The Canberra Raiders finished the 2022 season like a house on fire, winning seven of their last eight after the State of Origin period to qualify for the finals.

They then shocked the rugby league world by beating the Melbourne Storm on the road in the first week of the finals.

Their season was cut short with a loss to the Parramatta Eels in the semi-finals, but the ultimate result potentially exceeded off-season expectations for Ricky Stuart's squad, who, at one point, looked a dead man walking in the coaches seat of the green machine.

He has now had his contract extended, and, despite a couple of off-season departures, the Raiders look a side that should be challenging for the top eight yet again in 2023.

But how do they take the next step and become a premiership contender?

If they could steal any player to make that dream a reality, here is who it would be.

A reminder that this series does not take into account any contracts or salary cap issues.

Current squad

Nick Cotric, Jarrod Croker, Jamal Fogarty, Matt Frawley, Emre Guler, Corey Harawira-Naera, Peter Hola, Albert Hopoate, Corey Horsburgh, Sebastian Kris, Ata Mariota, Trey Mooney, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Pasami Saulo, Xavier Savage, James Schiller, Brad Schneider, Harley Smith-Shields, Tom Starling, Joseph Tapine, Matthew Timoko, Adrian Trevilyan, Semi Valemei, Clay Webb, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, Zac Woolford, Hudson Young

Squad analysis

There can be no doubt that the most urgently pressing issue for the Raiders to fill comes in the lock forward role.

While they have one of the strongest middle third leadership pairs in the competition through Joseph Tapine and Josh Papalii - who are both representative calibre players and were easily in the top ten props during the 2022 season - the depth after that is skinny to say the least.

The loss of Adam Elliott - who was an excellent performer for the men in lime green during 2022 after being given a career life by the club following his expulsion from the Canterbury Bulldogs - combined with the departure of Ryan Sutton, leaves the club incredibly short for depth options in the middle third.

Pasami Saulo is, to date, the club's only signature, and right now, it appears as though Corey Horsburgh could be the best-placed option to wear the number 13.

That leaves Emre Guler, Saulo and Peta Hola as the only middle-third options realistically up to scratch to play from the interchange bench, and could leave the Raiders staring down the same problems they faced for much of the 2022 campaign. Brilliant to start and finish games, but the middle period without Tapine and Papalii on the field left it incredibly vulnerable.

A strong number 13 who can push Horsburgh back to the bench and leave the club looking at a better depth chart is clearly the biggest issue.

It's not the only one though.

Tom Starling and Zac Woolford combined strongly in the dummy half role following the season-ending injury to Brandon Smith, but it doesn't mean they don't need improvements in this area.

NRL Rd 11 - Raiders v Rabbitohs

Starling does feel a bench player who can bring plenty of impact to the side, and it's unclear at this stage if Woolford is an ideal starting hooker. You do have to remember that the Raiders really only were able to climb the ladder once Jamal Fogarty returned from his long-term injury and was able to get back to full fitness.

It's a real shudder to think about where Canberra may have ended up without the arrival of the former Gold Coast Titans' number seven.

Another area the Raiders seem short on quality depth is the back five. Nick Cotric and Matthew Timoko, as well as Sebastian Kris, Jordan Rapana and Xavier Savage are all strong players, but it feels like the depth lacks outside of that, and that potentially with the mix of players being able to play different positions, Cotric, Timoko and Savage could be fighting for one or two positions between them if the Raiders are going to improve.

The second-row is one of the Raiders' strong points, with Hudson Young fast becoming one of the best and most damaging second-rowers in the competition, while Elliott Whitehead has been a consistent performer in his leadership role with the club.

As mentioned, Fogarty's return from injury spurred Stuart's side onto a finals finish last year, while Jack Wighton is an Australian and New South Wales squad member, so won't be going anywhere, although the state of his contract with player options up his sleeve could serve as a worry to the higher-ups at the club.

Options to steal

Option 1: Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
When it comes to lock forwards, there are few on the same level as Cameron Murray, and his fast style of play could be exactly what the Raiders need.

While Isaah Yeo (more on him soon) is seen as the game's best lock, starting there for the Panthers, New South Wales and Australia, that may really only be because Murray's versatility allows him to line up in the 11 or 12 jumper on the edge at the top level.

Murray's greatest strength is his play the ball speed, but he brings big minutes, high production and quality production at that, and a pace of play matched by few others in the competition.

That speed in the ruck would only in turn make the likes of Tom Starling, Josh Papalii and Joseph Tapine all the more dangerous with tired defenders simply unable to shut down gaps in the defensive line.

When you consider the likes of Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead on the edge, and the ball-playing of Jack Wighton to coming off the back of Murray's work, it only makes the case more compelling.

Try Assists

Option 2: Corey Oates (Brisbane Broncos)
If the Raiders were going to go for an option in the outside back, he needs to be able to play on the wing. Given Cotric can play in the centres, and Rapana can shuffle to either centre or fullback should it be needed, a winger would put the pressure on all players in the backline to perform.

But more than that, Oates would bring plenty to the Raiders that they lacked last year.

While Rapana is one of the strongest ball-runnners from the back in the competition, both Xavier Savage and Nick Cotric struggled in that field last year.

Oates, on the other hand, didn't. The gun Broncos' winger, who played the final game of the State of Origin series, averaged nearly 170 metres per game and added almost 80 tackle breaks to go with his 20 tries for the year.

It was a stunning year for Oates, and the option of stealing him would appeal to a number of clubs in the competition.

All Run Metres
Tackles Made

Option 3: Brandon Smith (Sydney Roosters)
Brandon Smith may not be the best hooker in the game. He may not be the best lock in the game either. But when it comes to this discussion, he can play both positions, play them well and provide a club like the Raiders with plenty that they don't currently we have.

We know the Raiders have two of the best props in the game, but they are missing being complemented by a player like Smith, who has excellent talent and (for the most part) a high rugby league IQ.

The option to start Smith at hooker for 20 minutes, then bring Starling on and shuffle Smith across to lock would be a tempting one in this discussion for the Raiders, although it still does leave the simple fact that Horsburgh would need to start at 13, which then takes him out of the running to hold down the middle third when Tapine and Papalii need a break at some point during the first half.

Despite that, Smith is an 80-minute player, and while it may take the strategy away from what Murray or another out-and-out lock would provide, it's not a necessarily bad one.

Tackles Made
LB Assists

Option 4: Isaah Yeo (Penrith Panthers)
While Murray would bring plenty to the Raiders in terms of speed, Yeo would be the more calming influence of the two star lock options.

His defence is, alongside Murray, the best in the competition, and his running game came on in leaps and bounds throughout the 2022 campaign.

On multiple occasions Yeo was the best on ground for a Penrith side that beat just about everyone in their path throughout the regular season, and when you consider that was in a team featuring the likes of Nathan Cleary, Apisai Koroisau, Jarome Luai, James Fisher-Harris and an in-form Dylan Edwards, that statement alone is enough to convince you.

Is he the exact player the Raiders need though?

Given the club's at times leaky defence, the argument can certainly be made.

Try Assists

The verdict

The Raiders' biggest issue, without a doubt in the world, is the lock forward position. They need a ball-playing, big-minute, tackling machine to not only wear the jersey, but increase the depth available right across the club's engine room.

It could be the one key issue that is going to, at this stage, keep them away from a premiership run.

While Yeo brings plenty to the side, and Brandon Smith is a tempting option, neither would alter the fortunes of the side to the same extent that Murray would, so he is clearly the best option when it comes to stealing a player for Ricky Stuart's green machine.

Be sure to check back in tomorrow as we take a look at the Canterbury Bulldogs.