Red-hot road trip offers Canberra early NRL challenge
Canberra are packing their bags and hitting the road ahead of a brutal Queensland double-header that could set an early marker for their NRL season.
Keen to show last year's storming run home to the semi-finals was no fluke, the Raiders open their campaign against North Queensland in steamy Townsville on Saturday, before staying up north to face the Dolphins in Redcliffe the following week.
Coach Ricky Stuart said the Sunshine State sojourn would bring an early measure of where the side is placed, particularly after two trial losses during which the Raiders' top-line stars were barely sighted.
"(North Queensland) will probably be in the top four again this year," Stuart said.
"It's a challenge and I'm glad it's game one because we'll see where we're at.
"They won't believe we're able to compete, they won't believe we'll be able to handle the humidity. It's a challenge you have to relish, it's going to be very hard.
"I'm happy with the preparations and we are moving into a very difficult environment in regards to the conditions but from a mindset point of view I believe our players are tough enough."
The Raiders' task has not been made easier by the absence of star prop Josh Papali'i, who is unlikely to feature in either of the first two games as he battles a calf niggle.
It has left club debutant Pasami Saulo partnering gun Joe Tapine in the front row, with bench trio Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler and Ata Mariota set to be called upon for more.
Stuart shrugged off the Raiders' trial form and said he would use the opening month of NRL games to build conditioning rather than over-exert his troops in scratch matches.
"You need more than two trial matches to get match conditioned, you need at least four or five games," he said.
"I prefer not to take the risk with a number of my experienced players in trial matches.
"I've got a number of those boys who just came back from the World Cup and I was looking after them moving into the first part of the season.
"We need to create some rhythm and continuity over the first three or four weeks and hopefully we can have the same combinations going into the first four to six games."
Among a number of eye-catching selections for the Raiders is Seb Kris at fullback, while Corey Harawira-Naera has been recalled to a starting role at lock.