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- Papalii credits Ricky Stuart for resurgence
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart has delivered a warning to his players and potential future recruits - "if you don't want to compete for your spot, this club isn't for you."
The Raiders have taken overdue steps to improve their depth the past two years and Stuart declared he "makes no apologies" for recruiting quality talent to put pressure on existing players.
Stuart at the end of 2013 inherited a roster that had little turnover for some time and believes some players were in a comfort zone because of a lack of competition.
That has changed markedly this year with the addition of Josh Hodgson, Sisa Waqa, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Sia Soliola, Blake Austin and mid-season signing Joey Leilua.
Places in the top 17 will be at an even bigger premium when Gold Coast playmaker Aidan Sezer and Catalans back-rower Elliott Whitehead join the club next year.
"You can't have success unless you've got depth, and genuine depth," Stuart said.
"I don't apologise for it, I believe our club deserves it and our fans are owed it.
"If players on the outside don't want that type of attitude and that type of environment, they're not going to be suited to the club.
"For me, the culture we need to keep generating is players competing for positions, it creates such a healthy environment.
"I don't apologise for the fact there's going to be some good players at times miss out, but I want people to have the attitude at our club that we're here to be a successful football team, it's not just about the individual.
"If I've got a player who just wants to play first grade no matter what, then go and play for a club where you can play first grade, but you're not going to compete in the semi-finals or big games at the end of the year."
"If you don't [have to] compete for your spot, you're in a comfort zone. Then all of a sudden your football team isn't going to have a competitive environment, and it's not going to have a competitive team."
The halves battle looming between Austin, Sezer and Sam Williams next year highlights that the days are gone when naming Canberra's 17 was very predictable.
Stuart believes Williams' strong from since Sezer's signing isn't coincidence, nor was winger Jordan Rapana's best game for Canberra against North Queensland a fortnight ago, just days after centre Leilua signed.
"You see that in Sammy's game, he knows there's competition there now," Stuart said.
"You see it in Jordan and Eddy [Lee] and Sisa [Waqa], BJ [Leilua] is putting pressure on outside backs.
"Have a look at the way Jordan Rapana played against the Cowboys when Leilua was sitting on the bench with me.
"People keep asking me what's going to happen with Sammy, Blake [Austin] and Sezer. It's healthy to have that depth in key positions.
"We need people putting pressure on each other.
"Without being negative, when I first got to the joint there was too much comfort zone."
Stuart believes the in-house competition will nurture on-field competitiveness among his young players.
"With our young players coming forward, it's my job to create the competitiveness amongst each other so it's not new to them," Stuart said.
"In two or three years time they will be playing their best football, having grown with that attitude and they won't know any different.
"It's not about short-term success, it's about creating a foundation for the club for the long-term future. It's not just about what we can do tomorrow."
RAIDERS DEPTH CHART
Fullback: First choice - Jack Wighton (22). Others: Jordan Rapana (25), Sisa Waqa (28)
Stuart has publicly said he "wouldn't swap Wighton for any other player in the competition". Has taken to fullback like a duck to water in his first season there and will only get better as he adjusts to the extra workload and communication in defence.
Wingers: First choice - Sisa Waqa (28), Edrick Lee (22). Others: Jeremy Hawkins (22), Brenko Lee (19)
Waqa has been a steadying influence on a very young back line since his shift from Melbourne this year. Edrick Lee has overcome a horror run with injury and is beginning to find his best form, culminating in his selection as Queensland 18th man.
Centres: First choice - Jarrod Croker (24), Joey Leilua (23). Others: Sisa Waqa (28), Jack Wighton (22), Brenko Lee (19).
Still only 24, Raiders skipper Croker is set to break all sorts of club records, while Leilua gives the back line a big, intimidating presence at right centre they have lacked since Blake Ferguson was sacked.
Halves: First choice - Aidan Sezer (23), Blake Austin (24). Others: Sam Williams (24), Josh McCrone (28).
What a position to be in - three halves proved at NRL level battling it out for just two positions. Sezer and Austin are tipped to get first crack and, if so, Williams can count himself desperately unlucky after excelling in his second coming at Canberra.
Hooker: First choice - Josh Hodgson (25). Others: Kurt Baptiste (24), Josh McCrone (28)
Very few people knew much about English recruit Hodgson when Canberra signed him. They do now. His nous and creativity at dummy half means he is already one of the club's most important players in his first season. When he leaves the field Canberra's attack loses a bit of punch, although Baptiste's speed offers a different look from the bench.
Props: First choice - Shannon Boyd (22), Paul Vaughan (24), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (28), Mark Nicholls (25, unsigned as yet) Others: Josh Papalii (23), Tevita Pangai (19), Kyle O'Donnell (24, unsigned as yet), Rhys Kennedy (21), Mitch Barnett (21), Jeff Lynch (21).
The main area that needs bolstering for Canberra, following the departures of Dane Tilse and David Shillington. It appears the Raiders are now out of the hunt for NSW Origin player James Tamou, and the Cowboy would have been ideal. The plus side is youngsters Boyd and Vaughan are already quality first graders. Stuart has a high opinion of Pangai, but he will still be only 20 next season and front-rowers generally take longer to blossom.
Back row: First choice - Josh Papalii (23), Sia Soliola (28). Others - Jarrad Kennedy (26) Luke Bateman (20), Elliott Whitehead (25), Joel Edwards (26), Patrick Mago (20)
Is there a better defensive back row in the competition than Papalii and Soliola? Both can pull off monster hits, not to mention their huge work rate in attack and defence. Jarrad Kennedy, English recruit Whitehead and Joel Edwards provide experienced back-up, while youngster Luke Bateman made his NRL debut this year and is a top prospect.
Lock: First choice - Shaun Fensom (26). Others - Luke Bateman (20), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (28), Jeff Lynch (21), Paul Vaughan (24)
Fensom is Canberra's Mr Dependable - his work rate is phenomenal, and his work off the ball is severely underrated. Bateman is regarded as Fensom 2.0, but has more "football" in him in regards to footwork and ball playing. Vaughan has proved a more than capable pinch hitter there when Fensom has been out injured.