Rugby League

Canberra Raiders rookies eye jump to NRL

The Raiders call them transitionals.

They're 14 NRL rookies, half of which were not born the last time the Raiders won a premiership in September 1994, trying to make the transition from junior stars to the toughest rugby league competition in the world.

And Raiders coach Ricky Stuart is blunt. Some might make their NRL debuts next season, others may never make it at all in Canberra. But all will get the chance.

"Not all these boys will play first grade," Stuart says. "There might only be half of them, but I'm giving them the opportunity to learn what it takes."

The Raiders have invited 14 uncapped Raiders players to train with the full-time NRL squad in the pre-season, grooming some for years in advance and testing others further to see if they will make it to the NRL at all.

The youngest is 17-year-old half Lachlan Croker, the nephew of Raiders all-time games record-holder Jason Croker and a prospect Canberra has signed on contract until the end of 2017. The oldest is a nuggety prop and Queensland Cup player of the year, Luke Page, who wasted his first opportunity with the Gold Coast Titans and is determined to prove he can cut it this time, given more dedication.

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As Stuart embarks on his second year attempting to rebuild the Raiders, he doesn't back away from his assertion earlier this season that he wants to continue recruiting aggressively, trying to attract more senior and established representative talent to the club.

But Stuart says the regeneration of the Raiders will only work if young talent continues to progress through the ranks too.

"It goes hand-in-hand, you can't have one without the other," Stuart said.

"You look at our average age in the last game of the season, it was 23 or 24. You look at the maximum amount of games those players have played, compare it to one of the top-four teams – we're hundreds of games down on experience.

"What I'm trying to do is give my young talent as much learning opportunity as I possibly can at a younger age so the Raiders continuously have them coming through.

"We've always had a terrific base of younger players, forever we've heard Canberra's got some great kids. But getting senior players to complement them is still part of our development too. To have senior players that know how to win, have form on the board, have played grand finals or Origins. That's the blend or mix that creates a healthy playing list."

Stuart feels talent has been diluted too much in the under 20s competition and sees more value in testing his most promising young players at NSW Cup level, closer to NRL standard.

It's a tough gap to bridge.

Steve Antonelli, coach of Canberra's NSW Cup feeder team Mounties, has relocated to Canberra to act as the transitional coach or mentor to players who are in limbo between Under 20s and NRL. Like Brett Kimmorley before him, Antonelli will provide more individual coaching and advice for those players on the cusp of NRL.

"The talent's drying up in our Under 20s NYC competition, therefore we have to take preparation and education for the younger players to another level, which is why we've employed a transitional coach," Stuart said. "It's about trying to create our own depth of talent.

"There's a definite pathway here at the club for younger players to learn how to become a professional and learn how to play first grade."

At the start of pre-season training, Stuart told his players the story of Raiders centre Jeremy Hawkins, the 21-year-old who made his debut against a depleted Cronulla Sharks in round 23 last season. Stuart wanted to emphasise how tough the jump from NSW Cup to NRL can be.

"He [Hawkins] came off the field in complete shock and physically fatigued," Stuart said. "He said: 'Now I get it, now I understand why you push so hard at training, why you don't want us to take shortcuts, why you need our preparation to be 100 per cent. Because that was the fastest most intense game of rugby league I've ever played in my life.'

"I've asked fans for patience, but when I ask for patience it's not because I'm trying to buy myself time. I want to win as much as anybody.

"The  patience is for these young boys to come through and filter into first grade. It's patience for our young players like Jack Wighton, Paul Vaughan or Shannon Boyd to get another 30 to 40 games. It's patience for me to recruit senior experience around these younger players."

Of the Raiders recruits this season, former Kiwi international Iosia Soliola, from the UK Super League, and Sisa Waqa from Melbourne are the more experienced. Hooker Josh Hodgson has just represented England in the Four Nations.

Five-eighth Blake Austin was an exciting buy from the Wests Tigers, but he is still 23 and has only played 34 NRL games.

There are exceptions, like Wighton and Anthony Milford, who can quickly and confidently make the transition from juniors to the NRL. But Raiders recruitment and development manager David Hamilton felt players benefited more by an apprenticeship in NSW or Queensland Cup.

Hamilton said that's why it was pivotal to identify players well in advance of their NRL debuts, to give them the experience of training in an NRL environment. 

"I really believe if you get three pre-seasons under your belt, you're going to give someone a hell of a chance to make the jump to the next level," Hamilton said.

JACK AHEARN

DOB: 24/02/93 (21)

Position: Fullback, Five-eighth

Rating: 2015 shapes as make-or-break in Canberra for the Valley Dragons junior, given he's off-contract. Ahearn was Raiders player of the year in their Under 20s in 2013, going on to make the Junior Kangaroos squad. Despite Canberra's search for a fullback and five-eighth, he's yet to get a look-in at the NRL despite playing five-eighth for NSW Residents this year outside Mitch Cornish.

MITCHELL BARNETT

DOB: 15/4/94 (20)

Position: Back row

Rating: In a disappointing season for the Canberra Under 20s, Barnett was a shining light. He was voted best player by his teammates and the former Newcastle Knights junior is tough as teak. A former Under 18 NSW Country representative, he's played a lot of prop at the Raiders but has good feet and is considered a back-row prospect. Probably needs a couple of seasons in NSW Cup to get ready for the step.

LUKE BATEMAN

DOB: 23/1/95 (19)

Position: Lock

Rating: Bateman is rated so highly at the club some speak of him as future captaincy material. Still eligible for Under 20s next year, he already pushed on to Queensland Cup in 2014 and looked comfortable. His work ethic is compared to NRL lock Shaun Fensom, but he played a lot of halves in the juniors and has skill with the ball. A Queensland Under 20s rep this year, he was unlucky to miss out on the Junior Kangaroos squad. Real chance to make his NRL debut in 2015.

LACHLAN CROKER

DOB: 2/12/96 (17)

Position: Halves

Rating: His uncle, Jason Croker, made his top-grade debut as a winger and went on to become the most capped Raiders player of all time. Just out of school, it speaks volumes for his potential that he's training at NRL level. School captain at his college, Goulburn's St Patrick's, he skippered the Raiders Under 18 S.G. Ball and was player of the year, easily making the transition to 20s. Classy half with a strong tackling technique who represented NSW Under 18s. 2015 is probably too early, but could sneak an debut by 2016 and is contracted until 2017.

MITCH CRONIN

DOB: 25/4/92 (22)

Position: Hooker

Rating: Like Ahearn, 2015 is the year for Cronin to prove he can cut it. He spent a lot of the year playing as back-up hooker to Kurt Baptiste at Souths Logan in the Queensland Cup, but he has made a big effort to bulk up in the off-season and has returned to training looking strong. Has plenty of utility value, can play everywhere from fullback to nine. 

SCOTT DOYLE

DOB: 18/1/94 (20)

Position: Back row

Rating: Gets the chance to start the pre-season in the NRL squad before relocating the Souths Logan in the Queensland Cup after Christmas. Given there's only so many positions to go around at Mounties, the Raiders are trusting his development under former Queensland Origin centre Josh Hannay. A former Under 18s Queensland rep.

ANDREW HEFFERNAN

DOB: 24/1/95 (19)

Position: Centre

Rating: Niggling injuries have frustrated his development, but he can play. He's still eligible to play Under 20s with the Raiders, but is likely to get his time with Mounties in the NSW Cup to get a taste for the next step. A graduate of the AIS program, Heffernan comes from Laurie Daley's junior club, the Junee Diesels. A former Australian touch representative and took out the club's education and welfare award this year.

HAYDON HODGE

DOB: 27/9/91 (23)

Position: Centre

Rating: Recurring injuries got so bad for Hodge, including a knee reconstruction, the club ordered him to hit the refresh button by taking a year off footy. He's returned fit and has been given a pre-season and trial contract to prove himself. The year off looks to have done him wonders. He scored four tries in a match playing for the Australian Schoolboys and is a special talent if he stays on the paddock.

RHYS KENNEDY

DOB: 11/10/94 (20)

Position: Prop

Rating: The Raiders were disappointed to lose him to the Melbourne Storm, but now he's returned on a two-year contract to rejoin his big brother, NRL back-rower Jarrad. Only Dane Tilse, at 200 centimetres, is taller than him at the club. While he weighs in a hefty 103 kilograms, the Raiders will show patience with his development over the next two years so he can bulk up further.

JEFF LYNCH

DOB: 28/10/93 (21)

Position: Prop

Rating: Lynch was playing trials with the Raiders last pre-season, until he ruptured a ligament in his knee, requiring a reconstruction. It came after a shoulder reconstruction the year before. But the Raiders continue to be impressed with his work ethic to return. Like young prop Shannon Boyd, he comes from Cowra. It may take a year for him to find his feet again in NSW Cup.

PATRICK MAGO

DOB: 4/12/94 (19)

Position: Back row

Rating: An exciting talent who has represented the Junior Kangaroos for the past two seasons and is closing in on a potential NRL debut. He and Tevita Pangai (below) formed a back-row combination for the Junior Kangaroos and Raiders staff will be looking closely to see which outpoints the other in the pre-season. Has all the talent, but it being monitored closely on his fitness.

LUKE PAGE

DOB: 12/1/91 (23)

Position: Prop

Rating: Has admitted himself he took his opportunity at the Gold Coast Titans for granted, has now relocated to the Raiders for a second chance. Was Queensland Cup player of the year in 2014 and was chosen to represent Papua New Guinea, but turned it down to focus on the pre-season. A squat, powerful prop, explosive and in the shape of Roosters forward Sam Moa. Real chance for NRL.

KILU PANGAI

DOB: 28/10/94 (20)

Position: Prop

Rating: The Raiders demanded he lose weight if he wanted to be involved in the NRL pre-season and he met that by cutting back to 112kg. Like Page, a nuggety-type prop who's contracted until the end of 2016. Has great speed and agility for a big man, just needs to prove he can meet the professional preparation required when he steps up against men.

TEVITA PANGAI

DOB: 4/2/96 (18)

Position: Back row

Rating: The Raiders took him out of Under 20s this year to throw him straight into NSW Cup with Mounties. He was one of the first juniors coach Stuart re-signed when he arrived at the Raiders. There have been comparisons to Australian Kangaroos forward Josh Papalii and Pangai is explosive in attack. Still probably needs to prove himself defensively and fitness-wise to get an NRL call-up.

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