The Canberra Raiders are confident heading into season 2013. Photo: Getty Images
CANBERRA prop David Shillington insists the Raiders finally believe they are a legitimate premiership contender, labelling the current squad the best in his time in the capital.
Shillington said the club didn't harbour any expectations of challenging for the NRL trophy last year, but said their strong finish had the Green Machine poised to strike.
The 29-year-old admitted he didn't realistically believe they could push for the club's fourth premiership last year, given Canberra had won just six games in 2011, and was content with simply making the finals.
But he declared the Raiders' aspirations will be set much higher this year, rating the squad's current depth unrivalled since he joined the club from the Roosters in 2009.
Quality youngsters Edrick Lee, Jack Wighton, Jarrad Kennedy, Mark Nicholls and Matt McIlwrick all made their debuts last year.
Star playmaker Terry Campese is due to return from a knee injury, while last year's mid-season acquisition Sandor Earl has bolstered the outside back ranks.
Despite making the second week of the 2012 finals, Canberra is on the 10th line of ACTTAB's 2013 premiership betting at $21.
But the Queensland and Australia stalwart is brimming with belief.
''Essentially any team's goal is to win the premiership, I think we've put ourselves in a good position by finishing strongly last year and making the second round of the semis,'' Shillington said.
''In a way it's got us within striking range of really having a crack [at the premiership] this year.
''Last year - not that you're not aiming for the premiership - but we were so far off the pace that 2012 was about rebuilding, building up our younger players and making sure our senior players perform consistently.
''To be honest it was probably hard to aim for a premiership, we just wanted to be in the top eight or top four. The time I've been here, this is by far the best squad we've had.''
In recent years Canberra's top 17 was good enough to beat anybody, but they struggled once injuries began to take their toll.
Shillington said last year's big casualty ward has inadvertently proven a positive, with up to 30 players capable of pushing for first grade selection.
Players have been pushed out of their comfort zone, with Shillington confirming a noticeable lift in training intensity from the first choice squad desperate to retain their spots.
''There's very healthy competition for spots and I know that brings out the best in players, everyone's willing to work hard this pre-season not only because we want to be successful, but there's also individual pressure on everyone too,'' Shillington said.
''Our new trainer [Nigel Ashley-Jones] has raised the bar pretty high in terms of the running and strength components, and Furnsey [coach David Furner] has put a lot of emphasis on defence where we let ourselves down a lot last year.
''With the strong finish to last year, everyone has a bit more spring in their step, and belief we can do well if we work hard.''