NRL team previews 2023: Canberra Raiders free agency wrap, crystal ball, predictions

Canberra have shown plenty of faith in young gun Xavier Savage, and he has the potential to be a game breaker. But he still needs to take the next step. See our Raiders 2023 deep dive.

Despite losing a little bit of experience in the forwards, the Raiders are set up for another premiership tilt.

They have played finals in three of the past four years, including their 2019 grand final loss to the Roosters, and should find themselves at the pointy end again.

With that in mind, it would take a catastrophic failure to dislodge Ricky Stuart from the coaching duties.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Raiders ahead of the 2023 NRL season kick off in a News Corp exclusive club-by-club deep dive series.

Scroll down for the Raiders, Newcastle Knights and New Zealand Warriors deep dives

2022 RICH 100 REPS: 6

Jack Wighton (17, $900k), Joseph Tapine (38, $750k), Josh Hodgson (42, $720k), Josh Papalii (50, $700k), Nick Cotric (70, $600k), Elliott Whitehead (77, $590k)

FREE AGENCY WRAP

Lost a host of established players and replaced them with just two first-graders. Former captain Josh Hodgson’s departure was offset by the fact he has spent a long time on the sidelines in recent seasons that the club has become accustomed to playing without him. But hard-nosed forwards Adam Elliott and Ryan Sutton who fit Canberra’s style nicely will be missed. It tests Canberra’s depth. Pasami Saulo has some real potential but struggled to get a decent showing at the Knights. Danny Levi is a journeyman who will start for his fourth NRL club and more recently turned out for Huddersfield. His career is at the crossroads but he can provide some much-needed spark out of dummy half which the Raiders lacked at times in 2022.

Instead of spending their money externally, the Raiders spent a large chunk of their salary cap upgrading the likes of Xavier Savage, Matt Timoko, Corey Harawira-Naera and Joe Tapine. Tying down Tapine on a deal until at least the end of 2027 was significant after his season as the game’s best prop. Savage was given a two-year extension until the end of 2025.

Rating: D

COACH STATUS: RICKY STUART (2025)

Ricky Stuart would be one of the more safest coaches heading into the season. Barring something catastrophic he should have the job at Canberra for as long as he wants it.

Stuart is contracted until the end of 2025, having extended his deal last July for another two seasons.

The ex-Raiders halfback has already indicated he won’t coach at another club but, at 55, he still has plenty of time to chase his second title as a coach. The Raiders have played finals in three of the past four years, including their 2019 grand final loss to the Roosters.

Stuart had a relatively slow start to his coaching stint at Canberra — making the finals just once in his first five years. But he has built a squad which he has been able to keep largely intact long-term.

He has brought Michael Maguire onto his coaching staff, which is a handy addition. Maguire and Stuart are former Raiders teammates. The former Tigers mentor is still keen on making his NRL return at some stage.

Safety rating: A

LIKELY DEBUTANTS

No obvious answer here given the Raiders have just one player in their top 30 without first-grade experience.

That is back-rower Clay Webb, who was a development player in 2022 before being upgraded to a top 30 contract for this season.

Webb, 20, is a no-frills second-rower who co-captained the Raiders’ SG Ball side to the 2021 premiership. A good trial period could put the former NSW under-16s representative in the frame for early round selection given some of the players who have left.

While Webb is the only rookie in the top squad, there are a host of development players who will be push for a spot later in the season. These include Lebanese international Brandon Morkos, a centre, and halfback Ethan Strange.

Strange is a Central Coast junior while Morkos was signed from the Steelers ahead of the 2022 season. Ex-Sea Eagles half Zane Dunford has two years as a development player before joining the top squad in 2025.

WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?

The Raiders have shown a commitment to Xavier Savage, who has given glimpses of how dynamic he can be with the football. Savage has the potential to be a consistent game breaker. It is about finding that regularly. If he does he could turn the Raiders into a genuine premiership threat.

He started last season on the wing behind Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, but his form proved too strong to deny.

The Raiders let go fan favourite Nicoll-Klokstad to bank on Savage being the club’s long-term fullback. He scored three tries in his final four games and started to look more comfortable in the role.

He topped 200 running metres in three consecutive occasions when he started for the first time at fullback between rounds 12-14, but would only break the 200m barrier just twice for the rest of the year.

At times the rigours of week in week out NRL looked to take its toll. Another good off-season will put him in good stead to find that consistency.

THREE BURNING ISSUES

Decision time on Croker

One of the most heartbreaking moments of 2022 came when Jarrod Croker was forced from the field in round nine in his only match of the season. Croker had worked so hard to make his comeback including a six-game stint in reserve grade.

He was celebrated for his tenacity to return but those hopes were quickly diminished when Croker was forced to undergo another shoulder reconstruction.

He will return to contact training in January but the question remains to be seen if he can bounce back again or will his body let him down.

Getting value at nine

The loss of Josh Hodgson to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament after one game hurt the Raiders. They were forced to pluck Zac Woolford – at the time a part-time player – and thrust him into the NRL. Woolford was solid but the Raiders lacked spark around dummy half.

Tom Starling has an off-field issue to be concerned about, too.

Danny Levi has shown glimpses of being a top-line rake but Canberra will be his fifth club in as many years which is naturally a concern.

Jarrod Croker refuses to throw in the towel on his career. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Young talent time

Can Hudson Young join some of his teammates including Elliott Whitehead, Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii into representative honours? He was quietly spoken about being a shock inclusion in the Kangaroos World Cup squad and if Canberra had pushed deeper into the finals it may have been hard to leave him out.

Young found the consistency and some controlled aggression which had been missing from his game in recent years. If he can drag the likes of Corey Horsburgh with him then Canberra could have one of the most feared forward packs in the competition.

CRYSTAL BALL

The Raiders are set up for another premiership tilt. They seem to be having the right mix of experienced forwards in Joseph Tapine, Elliott Whitehead and Josh Papalii, combined with younger players such as Emre Guler, Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh, who have multiple years of first grade under their belts now.

Having Jamal Fogarty available for a full season will be a huge boost.

Predicted finish: 5th

FINISH THE LAST FIVE YEARS

2022: 8th (eliminated in second week of finals)

2021: 10th

2020: 5th (eliminated in third week of finals)

2019: 4th (runners-up)

2018: 10th

2023 ODDS

Premiership: $26

Minor premiership: $34

To make grand final: $12

Top four: $6.50

Top eight: $2.25

Most losses: $21c

DEEP DIVE: NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

By Dean Ritchie

There is mounting pressure on Newcastle’s playing group and coach to perform in 2023 but a strong free agency drive has the club quietly confident heading into the season.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Knights in our exclusive club-by-club deep dive series ahead of the 2023 campaign.

2022 RICH 100 REPS: 6

Kalyn Ponga (No. 4, $1.1m), David Klemmer (28, $800k), Tyson Frizell (48, $700k), Daniel Saifiti ($700k), Jayden Brailey (80, $550k), Dane Gagai (96, $500k)

FREE AGENCY WRAP & RATING

Newcastle was largely active through the recruitment of Jackson Hastings, Adam Elliott, Jack Hetherington, Tyson Gamble and Greg Marzhew. The club has attracted players to cover a wide-range of positions and clearly look more formidable in 2023. Hastings will be the key. He will finally give Newcastle some much-needed direction and allow Kalyn Ponga to shift into the halves. Some suggest Hastings’ kicking game is among the best in the NRL. Certainly his short kicking game is elite.

Ponga needs his hands on the ball as much as possible. Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington will give Newcastle’s pack the aggression it lost after allowing David Klemmer to join Wests Tigers. Gamble is a back-up.

RATING: C+

COACH STATUS AND SAFETY RATING: Adam O’Brien (2024)

O’Brien, Anthony Griffin (Dragons) and Justin Holbrook (Titans) probably start 2023 under the most pressure. Under O’Brien, Newcastle won just six of 24 games in 2022 to run 14th. Newcastle did win 12 from 24 matches in 2021 to reach the finals. No doubt O’Brien is a good coach after learning his craft under the very best. But Newcastle is a fairly unforgiving rugby league region. While fans will cop one bad season, a second in as many years will put O’Brien under heavy pressure. He now has two halves to compliment one-another – there won’t be any excuses in the Hunter this season.

SAFETY RATING: C

LIKELY DEBUTANT

He may have snuck in one NRL game late in season 2022 but rising star Oryn Keeley is primed to become Newcastle’s Next Big Thing.

Keeley, 19, is a powerful second rower who was named this year’s under 19s NSW State of Origin player of the year.

He has been forced to overcome a fractured neck and knee problems to set up a future which most believe will be grand.

Keely played one NRL match this year – a 28-22 loss to Canberra in round 23. He has already taken the eye of several NSW stars who watched his performances against Queensland this year.

WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?

Bradman Best is a prodigious talent; a player with power and guile. But some at Newcastle don’t believe he has progressed as quickly as many thought. He is an exceptional player, no doubt, but there was a feeling he would be an Origin incumbent by now. He has been forced to overcome several injuries which have hindered his progress. This is a big season for Best. He needs to take that next step into rugby league’s true elite class. He is certainly good enough, big enough and strong enough.

THE THREE BURNING ISSUES

Will Jackson Hastings fit in at Newcastle?

Hastings is a rare talent but has found issues at most of his clubs. He fell out with Tim Sheens at former club Wests Tigers. Hastings needs to find a permanent home and Newcastle looks like the best long-term destination.

Will Ponga be a success in the front line?

Newcastle has wanted to move Ponga to No.6 for the past two years. Yes, he needs the ball in his hands as much as possible but will the extra defensive workload dull his attack? Will he be a ‘spot’ in defence? No doubt Ponga has the size and strength to handle the move – but he can expect to lose some of his model looks.

Can the Saifiti brothers lay a platform?

Daniel and Jacob are now in the NSW State of Origin system. They have each taken their game to another level. But do they need to find more so Hastings and Ponga can show off their traits? Hastings needs to play behind a robust pack. Newcastle’s pack looks strong but will require the Saifiti brothers to step up more than ever now they have two new starting halves.

CRYSTAL BALL

Improve they may but it is difficult to think Newcastle can play finals football. The Knights won only six matches in 2022 and would need to double that – at least – to reach the play offs. Few doubt Newcastle is heading in the right direction but finals footy might be a destination too far away in 2023. A 10th-placed finish would seem acceptable to the realists. A bad start would sap any confidence garnered during the off-season.

FINISH THE LAST FIVE YEARS

2022: 14th

2021: 7th (eliminated first week of finals)

2020: 7th (eliminated first week of finals)

2019: 11th

2018: 11th

2023 ODDS

Premiership: $51

Minor premiership: $151

To make grand final: $23

Top four: $15

Top eight: $6.75

Most losses: $6

DEEP DIVE: NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

By Matt Encarnacion

They are back home and have a new coach calling the shots in Andrew Webster.

But will it be the same old Warriors?

Here’s everything you need to know about the Auckland-based side ahead of the 2023 NRL season kick off in a News Corp exclusive club-by-club deep dive series.

FREE AGENCY WRAP

The Warriors were certainly one of the more active clubs in the player market, having let go of Euan Aitken, Reece Walsh and Eliesa Katoa.

And they could enter the new year with a new-look spine after recruiting three key-position players in young playmaker Luke Metcalf, returning fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and the versatile Te Maire Martin, who is believed to be the frontrunner to partner veteran Shaun Johnson in the halves in their season-opener.

Throw in utility Dylan Walker and another long-term project in Ronald Volkman, and rookie coach Andrew Webster has the option to go full rebuild from the get-go. The club also picked up two powerful second-rowers in Marata Niukore and Mitchell Barnett, both of whom will add some serious punch and experience in the forwards.

Rating: B

COACH STATUS AND SAFETY RATING

Andrew Webster (2025)

May have arguably the lowest profile of any coach in the league, but the Warriors are banking his history with the Auckland-based club, combined with an apprenticeship that included stints at the Panthers and Tigers, to finally deliver some overdue success.

The Warriors have only made the finals once since Ivan Cleary – who Webster was assistant to at Penrith last season – guided them to a shock grand final in 2011. Webster was in charge of the Panthers’ juggernaut attack last year, and his philosophies could unlock the sleeping giant across the Tasman.

Signed on a three-year deal, Webster should be given at least two seasons by the Warriors before they consider whether they made the right choice.

Safety rating: A-

LIKELY DEBUTANTS

Keep an eye on twin towers Otukinekina and Valingi Kepu, both of whom have been stashed on development contracts and helped Redcliffe to a lower-grade grand final in Queensland last year. But the Warriors are high on both the six-foot front-rowers, who pack down with a combined 220kg, and have officially been promoted into the club’s top 30 for 2023.

In what is a fairly experienced forward pack, coach Webster could opt to inject some raw talent when the opportunity arises.

WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?

Big things are expected of Luke Metcalf, who was thought of so highly by the Warriors that they offered him a two-year deal over a year before joining the club. The 23-year-old playmaker is supremely gifted in attack, racking up 14 tries, 30 goals, six try assists and 10 line break assists in just 13 games for Newtown in the NSW Cup last season.

His 14 tries took his overall tally to an impressive 77 in 102 games, making him the ideal cornerstone player to take over from Shaun Johnson as the future of the club.

THREE BURNING ISSUES

1. Can Andrew Webster coach?

There were plenty of better credentialed options than the rookie mentor, who hadn’t exactly drawn much interest when other clubs were searching for a new head coach. But, after missing out on Kristian Woolf, the Warriors quickly identified their next choice and moved quickly.

Whether Webster is ready for the step up remains to be seen, especially at one of the league’s perennial underachievers, who don’t boast the same depth of talent that the attacking coach worked with at the back-to-back premiers.

2. Will home cooking make a difference?

In the five years before their Covid-enforced relocation to Australia, the Warriors won just 29 of 60 games (48 per cent) at Mt Smart Stadium, which was decidedly better than their 21 of 60 games (35 per cent) on the road. The Warriors also split the four games they enjoyed following their emotional return home last season. Will an entire season of home cooking help next year? For what it’s worth, three of their final games next season are in New Zealand.

Has Shaun Johnson still got it?

At 32 years of age, Shaun Johnson’s best is likely behind him. And the club has identified its future playmakers in Luke Metcalf and Ronald Volkman. Te Maire Martin, who enjoyed a surprise renaissance in Brisbane last year, is a wildcard. But any finals push is likely to need a vintage season from Johnson, who led his team with 14 try assists and 10 line break assists in 21 games last year. More will be needed from the former Kiwi international before he passes the baton on.

CRYSTAL BALL

The recruitment of Marata Niukore and Mitch Barnett fortifies what was already a solid forward pack. But there are question marks over their backline and spine, which rookie coach Andrew Webster will have to find the answers to early in the season before it slips away. An improvement is realistic, but finals might be too tough an ask.

2023 ODDS

Premiership: $51

Minor premiership: $126

To make grand final: $23

Top four: $15

Top eight: $6

Most losses: $6.50

Originally published as NRL team previews 2023: Canberra Raiders free agency wrap, crystal ball, predictions

https://www.codesports.com.au/nrl/nrl-team-previews-2023-warriors-free-agency-wrap-crystal-ball-predictions/news-story/7c7599f9bee7e998d90e851631886b80?nk=d5835ea177218ff77ca74068e16bff45-1673292728 NRL team previews 2023: Canberra Raiders free agency wrap, crystal ball, predictions

Ryan Sederquist

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