One of the biggest tasks facing any club in the competition this year was always going to be ahead for the Canberra Raiders, trying to replace Jack Wighton.

You could argue, that, for a team who found themselves in the top eight last year despite clinging onto several narrow wins and never looking overly comfortable, Wighton's exit could ensure the entire club is built different moving into the future.

But that looked unlikely, when, come Round 1, the only player they had signed to replace Wighton was Kaeo Weekes, who barely figured in recent times at the Manly Sea Eagles.

A youngster who can play either fullback or five-eighth, his limited opportunities on the Northern Beaches - despite Tom Trbojevic's injury problems and the club's issues att five-eighth - indicated it was a significant roll of the dice for Ricky Stuart and his recruitment staff.

Weekes has plenty of potential, though, and it was widely tipped he would be the man to play at five-eighth.

But, that hasn't happened, with another young gun already in Canberra's system winning the race to be Jamal Fogarty's halves partner in Ricky Stuart's set-up, and doing the job with aplomb.

Fogarty might still be the key man when it comes to the Raiders' organisational side of attack, but, given Wighton's form in 2023, one could argue that Ethan Strange has actually been an upgrade in the number six jumper thus far.

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It was one of the key criticisms of last season's Raiders camp - that their attack simply didn't have enough punch, enough creativity, or enough ways to score points.

Given their exceptional forward pack, which has taken a battering thanks to Corey Horsburgh's injury early this year, the excuse certainly wasn't that they didn't enjoy enough field position or forward momentum.

But any excuses have dried up this year, mainly thanks to what Strange has so far been able to provide.

While the Raiders haven't been perfect, the fact they sit third on the table at the completion of Round 6 with four wins is a testament to what the club is building and what the youngster has been able to provide at five-eighth.

The Canberra Raiders have sat comfortably in the Top-8 throughout the first six weeks.

As it stands, with Wests Tigers' youngster Lachlan Galvin already ineligible to claim the Rookie of the Year award thanks to a suspension, there must be no candidate close to Strange after six rounds of action.

While an individual award would be great recognition for Strange in his rookie season, it's on-field results that will be the key driver of his success and likely the value of his next contract, where negotiations between the youngster and the Raiders are already underway.

In doing so, the club has made it clear they are not willing to lose him and has extended his tenure at the Raiders until the end of the 2028 season.

“This place has become my home and I love it and all the boys here,” Strange said after locking down his long-term future.

“I'm loving the way my footy is going and the coaches trust in me. They don't put too much pressure on me, and it makes it a great place to play footy.”

While his first appearance in Round 1 was a little slow with just 22 running metres in a win over the Newcastle Knights, his involvement has been off the charts in every game since.

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He has had at least 70 running metres in all five of his other games, breaking his previous best with 128m against the Gold Coast Titans during a golden point thriller on Sunday. His ability - and more importantly, willingness - to put his body on the line and mix it up with players far bigger than him has been strongly praised, but so too has his creativity.

Strange has only a single official try assist to his name but has been a tackle-breaking machine, with 19 to his name in the last five games, to go with three line breaks and a hand in plenty more scoring opportunities for the Raiders.

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Consistency has been a big part of the Raiders' problem for some time now, but Strange, despite his youthfulness, seems to be a player ready to buck that trend. As mentioned, his last five appearances in Lime Green have seen big production with the ball in hand, along with a limit on errors.

You could argue he still has areas to work on in defence and with his kicking game, but any 19-year-old in his first full season of first-grade football will have room to improve.

Despite that, Strange is already clearly the best option for the Raiders in the six, as he has more than proven across three of their five wins, most prominently in Round 5 against the Parramatta Eels as the green machine piled on 41 points.

It's one of those cases that doesn't necessarily always show up on the stats sheet, but he has fit into this Canberra team like a hand in a glove, and the attack - which was so criticised in 2023 - looks like it has been entirely built different as a result.

Whether it works long-term remains to be seen, but right now, the Raiders appear to have moved on quickly and positively from the Jack Wighton era in a somewhat unexpected way, given the pre-season signing of Weekes.

For now, the ex-Manly player will be doing precisely what he did on the Northern Beaches - playing reserve grade - as Ethan Strange continues to go from strength to strength.

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  1. It’s actually shocking how little the Raiders have missed Wighton so far this year. Strange has been playing out of his skin & I hope he continues to do so.

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