Rugby League


NRL: Andrew Johns backs Canberra Raiders to make top four

Canberra Raiders' senior players are trying to keep a lid on things, but rugby league immortal Andrew Johns is having none of it after tipping them to capitalise on a strong start to the year by making the top four.

Speaking on Nine's Sunday Footy Show, the champion halfback admitted he had written off Canberra's chances against the Roosters without injured halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer.

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Canberra has condemned the Sydney Roosters to its second straight loss to start the 2016 NRL season after coming from behind to snatch a 21-20 victory in the nation's capital.

But after overcoming huge adversity to pip the Roosters 21-20 on Saturday, the Newcastle Knights legend was effusive in suggesting Canberra can put itself in premiership contention.

"I think they're a top four team, the Raiders," Johns said.

"I didn't think they could win without Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin, and Joey Leilua goes to the sin bin with 15 minutes to go.

"When they get Sezer and Austin back, with the forward power they've got I think they're a top four team."


Having lost a litany of close home games last year, the Raiders have won two straight thrillers against Penrith and the Roosters in Canberra to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2005.

They travel to struggling Newcastle on Saturday, before hosting the unfancied Gold Coast Titans in round four.

In most pundits' eyes they would be favourite to start the season with four straight wins.

Newcastle has conceded 78 points in horror losses against the Gold Coast and Souths.

Forced to blood a huge number of youngsters as they rebuild, Johns was scathing in his criticism of Saturday's 48-6 loss thrashing to Souths.

He predicted Newcastle should brace for "so much pain" and a long rebuilding process.

"It was like men against boys, it was very hard to watch," Johns said.

"I was disappointed with some of the Knights' senior players. There was a real lack of commitment.

"Some of those missed tackles were pathetic. There was a real lack of desire."

"[Coach] Nathan Brown needs time, he needs three or four years to get this club up and running.

"The good signs for the Knights is their under 16s and under 18s have been winning games by 30 or 40 points.

"They have to make sure that next generation of really good local kids are really well coached, and want to represent that town."

The biggest danger for the Raiders this week is getting too far ahead of themselves, but it's unlikely to happen with wise heads like Sia Soliola about.

Soliola was outstanding off the bench against former side the Roosters when Shaun Fensom (concussion) was ruled out in the first minute, making 125 metres off 16 carries, 45 tackles and a try.

"It's good to get on top in those ones [close home games] in comparison to last year when we wouldn't have won," Soliola said.

"We've always just focused on week by week. We'll enjoy this one and get back on the wagon because it's a tough comp.

"Newcastle could come out of the blocks again, you just can't take your foot off the pedal."

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart rated the Roosters win the toughest he's seen, and "the amount of errors we made today, we didn't deserve to win."

The stats support that, with the Raiders making 17 errors to the visitor's nine, had just a third of possession in the first half and completed only 21 of 32 sets.

The Raiders lost six games by four points or less last year but have already shown they have learnt from the heartache.

"We're just being a bit more clinical in the little things we're doing," Soliola said.

"A lot of boys have more experience and having those close losses last year, we've been in these positions.

"Probably the biggest difference to this time last year is we know how to handle these situations, we're more composed."


Saturday: Newcastle Knights v Canberra Raiders, at Hunter Stadium, 5pm. TV: Live on Fox Sports 1.