The time for smokescreens is over as Ricky Stuart looks to manage a Canberra Raiders outfit walking wounded into the final five weeks of the NRL season.
Stuart's playing stocks have been stretched so thin he was forced to name Michael Oldfield to fill his 21-man squad ahead of a shellacking at the hands of the Melbourne Storm, even though he knew he is facing a six-week stint on the sidelines.
Oldfield's knee injury could open the door for Mounties outside backs Sebastian Kris or Mikaele Ravalawa to edge closer to an NRL debut when the Raiders face the Penrith Panthers at Panthers Stadium on Sunday.
However Ravalawa looms as an unlikely option given he has been dropped to the Canberra Raiders Cup and linked with a move to St George Illawarra, despite his status as the NSW Cup's third leading try scorer.
The Raiders mentor says he had to name Oldfield to complete his squad earlier in the week and to cover the fact Sia Soliola would be shifting into the centres.
But with Oldfield officially joining captain Jarrod Croker (knee), fullback Jack Wighton (suspension) and half Ata Hingano (ankle) on the sidelines for the rest of the season, Stuart will have little chance to use smokescreens for the remainder of the year.
"It's a little bit hard at the moment, we've got so many injuries.... We're in a difficult position at the moment but it's not an excuse, unfortunately it's just a bad run of injuries we've got," Stuart said.
"My assessment of the team... obviously you'd like to be winning a few games that I thought we should have won earlier in the season to put us in a better position on the ladder, but we haven't, so it's hard."
The Raiders are unlikely to welcome any household names next year but the club still has four spots to fill on 2019's roster, with outside backs and middle forwards at the top of the shopping list.
Canberra will use a similar roster buoyed by the inclusions of English duo Ryan Sutton and John Bateman as they look to force their way back into finals contention next season.
Raiders captain Josh Hodgson has conceded the Green Machine had to be at their best to beat the defending premiers on their home turf and they were anything but.
"We knew we were going to have to be perfect down here, we had a few blokes out that we could have done with. We were going to have to be perfect, they're a good team, and we weren't, we were poor so it cost us," Hodgson said.
"Poor" was a buzzword in rugby league circles when it came to describing the Green Machine's showing against Melbourne, with rugby league legend Brad Fittler saying Canberra failed the NRL's most imposing litmus test.
"They’re discipline was just poor, they were put under pressure and they just failed the test really, simple as that. You can’t do that against Melbourne, they’re just way too clinical," Fittler said on Channel Nine's Sunday Footy Show.
"Cameron Smith will play such a dominant role, he is now moving out of dummy half and playing first receiver when the ball is coming off edges at different times of the game.
"He’s so in control, Cameron [Smith], it just allows [Cameron] Munster to still play off the cuff but is also obviously smart enough to play a role in their structure."
Canberra still haven't beaten a top eight team all year and they were no match for a side four-time premiership winner Peter Sterling believes can break the back-to-back title curse.
"I don’t think they’ve played their best football yet they came in this weekend on top of the ladder," Sterling said.
NRL ROUND 21
Sunday: Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders at Panthers Stadium, 4.10pm. TV: Live on Nine and Fox League.