Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart says he won't baulk at picking players outside his top-25 squad early in the NRL season, despite the club being cursed by second-tier salary cap pressures in recent years.
The Raiders are also planning to rotate their hookers through the halves in Saturday's final trial match against the Newcastle Knights as Stuart determines who will fill the valuable bench utility spot for the NRL season opener.
The Raiders have named a near full-strength outfit for their clash at Queanbeyan's Seiffert Oval, with winger Jeremy Hawkins the only player outside the club's top-25 paid players who contribute to the primary $7 million salary cap.
Hawkins and Jordan Rapana remain in a tight tussle for the vacant right wing position, with Hawkins given the opportunity to start against the Knights.
If Hawkins wins the spot for the round one match against the Cronulla Sharks on March 8, the Raiders would immediately use up part of their second-tier cap, which has historically come back to bite them late in recent seasons.
In a twist, Hawkins was initially denied an NRL debut last year because the Raiders had exhausted their second-tier salary cap, which applies to players outside the top-25 paid players and tries to minimise clubs from stockpiling depth.
Hawkins was later given discretionary clearance by the NRL to play the final three matches of the season. He was upgraded on a three-year extended deal last week, which will make him part of the top 25 from 2016 onwards.
The Raiders also experienced second-tier salary cap pressure in 2013, when now halfback Mitch Cornish was blocked from making his NRL debut.
But Stuart, who has been trying to create a more aggressive, competitive edge to his squad this pre-season, said performance and not pay cheques would determine his best team for the NRL season opener.
Stuart did the same last year, promoting prop Shannon Boyd and centre Matt Allwood for their NRL debuts in round one, despite both sitting outside the club's primary NRL salary cap.
"It's been that way since I've got here," Stuart said. "The amount of years I've been in the position where you're rebuilding rosters, I'm not scared of playing young players.
"It comes back to the attitude and the performance of the players in training and in trials."
The Raiders still have to count part of Terry Campese's contract in their 2015 salary cap, given the departed skipper was awarded a significant payout before joining British Super League club Hull KR.
Other young players outside the top 25 in contention for NRL debuts this season include forwards Tevita Pangai, Patrick Mago and Luke Bateman.
Right wing, the mix of the halves and the bench utility are still the most contentious positions heading into the final trial.
Cornish will start at halfback with recruit Blake Austin at five-eighth, but Sam Williams will also get a chance to prove himself in the No.7 jersey.
England representative recruit Josh Hodgson is likely to start at hooker in round one, but rakes Josh McCrone and Glen Buttriss are also expected to be rotated through the halves on Saturday to test their utility value in a battle for the No.14 position.
RAIDERS TOP 25: Blake Austin; Shannon Boyd, Glen Buttriss, Mitch Cornish, Jarrod Croker, Joel Edwards, Shaun Fensom, Josh Hodgson, Jarrad Kennedy, Brenko Lee, Edrick Lee, Josh McCrone, Mark Nicholls, Frank-Paul Nu'uausala, Kyle O'Donnell, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, David Shillington, Sia Soliola, Dane Tilse, Bill Tupou, Paul Vaughan, Sisa Waqa, Jack Wighton, Sam Williams.