In the NRL, the term ‘rebuild’ is often frowned upon because it signals the prospect of a season littered with indifferent results, and the unpredictability is put down to the inexperience of youth.
Canberra Raiders fans probably need to brace themselves for such a season in 2024 with the departure of Jack Wighton, the retirement of Jarrod Croker, and the impending departures of Jordan Rapana and Elliott Whitehead after the year.
That’s a lot of experience heading out the door.
But it’s not necessarily a downward spiral. Instead, the departures present opportunities for young players who have been biding their time in the NSW Cup.
Players like Chevy Stewart, Ethan Strange, Hohepa Puru and Newcastle signing Simi Sasagi now have that opportunity.
Stewart’s form at fullback in the NSW Cup resulted in Xavier Savage spending much of last season on the wing. If Stewart impresses during the pre-season, it could result in Sebastian Kris moving back to the centres.
Kris, it has to be said, was one of the club’s better performers in 2023 at fullback.
Savage will be looking to forget 2023. A pre-season trial against the Bulldogs resulted in a fractured jaw, and he suffered a hamstring injury against the Dragons in the NSW Cup in round 19. In total, he played one NRL game for the Raiders in 2023.
Strange made his NRL debut in 2023 in the centres. He played one game only, but hopefully, he’ll get an opportunity at five-eighth where he shone in the NSW Cup.
There will be plenty of competition to replace Jack Wighton, though, with Sasagi capable of playing in multiple positions, while we can’t forget the Raiders have also signed Manly’s Kaeo Weekes.
In the forwards, Ata Mariota, Trey Mooney and Hohepa Puru all had limited opportunities in the NRL in 2023.
The expectation is they will get plenty of game time next season.
Despite the departures in 2023 and the impending departures in 2024, the prospect of youth coming into first grade should be viewed as a positive rather than a negative.
There is still plenty of top-flight talent within the group for 2024 with Papali’i, Tapine, Hudson Young, Horsburgh, Fogarty and Timoko.
There could be plenty of player movement after next season as well, with 15 coming off contract.
The Raiders have been in this position before.
After the 2006 season, the club lost six key players: Woolford, Smith, Mogg, Croker, Hodgson and Schifcofske.
They finished 14th the following season before making the finals in 2008, and in 2010, the Raiders won a finals game for the first time in a decade.
The 2019 and 2020 seasons were seen by many as the most current premiership windows, with the side brimming with in-form stars.
They lost the 2019 Grand Final and lost to Melbourne in the 2020 preliminary final before making the second week of the finals in 2022.
Canberra made the finals in 2023 but was eliminated in the first week.
It could be a few years before the Raiders reach the heights of 2019 and 2020, but I am actually looking forward to the unpredictable nature presented by youth.
One thing is for sure, we are in for one hell of a ride.