The Canberra Raiders will keep their big guns on ice, but Sam Williams and Mitch Cornish will start in the halves together in Saturday's opening trial match against the Melbourne Storm as their playoff for the halfback spot intensifies.
As the NRL season continues to get longer and tougher, Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said he would have considered standing down his senior players from all trial matches this pre-season if Canberra had a more established roster and combinations.
Instead, Stuart plans to roll out a near-full strength Raiders outfit for their final hitout of the pre-season, against the Newcastle Knights at Queanbeyan's Seiffert Oval on February 21.
After taking a young and inexperienced squad to the Auckland Nines, Stuart has rested a virtual Raiders starting team from Saturday's trial against the Storm in Griffith, NSW.
Fullback Jack Wighton and captain Jarrod Croker have been rested, but will play in the NRL All Stars match on February 14. Players who will have a maximum one trial game before the season-proper include recruits Blake Austin, Josh Hodgson, Sia Soliola, Frank-Paul Nu'uausala and established players Josh Papalii, Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom, David Shillington, Dane Tilse, Edrick Lee and Shannon Boyd.
Stuart said combination work at training, especially in opposed scrimmages, compensated for trials.
"We're nearly getting to a stage where the way we train, and what we do in regards to preparing the players these days, you could nearly get away without a trial depending on the make-up of your team," Stuart said.
"We're going to be a fairly new team at the start of this season, so a trial or two is going to be beneficial for us ... if you've got a bit of continuity or you haven't got a lot of change in your roster, you could nearly get away without a trial."
However, Stuart said there was plenty for his 23-man squad to play for in this weekend's trial, admitting halfback, hooker and outside backs were still the the most intriguing positional battles.
In a one-on-one fight for the No.7 jersey, to start alongside five-eighth recruit Austin, William and Cornish will be paired in the halves in Griffith.
"They're both fairly similar in their styles; Mitch is probably more of a runner than Sammy, who controls the ruck pretty well," Stuart said. "Blake's probably more of a running five-eighth who plays well as a second-pass receiver. They've all got different styles of game, which is an asset.
"They won't be looking at competing against each other, just playing their best game of footy, getting their confidence up and timing right."
Williams said it was impossible to ignore he and Cornish were in a duel for the No.7 jersey, but said both players would put the team first.
"The situation we're in at the moment, there's a spot there and one of us is going to have to put our hand up and try to cement the spot," Williams said.
"It's easy to get caught up in trying to play for yourself but, first and foremost, we need to play well as a team and put some of the structures we've done in the pre-season into place."
Jordan Rapana and Jeremy Hawkins return to action this weekend, both in strong contention for a remaining outside back position for the season-opener against the Cronulla Sharks on March 8.
Canberra Raiders v Melbourne Storm, Griffith, February 7: Jack Ahearn, Mitch Barnett, Luke Bateman, Glen Buttriss, Mitch Cornish, Lachlan Croker, Mitch Cronin, Joel Edwards, Jeremy Hawkins, Haydon Hodge, Jarrad Kennedy, Rhys Kennedy, Brenko Lee, Patrick Mago, Josh McCrone, Mark Nicholls, Kyle O'Donnell, Luke Page, Tevita Pangai, Jordan Rapana, Bill Tupou, Jack Williams, Sam Williams.