Rugby League

Mitch Cornish ahead in race for Canberra Raiders halfback position

Mitch Cornish will fire the first shot at halfback in Saturday's trial with Newcastle, but Canberra coach Ricky Stuart insists his battle with Sam Williams to win the Raiders No.7 jersey isn't over. 

Cornish was named to start in the Seiffert Oval clash alongside prize recruit Blake Austin in the halves with Williams to come off the bench. 

Shaun Fensom, centre, will make a return from injury on Saturday.
Shaun Fensom, centre, will make a return from injury on Saturday. Photo: Graham Tidy

Goulburn product Cornish is seemingly ahead in the halfback race but Stuart said both players would be given plenty of time to press their case in their final hit-out before round one. 

Williams will start in the No.14 jersey on Saturday, generally reserved for the first-choice utility. Williams could be considered for the versatile role, while Josh McCrone is also in contention.

Contender: Canberra Raiders halfback Mitch Cornish.
Contender: Canberra Raiders halfback Mitch Cornish. Photo: Jamila Toderas

In other selections that loom as an indicator of the team for round one at Cronulla;

* Edrick Lee was named at right centre, although he will also spend plenty of time on the wing against Newcastle; 

* Jeremy Hawkins will start on the right wing, edging out Jordan Rapana who will come off the bench;

* Regular prop Paul Vaughan will play at lock, with regular No.13 Shaun Fensom to play the final 20 minutes in his return from a serious knee injury;

* St Helens recruit Sia Soliola will start in the back row, while Hull KR buy Josh Hodgson will make his Raiders debut at hooker. 

"Mitch and Sammy will get the same amount of time with Blake on the weekend," Stuart said. 

"They probably had different roles in the first game [Melbourne at Griffith]. Mitch had some good touches and Sammy kicked very well. 

"I was impressed with both players, they'll both play first grade this year. It will be good to see Blake Austin play a bit of footy with Mitch and Sam."

Stuart also confirmed Vaughan, who was selected for Country after a fine season at prop last year, is a chance to move to the back row. 

"We've got a number of options in the middle, we've got to work out whether we play Vaughany on the edge or in the middle," Stuart said. 

"He's trained on the edge all off-season because we wanted to give him an opportunity to understand the defensive role of an edge back rower."

The performance of Canberra's "spine" will be a major focus point against the Knights, given the playmaking positions have undergone wholesale changes. 

Jack Wighton will officially begin his quest to nail down fullback on a permanent basis, and Hodgson called for fans to be patient. 

He's adamant he's not feeling any extra pressure as he attempts to solve Canberra's problematic dummy half issues. 

"I'm just excited really, I want to do the club some justice in signing me," he said. "It [spine combinations] is not just something that happens overnight, it's going to take time and a couple of games.

"I'm not going to make excuses if we don't get the [early] results. All I'm going to say is I'm confident in our squad."

Austin, who played a utility role at Wests Tigers, knows the time has come to prove he can be a focal point in an NRL team. 

"I would like to give them [fans] belief I'm the man for the job," he said. "It's probably more than a trial for our guys [because of mass change]. Our halves combination is going to change during the year and I don't think anyone's entrenched in the team, I have to earn the right."

SATURDAY

Trial match: Canberra Raiders v Newcastle Knights at Seiffert Oval, Queanbeyan, 6.30pm

Raiders squad: 1.  Jack Wighton; 2.  Sisa Waqa; 3.  Jarrod Croker (C); 4.  Edrick Lee; 5.  Jeremy Hawkins; 6.  Blake Austin; 7.  Mitchell Cornish; 8.  David Shillington; 9.  Josh Hodgson; 10. Dane Tilse; 11. Josh Papalii; 12. Sia Soliola; 13. Paul Vaughan; 14. Sam Williams; 15. Frank-Paul Nuuausala; 16. Jarrad Kennedy; 17. Shannon Boyd; 18. Josh McCrone; 19. Glen Buttriss; 20. Joel Edwards; 21. Jordan Rapana; 22. Shaun Fensom.

Poll