NRL 2018: No Hodgson but Raiders are still title contenders

Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer must step up without Josh Hodgson. Picture: Kym Smith
Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer must step up without Josh Hodgson. Picture: Kym Smith

CANBERRA entered 2017 as second favourites for the title after producing an unlikely charge into premiership contention the season prior.

Eight losses by six points or less meant the Raiders finished 10th in an underwhelming season that failed to deliver on huge expectation.

Here's five reasons Canberra Raiders fans should be getting excited for 2018.

DREAM DRAW

The NRL scheduling gods have well and truly smiled upon the nation's capital with the configuration of the 2018 season draw. The Raiders have arguably been gifted the friendliest draw in the competition.

From last year's competition, Canberra face the top four teams (Storm, Roosters, Broncos, Eels) only once.

They have an easy introduction with the Titans, Knights and Warriors in the first three weeks, as well as a strong run of home matches at the beginning and end of the season. Of the bottom eight sides from last year, the Raiders face all twice except Newcastle and the Dragons.

Further to this, fans will be spared the perils of Canberra's icy cold winter nights to a great degree. Six of 12 home matches will be played on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and their first three night home matches will be played before the end of April.

SILVER LINING

Canberra's premiership prospects took a huge blow when Josh Hodgson tore his ACL for England in the World Cup semi-final against Tonga. While this may be wishful thinking, the injury could be a blessing in disguise with halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer now forced to lift their game to spark Canberra's attack.

Hodgson has been the key playmaker in recent seasons with the halves taking a back seat to the star hooker a little too often. With the largely untested Craig Garvey in line for the vacant number nine role, it will be the six and seven with the greatest pressure to manufacture points.

Austin delivered a breakout season in 2015, but the livewire five-eighth has since struggled to match the heights he reached when he was named in the Dally M Team of the Year.

Sezer came to Canberra from the Gold Coast where he made a name for himself with a dynamic running game. Since donning the lime green he has only managed to provide glimpses of the talent we know he is capable of.

With both men now established and experienced NRL halves, the absence of Hodgson means the pair must extract their full quota of attacking flair if the Green Machine are any realistic hope of claiming their first title since 1994.

CAPTAIN CROKER

One thing that's certain in 2018 is that skipper Jarrod Croker will continue to mow down records.

Croker is already the club's top-pointscorer (1614) and is on track to break the coveted 2000 barrier in coming years.

He is currently just 13 meat pies off Jason Croker on the Raiders' all-time tryscorer tally with a mere 107 to his name.

Should he play the entire season injury free he will have amassed 237 career games. In the process he would surpass a number of club legends, leaving him third behind only Jason Croker (318) and Laurie Daley (244).

All this at just 27-years-old.

NICK COTRIC

Enough has been said of 19-year-old Nick Cotric's sublime season that saw him crowned Dally M Rookie of the Year and finishing just one vote off Junior Paulo as the Raiders' Best and Fairest.

To achieve these feats in a debut season as a teenager is phenomenal, but to achieve it all on the wing, a position constantly overlooked when polling votes, is the largest upside of all.

So what comes next?

NSW coach Brad Fittler anointed Cotric as an Origin bolter on his first official day in the role. With his size and on-field maturity, substantial rep honours could be on the cards as soon as this season.

With a full year under his belt, Ricky Stuart will be sure to inject Cotric into his game plan to a greater degree which can only mean promising things for the men in green.

STICKY'S PASSION

Ricky Stuart is a polarising figure in rugby league and has many supporters off-side for a failed stint at Parramatta before arriving in the nation's capital.

Bitter fans simply need to get over it and admire Stuart for his genuine passion for the game that most spectators love and admire.

Stuart speaks his mind, would give anything to protect the wellbeing of his players, and makes the game a more enjoyable product week in, week out.

It's been said that Stuart has cried in the change rooms after games because of how proud he's been of his team after inspired performances.

In an era driven by mind-numbing sports personalities manufactured into robots in the eye of the public, fans of the game should be truly grateful for Ricky Stuart's presence in the league community.

His antics are sure to headline another exciting season ahead for one of the competition's most enterprising sides.



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