When the season kicked off in March the Canberra Raiders were rated as low as 12th in premiership betting, behind teams like the Warriors, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sea Eagles. They had finished 10th in 2015. Their biggest signings of the season were Aidan Sezer – a talented pivot from the Titans who had never played finals football – and highly rated but largely unknown English forward Elliott Whitehead.
By September the Raiders were the hottest team in the league, going into the finals in second place on the back of a 10-game winning streak.
Canberra's attack wasn't just the best in the competition – it was arguably the best in the club's history. The 688 points scored by the Green Machine in the regular season was 104 more than the NRL's next best attacking team in 2016, the Cowboys, and 11 more than the all-conquering 1994 Raiders side featuring names like Meninga, Daley, Walters, Mullins, Clyde, Nadruku, and Ricky Stuart.
That man Stuart has led the revival of the Raiders, putting together probably the most well-balanced outfit in the NRL. While their premiership rivals relied heavily on superstars like Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith, the Raiders barely missed a beat when their breakout star of 2015, Blake Austin, was forced to the sidelines.
While captain Jarrod Croker scored 18 tries and kicked 112 goals to be the league's leading point-scorer by a country mile, it was the duo on the other side of the field who dominated the headlines. Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana were just about unstoppable for most of the season – both ranked in the NRL top five for tackle breaks, with Leilua also ranking second for offloads and Rapana leading the league for line breaks.
In the end they fell just short of the grand final – pipped 14-12 in a thrilling preliminary final in Melbourne – but the signs are good that a new golden era for the Green Machine is just getting started.
Where they excelled: Where to start? Their recruitment was top notch, not only with the likes of key men Sezer and Whitehead joining the club at the start of the season but also with the mid-season signings of forwards Joe Tapine and Joseph Paulo. They were also arguably the most balanced team in the NRL, with a forward pack boasting enough depth to leave Shaun Fensom out of the side, a quality spine headed by star hooker Josh Hodgson, and arguably the most dangerous outside backs in the league with Croker in career-best form and Leilua and Rapana forming the most lethal edge combination in the NRL. Canberra's attack was easily the best in the league.
Where they struggled: In what was generally an outstanding season the Raiders had few areas of improvement, although their defence couldn't quite match their peerless attack. Canberra ranked seventh in points conceded, behind all of their premiership rivals, and surprisingly ranked just eighth for metres gained. Fans will also dwell on what might have been had Edrick Lee been able to hold onto a pass that should have led to a crucial try late in the preliminary final against Melbourne, or if Jack Wighton had not been sin-binned midway through the second half of that game.
Missing in action: For the most part the injury toll was kind to the Green Machine, even though halves duo Austin and Sezer both copped month-long injuries in the opening game of the season. During the regular season Austin, Paul Vaughan, Edrick Lee, Iosia Soliola and Josh Hodgson all missed a handful of games but the rest of the top 17 stayed mostly injury-free.
Turning point: In Round 7 Canberra copped their only real thrashing of the season, a 40-16 hiding at the hands of Cronulla at GIO Stadium. It was the kind of result that could have forced the team into their shell, but instead the Raiders responded to what must have been a tough week of training under Stuart with their biggest win of the year – a 60-6 demolition of the Wests Tigers. It would take a few more weeks for the team to really hit top gear again but that result proved to themselves just how devastating they could be when they got it right on the field. We'll give a nod to Canberra's first bye as well, which preceded a 10-game winning streak in the run to the finals.
Hold your head high: Just about every Raiders player impressed in 2016. Hodgson was simply brilliant out of dummy-half, Rapana was arguably the NRL's best winger this season, Leilua and Croker haven't played better, Whitehead was a revelation in the second row, Sezer and Austin controlled things nicely without forcing their hand, big men Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo were impressive up front and new faces Tapine and Luke Bateman earned their stripes off the bench.
2017 crystal ball: With such strong performances across the board it's hard to see Canberra's success in 2016 being a one-off. The club has recruited superbly in recent seasons and has a group of players either playing at their peak or still yet to reach it, meaning if they can keep the team together and remain fortunate on the injury front they should be contenders once again next season.
Conclusion: Even without the fairytale finish, it's been a dream season for the Raiders. They've quickly become the second-favourite team of a lot of NRL fans thanks to their penchant for razzle-dazzle footy, and they've joined the league's big guns in the process.
"This experience – and I don't want to sound like I'm writing a bloody script – but our development as a club this year, and our hurt now, is the start of a really, really competitive era for the Canberra Raiders," said Ricky Stuart after Canberra's loss in Melbourne on Saturday night.
With a powerful forward pack and strike power all across the park, the one thing the Raiders were arguably missing this season was big-game experience. They have that now, having suffered narrow losses to both of this year's grand finalists during the playoffs. Few predicted Canberra would get this close to the premiership this season, but fewer still will be writing off their chances next year.
REGULAR SEASON STATISTICS
Position: 2nd (eliminated in Finals Week 3)
Home Record: 10-2
Away Record: 7-4
Longest Winning Streak: 10 (Rounds 16-26)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Rounds 6-7; Rounds 9-10)
Players Used: 26
Tries Scored: 118
Tries Conceded: 79
This article first appeared on NRL.com