The Canberra Raiders had something of a trainwreck for their 2021 season.
Widely tipped in the pre-season as a team who should have, at worst, finished somewhere in the top six, they would eventually wind up missing the finals.
In short, Ricky Stuart exits the season under pressure as coach of a misfiring team, and plenty of players aren’t faring much better.
They weren’t helped in the slightest by George Williams’ sudden mid-season departure, but Canberra must be better in 2022.
So, if there were no salary cap constraints, and no contracts to speak of, who would they go out and steal for 2022 to fix the biggest hole in their squad?
Who would your club steal?
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Current squad for 2022
Jarrod Croker, Adam Elliott, Jamal Fogarty, Matt Frawley, Emre Guler, Corey Harawira-Naera, Josh Hodgson, Albert Hopoate, Peter Hola, Corey Horsburgh, Sebastian Kris, Trey Mooney, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Harry Rushton, Xavier Savage, Brad Schneider, Bailey Simonsson, Harley Smith-Shields, Tom Starling, Ryan Sutton, Joseph Tapine, Matthew Timoko, Semi Valemei, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, Sam Williams, Hudson Young.
The gaps in the Raiders’ best 17
The Raiders biggest two problems will shape at left centre, and at lock forward.
Jarrod Croker is struggling with his knee, and while he wants to return, the 12 games he played in 2021 were less than impressive. He struggled to stay with the speed of the game, and his defence, which has been generally rock solid throughout his career, wasn't up to scratch.
Matthew Timoko and Sebastian Kris are both in the squad and unlikely to get a start with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad being given a run in the centres, but neither of them are players you'd go out and say are top flight stars who should be placed ahead of anyone across the competition you could steal.
The Raiders' attack was dreadful at times last year, but with the arrival of Jamal Fogarty and the play for Xavier Savage to be the first-choice fullback in 2021, it deserves a season to see if it'll work, meaning it's not the area to go out replacing.
Jordan Rapana and Bailey Simonsson will be up to scratch on the wings, while the forwards, led by Josh Papalii are solid. Lock forward is an area where the top teams have an agile, fast-moving ball-player though.
Lock has almost become a third half in the modern game, but in a forward's body. Think players like Cameron Murray and Isaah Yeo, who both were so pivotal in their teams making the grand final in 2021.
Ryan Sutton isn't a bad player by any stretch, but he is a prop, and should be playing in the eight or ten, allowing the Raiders to go from effectively having three old school middle forwards, to a player in the Murray mould playing at 13.
It's hard to find any other pressing areas in the Raiders' squad. Hudson Young and Elliott EWhitehead have both been solid, while a bench featuring Tom Starling, Emre Guler, Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera with plenty of depth to fight for positions barely enters the discussion, particularly if Sutton was to move to the front row and Joseph Tapine re-enters the bench mix.
So, it's either a centre or a lock. Here are the options.
The candidates to steal
Option 1: Justin Olam (Melbourne Storm)
Olam was named as one of the centres of the year in the Dally M team of the year, and with absolutely good reason.
He was at his barnstorming best for the Storm. He may have been in something of a scrap for his spot at the start of the year, but by the end of it, there was no doubt who Craig Bellamy was going to be rolling out on the edge each and every week.
He finished the season with 12 tries in 25 games, but also had another ten assists and a staggering 94 tackle busts. He was, without doubt, one of the hardest players to tackle in the competition, while his size and brute strength also made him tough to tackle at the best of times.
The outrage when it was originally reported he was left out of the reckoning to be named in the team of the year goes to show just what an impression the Papua New Guinean made on the competition throughout the season.
Option 2: Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
When you think of ball-playing locks with a no-quit attitude, Murray is the man you instantly turn your attention to.
The New South Wales State of Origin representative has the competition's quickest play the ball, one of the best running games going around, an excellent ability to read the game and make the right play, and is defensively rock-solid.
He is the definition, down to the full stops, of what a modern lock should look like in a game which is getting faster and faster with every passing season.
As mentioned above, Sutton is a prop. He has enough skill to pass as a lock, but the modern game requires more than a pass mark, and Murray brings that in spades each week to the Rabbitohs.
Option 3: Dane Gagai (Newcastle Knights)
When the Rabbitohs' departures at the end of the 2021 season are mentioned, most will go to Adam Reynolds and Wayne Bennett as the reason the men from Redfern may not be quite as competitive as the grand final team of the season just completed.
But completely overlooked more often than not in that discussion is Dane Gagai.
The Rabbitohs' centre has been a focal point on South Sydney's left edge for as long as he has been at the club, and has played a major role in turning it into the best the competition has to offer.
Sure, Damien Cook's running game, Cameron Murray's play the ball and Cody Walker's incredible heads up play get the wraps as to why Alex Johnston has become a try-scoring wizard on the wing, but plenty of that has to do with Gagai.
Not only is he an excellent attacking player, but there are few players you'd want defending in the centres either over the Queensland representative veteran, and he is the exact sort of player Canberra could use.
Option 4: Jake Trbojevic (Manly Sea Eagles)
Trbojevic has turned himself into one of the game's best players over the past few seasons. The Manly lock has become known for his tackling style which is one of the most damaging in the competition.
He makes a middle third rock solid with excellent defensive reads and a willingness to put his body on the line at every opportunity.
That doesn't mean other areas of his game aren't up to scratch though.
His combination with brother Tom is outstanding, and so is his passing at the line, where he regularly draws defenders and creates gaps for teammates - namely, Tom.
You could almost be certain Tom wouldn't have had the season he had without Jake playing alongside him.
Again, he would bring plenty to the Raiders, and is the exact sort of player they need to make the jump back into the top eight in 2022.
There is little to no doubt a centre is the ideal player to steal for the Raiders. It's their most pressing issue, and where they often fell apart at both ends of the park in 2021.
Some of the other pressing issues highlighted are going to be fixed, or at least, should be given an opportunity to see if new combinations work as Fogarty and Savage join the team fulltime.
That means it's a centre, and it is a coin toss between Olam and Gagai. Olam was the centre of the year for a reason - a barnstorming edge player who regularly had opposition defensive lines scrambling.
Gagai though brings a wealth of experience which could be needed if Croker is being replaced, as well as solidness defensively which you won't find across most other players on the edge.
Still, it's hard to go past the lure of Olam and the season he just put together.
Next up in this series, we will look at the club with the heaviest recruitment drive for 2022 - the Canterbury Bulldogs.