THE tears of Canberra falling by the wayside from NRL title contention last season was long wiped away weeks later when the Raiders squad resumed preseason.
Coach Ricky Stuart felt that despite the early crash-and-burn loss to Melbourne Storm 30-10 after conceding the first 24 points of the game during the first half, the Raiders could not have played out a better campaign following a previous 2019 grand final appearance.
“I still remember going into our first meeting back after the offseason break and actually complimenting the boys on the season that they just endured and finish because I thought their performance last year was outstanding,” Stuart said.
“I think their performance last year given what we have to take in with the travelling on the day and the bus trips on the day, I thought it was perhaps as good if not better than 2019.”
The club’s coaching staff feels the players could not be in a better space to consolidate two back-to-back top-four finishes towards a push for a first premiership in 27 years.
This comes on the back of forward Emre Guler extending his contract on Monday (February 15) until the end of the 2023 season after returning to the track following an ankle injury that sidelined the 23-year-old throughout the second half of 2020.
Stuart also believes the Raiders are in the best shape compared to any past preseason squads that the former halfback has witnessed since returning to coach the club in 2014.
“Like every other club we’re working very hard, but I feel we are working very smart too,” he said.
“It’s a tough part of the year for all players because this is a block where in the last 10 or 12 weeks we’ve got to put a lot of work in, physically, and a lot of miles in their legs.
“I’m really happy how our players have responded – there at the back end of it now, put it that way. We’ve now got a trial in a couple of weeks’ time.”
Canberra will take on Sydney Roosters at Seiffert Oval on February 27 after a late switch of preseason venues from Leichhardt Oval to Queanbeyan was only recently decided to avoid another COVID-19 outbreak.
The trial is set to be the first Raiders’ clash over the territory border in four years.
It will also be the Raiders’ first appearance since star prop Josh Papalii controversially took out his boxing bout in Townsville against former Queensland Origin favourite Ben Hannant.
Stuart was rapt with what the one-off promotion last Friday night has done for Papalii after resuming training on Monday.
Papalii may have “lost a bit of his muscle” from the extra offseason sparring, but Stuart said now with the boxing gloves packed away for another summer, the 28-year-old New Zealander would amass his strength again in the middle of a cold Canberra winter.
“I couldn’t be happier with Papa,” he said.
“His (forward) coach and high-performance team have been communicating so we don’t burn Papa out.
“We are mindful of his loads and he’s very fit.
“He can box as much as he wants while he’s staying at 118 or 119kgs.
“That’s his best playing weight and Josh knows that.”