NRL Round 1 predicted teams: Wooden spoon a genuine possibility as Raiders are forced to look to youth
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if the Raiders can keep up their knack of winning tight games – or if they will fall away.
Canberra managed to turn a lot of close games into victories in 2024 – enough to sneak them into the finals despite having a shocking points differential.
It was a minor miracle for Ricky Stuart, but the issue with miracles is that they’re generally pretty difficult to repeat.
In 2024, he’ll have the job of a lifetime to keep Canberra competitive after several key departures, not many arrivals and a host of players who are towards the back of their careers.
There were plenty of green shoots for the Green Machine, especially with the emergence of Matt Timoko as an elite centre, but in general, there’s little feeling that 2024 will be as good as 2023, which in turn wasn’t as good as 2022, and you can see how this goes.
It’s not a long list. There’s lock Morgan Smithies, who will certainly add a lot of starch to the forward pack.
He was Super League’s top tackler in 2023 and is joining a club that has made an art form out of bringing in Pommy blokes that nobody expects much from and turning them into superstars.
Canberra’s pack was already the best part of their team, though, and their defence was nowhere near the issue that their attack was, so even if Smithies turns out well, it won’t do much to move the needle in the areas that Sticky needs it to move.
Beyond him it’s fairly slim pickings. Kaeo Weekes arrives from Manly, but he couldn’t get a game at the end of last season when they were onto their third option at fullback, so it remains to be seen where he’ll fit in, if at all.
There is potential upside from a guy who has looked electric at times in his limited NRL appearances and who impressed right through the juniors, but it is potential only at this stage.
The third signing is Simi Sasagi, who is depth at best. He got zero game time at all for Newcastle in 2023 after a promising start in 2022, so they’ll be hoping he finally comes good.
Internally, there are two very bright sparks. Chevy Stewart, one of the best young players in NSW Cup last year, is almost certain to debut at some point, so watch out for him.
Ethan Strange already has one appearance – a bit of a car crash away at Melbourne, though that’ll happen sometimes – and has huge wraps. Both can play fullback, and Strange might battle it out for the 6 jumper with Weekes.
So: that 6 jumper. Jack Wighton has departed after holding a mortgage on this team for a long time, and is yet to be replaced.
One could argue until the cows came home about whether Wighton’s best position was five eighth, but he did win a Dally M there not that long ago, so clearly he’ll be missed at the Raiders.
A similarly long-serving, if less vital figure is Jarrod Croker, who has retired, while a host of depth options have left.
Matt Frawley and Harley Smith-Shields did a job and join Brad Schneider and Semi Valemei, who left midway through last year, in thinning out the back-ups.
Corey Harawira-Naera could also be in this category, and after his health problems last year, it isn’t know if or when he will return, though he is still contracted to the club.
Key spots to unlock
Obviously, the spine is the problem. Last year’s fullback, Seb Kris, is much better in the centres and Jordan Rapana, who also spent time there, is better on a wing.
That does open up an option for Xavier Savage, who burned bright in 2022, but has never really been trusted by Ricky to take the 1 jumper long-term.
Now, Savage is in a three way fight in which he is actually the senior man, with Weekes or Stewart having much more limited experience.
Strange or Weekes will probably be the six, leaving Jamal Fogarty at halfback and one of Zac Woolford or Danny Levi to start in the 9 jumper, with, theoretically, Tom Starling coming off the bench.
It’s a lot of names, not a lot of certainty and, Fogarty aside, it doesn’t scream quality.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Xavier Savage
2 Jordan Rapana
3 Seb Kris
4 Matt Timoko
5 Albert Hopoate
6 Ethan Strange
7 Jamal Fogarty
8 Josh Papalii
9 Zac Woolford
10 Joseph Tapine
11 Hudson Young
12 Elliott Whitehead
13 Corey Horsburgh
14 Tom Starling
15 Morgan Smithies
16 Emre Guler
17 Ata Mariota
Other squad members: James Schiller, Trey Mooney, Pasami Saulo, Nick Cotric, Danny Levi, Kaeo Weekes, Chevy Stewart, Peter Hola, Hohepa Puru, Simi Sasagi, Corey Harawira-Naera
Development players: Michael Asomua, Jordan Martin, Noah Martin, Adrian Trevilyan