Rugby League


NRL: Canberra Raiders star Blake Austin named on bench to face Penrith Panthers

The Canberra Raiders have pulled a major selection surprise, naming Dally M five-eighth of the year Blake Austin on the bench for Saturday's season opener against the Penrith Panthers.

Austin didn't play in the club's only trial game while recovering from shoulder surgery, but his omission could merely be a smokescreen for the Canberra Stadium encounter.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart has stuck with the halves combination of Sam Williams and Gold Coast Titans recruit Aidan Sezer.

Stuart has also shown faith in Jordan Rapana, naming him on the wing ahead of the more experienced Sisa Waqa.

​Last year's player of the year Sia Soliola has been squeezed out of the starting side to make way for English international Elliott Whitehead in the second row.

Prop Frank-Paul Nuuausala said the competition for positions in the team was across the board.


"It's pretty hard to pick the best 17, there will be good players missing out," Nuuausala said.

"If you don't play well, you might lose your job.

"Pressure's good and we don't mind the competition.

"It makes you train better, makes you play better, keeps you on your toes so you can't be relaxed."

Whitehead, Sezer and veteran prop Jeff Lima will make their debuts for the Raiders, but Knights recruit Joseph Tapine couldn't find a place in the 17.

Fullback Jack Wighton and lock Shaun Fensom have both been named in the starting side despite sitting out the trial game with injury.

Austin enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Raiders in his first year with the club, the former Panthers and Tigers utility relishing the chance in the No. 6 jersey to storm into State of Origin calculations.

But the addition of Sezer has given the Raiders the luxury of having three quality halves fighting it out for two spots.

Soliola's move to the bench isn't that much of a shock given how well Josh Papalii and Whitehead played in the trial against the Knights.

Whitehead combined nicely with centre Joey Leilua in attack on the right edge while Papalii played alongside Jarrod Croker on the left. 

The Raiders raced out to a 28-0 lead in that game before resting their key players to eventually win 34-28 in Orange.

Soliola is off contract at the end of the season, but his focus is doing what is best for the team.

He is likely to spend time in the middle of the field either at lock or in the front row with the reduced interchanges this season.

Just as important is Soliola's leadership and experience, something that  will be vital as hype grows around a side brimming with talent.

"As much as expectation is on us, it's a tough competition and we're not the only ones training hard," Soliola said.

"We know we have to stay focused week in and week out.

"That's where we probably lacked last year, we'd have good results away then we'd come to the home games and we'd disappoint."

NSW forward Trent Merrin will make his debut for the Panthers after coming across from the St George Illawarra Dragons.

Merrin adds plenty of toughness to a Panthers forward pack that also boasts a mobile and energetic back-row.

"He's an awesome player," Nuuausala said.

"He's an Origin player and he's played for Australia.

"He's good in attack the way he runs the ball and the offload, so we have to make sure we look after the forward pack."

Tapine joined the Raiders last week and was long odds to be considered for round one.

Back-up hooker Kurt Baptiste has been named 18th man for the Raiders.

Saturday: NRL: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers at Canberra Stadium, 3pm. 

Raiders: 1. Jack Wighton, 2. Edrick Lee, 3. Jarrod Croker (c), 4. Joey Leilua, 5. Jordan Rapana, 6. Sam Williams, 7. Aidan Sezer, 8. Shannon Boyd, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. Frank-Paul Nuuausala, 11. Josh Papalii, 12. Elliott Whitehead, 13. Shaun Fensom. Bench: 14. Blake Austin, 15. Sia Soliola, 16. Paul Vaughan, 17. Jeff Lima, 18. Kurt Baptiste (one to be omitted).

Panthers: 1. Will Smith, 2. Josh Mansour, 3. Waqa Blake, 4. Peta Hiku, 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 6. Jamie Soward, 7. Peter Wallace, 8. Sam McKendry, 9. James Segeyaro, 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard, 11. Bryce Cartwright, 12. Isaah Yeo, 13. Trent Merrin. Bench: 14. Tyrone Peachey, 15. Jeremy Latimore, 16. Suaia Matagi, 17. Elijah Taylor.