The Canberra Raiders were one of the major disappointments last season, finishing in the bottom eight despite being almost a lock for the top eight according to most pundits before a ball had been kicked.
That has left expectations for the new year - 2022 - wide and varied over how the green machine are going to perform.
Plenty of questions linger over their squad, whether it be injury or new recruits, while many of the young brigade will also be looking to make their mark in first grade.
Let’s see how they stack up for 2022.
The recruitment report
Ins: Nick Cotric (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2024), Adam Elliott (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2022), Jamal Fogarty (Gold Coast Titans, 2024), Peter Hola (North Queensland Cowboys, 2024), Brandon Morkos (2024)
Outs: Caleb Aekins (released), Adam Cook (released), Siliva Havili (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Ryan James (Brisbane Broncos), Dunamis Lui (released), Darby Medlyn (released), Kai O'Donnell (released), Curtis Scott (released), Bailey Simonsson (Parramatta Eels), Iosia Soliola (retired), George Williams (released)
Re-signed: Elijah Anderson (2022), Matt Frawley (2022), Emre Guler (2023), Sebastian Kris (2024), Trey Mooney (2024), Jordan Rapana (2023), Xavier Savage (2023), Brad Schneider (2023), Harley Smith-Shields (2023), Matthew Timoko (2024), Semi Valemei (2024), Elliott Whitehead (2024), Sam Williams (2022), Hudson Young (2024)
Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Adam Elliott, Jamal Fogarty, Matt Frawley, Emre Guler, Corey Harawira-Naera, Josh Hodgson, Peter Hola, Albert Hopoate, Corey Horsburgh, Sebastian Kris, Trey Mooney, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Harry Rushton, Xavier Savage, Brad Schneider, Harley Smith-Shields, Tom Starling, Ryan Sutton, Joseph Tapine, Matthew Timoko, Semi Valemei, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, Sam Williams, Hudson Young
Who plays where?
Ordinarily, you’d expect Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to come straight back in and take his spot at fullback in this team.
That’s where he was before he was injured, and while the Kiwi will never be on the same lists as the top echelon of star number ones in the game, he wasn’t far away.
However, that line of thinking can’t be allowed to occur at Canberra, because the era of Xavier Savage wearing that jumper has arrived.
Despite Jordan Rapana also wearing the number one for a stretch last year, it was Savage who set the competition alight in his two first grade games, a pair of wins over the Manly Sea Eagles and Cronulla Sharks. He seemed destined to play the rest of the season there before injury curtailed his involvement.
He will be back this year though, and with another year of experience under his belt, has well and truly jumped talented, but injury-prone youngster Albert Hopoate in the queue to wear number one.
Rapana played in 22 out of 24 games for the Raiders last year, playing 15 of them on the wing. In those games, he scored nine tries, assisted another three, made ten line breaks and a staggering 72 tackle busts, making him one of the most dangerous outside backs in the competition.
Bailey Simonsson’s departure opens the spot, but Cotric should fall into it, although his final position may depend on which youngsters Ricky Stuart wants to see in the side out of Semi Valemei, Elijah Anderson and Harley Smith-Shields (wingers) as well as Sebastian Kris and Brad Morkos (centres). The fitness of Jarrod Croker could also come into play if a winger if next off the bat, given Cotric's ability to play in the centres.
Still, this should be Cotric’s spot.
With Savage claiming the number one jersey, it’ll mean Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is pushed into the centres. It may not be the most ideal scenario given the other players in the side, but it’s the one Canberra will go with.
The other centre spot comes down to the fitness of Jarrod Croker.
A veteran of the green machine, Croker hasn’t been at his best for some time with knee injuries hampering the back end of his career. Stem cell surgery will give him a chance, but even then, it’s not clear if he is ahead of Sebastian Kris in the pecking order.
He will be named, but for how long is anyone’s guess.
As recently as two seasons ago, Jack Wighton took out the Dally M Medal and Clive Churchill Medal in the same season as the Raiders made it all the way to the grand final, eventually going down to the Sydney Roosters.
He will still be in the halves however and will look to have a new lease on life with Jamal Fogarty arriving to control the kicking game.
His role within the team will be critical and should be a step up on back-up options for 2022 Sam Williams and Matt Frawley, who squabbled over the spot vacated by George Williams midway through 2021.
The Raiders will be undoubtedly led in the middle of the park by Queensland State of Origin star Josh Papalii. His status in the team is unmatched, finishing 2021 with an average of 131 metres per game.
Past the influence of Papalii though, there is no major standout to take the other position.
The other spot up front should go to Englishman Ryan Sutton, while lock will likely be filled out by Corey Horsburgh, who had a tough 2021 battling injury where he managed just ten games. Either of those positions could switch with players who miss the cut, led by Joseph Tapine.
This is a tough spot to pick given the unknowns surrounding Tom Starling's off-field issues, however, one would expect he will be okay to take the field in Round 1 given how little has come to light surrounding that in the past few weeks.
Taking that Starling is available to play, the Raiders could be expected to use the same tactic as they did in 2021, with Starling coming off the bench to replace Josh Hodgson.
Hodgson's position starting isn't secure given he will leave the club at the end of 2022, but in the same way Melbourne use Brandon Smith and Harry Grant, Hodgson moving to lock after 20 or so minutes has worked well.
The second-row is likely one of the easier pieces of the puzzle to work out for the Raiders. Experienced Englishman Elliott Whitehead will lead the way, as he has done for some seasons in the nation's capital.
He is likely to be joined by Hudson Young in the run on side after a phenomenal 2021. He played 19 games, scoring five tries and adding 18 offloads, and well and truly deserves his chance to start in 2022.
Corey Harawira-Naera will provide the stiffest competition. Despite just about knocking Jahrome Hughes into next week to finish 2021, he had an excellent season. His 15 appearances saw him a danger with the ball and defend strongly.
Adam Elliott's arrival at the club throws a spanner in the works too for the makeup of the second row.
The first bench spot undoubtedly goes to Joseph Tapine, who narrowly missed a starting spot. His ability to play at lock or at prop, and his dangerous footwork and offload make him a winner off the bench for Ricky Stuart's side.
The final two spots will more than likely go the way of Harawira-Naera, who is a genuine second-rower, and Adam Elliott, who has the ability to play on the edge or in the middle.
Watch for Peter Hola, Trey Mooney and Emre Guler to push hard for spots early in the year though, while young second-rower Harry Rushton who was signed from Wigan before the 2021 season, could also be in line for a debut at some point.
The best 17
1. Xavier Savage
2. Jordan Rapana
3. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
4. Jarrod Croker
5. Nick Cotric
6. Jack Wighton
7. Jamal Fogarty
8. Josh Papalii
9. Josh Hodgson
10. Ryan Sutton
11. Elliott Whitehead
12. Hudson Young
13. Corey Horsburgh
Other best 17s
Gold Coast Titans
Manly Sea Eagles
New Zealand Warriors
North Queensland Cowboys
South Sydney Rabbitohs