrith, premiership winning front-rower James Tamou knows how to lead an inexperienced outfit up the ladder. And with young Panthers reject Daine Laurie and enigmatic journeyman James Roberts, Michael Maquire welcomes the type of pace that can't be coached.
But in what sounds like a record that's had more spins than John Farnham, once again, Luke Brooks holds the key. His composure on both sides of the ruck in the trial thumping of Manly is one thing, be it must be sustained if the Tigers are to be a serious finals contender.
Matched against the settled Canberra pairing of George Williams and Jack Wighton, the suspension of Adam Doueihi makes Brooks' task all the more difficult. Doueihi's physical presence against Wighton will be sorely missed, and for replacement Moses Mbye it'll be a case of all hands on deck to contain the rampaging Dally M Medalist.
In good signs for Wests, ball playing back-rower Luciano Leilua returns in peak condition. And alongside the addition of Broncos recruit Joe Ofahengaue the Tigers have the capacity to shake last year's soft underbelly that saw them ranked 13th in defence.
While the Raiders lineup looks familiar, coach Ricky Stuart isn't without problems. If John Batemen's return to Super League wasn't a big enough headache, the suspensions of Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera leave Canberra a little thin upfront. Josh Hodgson's return to dummy-half eases the pain but if the Tigers are on, his guile alone won't be enough to cover the cracks.
Having trumped the Tigers in nine of the past 11 clashes, the Raiders should be specials at home. However the absence of Jarrod Croker could dampen their ability to accumulate points. Sebastian Kris comes in for the club legend whose damaged shoulder needs more time, and with Nick Cotric's defection to Canterbury, Canberra's attacking best may still be weeks away.
For the Tigers, undefeated in their past six season openers, the small chinks in the Raiders' armour might be all they need to extend the run.
Last meeting: Round 5 2020 - Wests Tigers 6 Raiders 14
Who to watch: Josh Hodgson's return sees the Raiders spine back at full strength for the first time since the hooker tore an ACL in Round 9 last year. And while Tom Starling proved to be one of the finds of the season, there's little doubt the 31-year-old's absence impeded Canberra's 2020 finals surge. Now in his seventh NRL season, the Englishman's impressive trial form against the Roosters suggests he's already back in the groove.
In what shapes as a clash of the busted hookers, for Jacob Liddle, 2021 is another opportunity. Restricted to just 44 appearances since 2016, the 24-year-old returns to fill the boots of Melbourne bound Harry Grant. Now treasuring every start like a gold bar, the nippy No.9's sizzling form two weeks ago showed he has the skills to shine under this season's new rules.
My tip: The Tigers are no stranger to eeking out early season victories against more fancied opponents. And with several big names missing, the Raiders are ripe for the picking. So as the sun sets among uptempo player burnout, look for the Tigers' speedsters to strike late and break Ricky's heart. Tigers by 2.
Canberra Raiders Form Guide
Yet to play this season
Canberra Raiders Upcoming Games
Wests Tigers Form Guide
Yet to play this season