Austin-Sezer combo set to fire for Raiders
A disruptive 2016 has Canberra's Blake Austin primed to regain the form that earned him the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year award just two seasons ago.
While the Raiders were on fire last season with the Doonside product playing his part in 18 games, a series of niggling injuries compounded by a broken hand at training meant he was not at his best for most of the season.
The 26-year-old now starts the new season injury-free and focused on building his combination with halves partner Aidan Sezer.
"It was a long and stressful season for me and probably in my career," Austin said.
"I came off 2015 and a lot of people had question marks on whether I could recreate that or even go close.
"The injury concerns I had were frustrating and my shoulder dragged on a lot longer than it should have.
"Every time I found a bit of momentum it was halted again.
"As a guy who focuses a lot on his running game, if your body isn't 100 per cent then you're going to suffer."
Austin made sure he put himself first this pre-season by running more and bulking up some muscle in his troubled shoulder.
"I sat back at the end of the year and asked why those injuries were there. Some you can't avoid because of the lack of kilometres I was able to put into the legs in the pre-season last year," he said.
"That's why I was keen to get back, work hard and improve my fitness and strength.
"There are still a few plates in there [in my hand] that will probably stay in. I had the option to take them out but they're fine so I will leave them in.
"I've put a bit of muscle in my right arm again. It was very skinny for a long time last year and overall have achieved a lot of things I set out to [this pre-season]."
Austin and Sezer missed their first pre-season together back in 2015 when both were recovering from shoulder surgery, which limited their time to build combinations with their teammates and more importantly, each other.
"Aidan and I have been able to spend a lot more time on the paddock and we are keen to start the year," Austin said.
"We've got a team that we don't need to have our hands on the ball as much as some other halves in the competition but in saying that, we certainly want to have more of a mark and own the team.
"It gives me and Aidan a stronger voice in the group and that's only going to help everyone and with the lack of time we spent on the park last season."
Such was the performance of the Raiders in 2016 that the halves were not as dominant as many predicted them to be, with standout performances right across the board a major factor in their push for last year's title.
"It's one of the strengths we've got here," Austin said.
"We're a real team that relies heavily on everyone and there's no real standouts.
"We don't have many footy buffs in our team and they've all got other interests.
"With the expectation, it's not really something we can control and it's only there because of the successful year we had."
The Raiders face a tough start to the draw, traveling to North Queensland in their first game of the season before welcoming the defending premiers to the nation's capital in Round 2. To round out the month, they'll take on the Broncos in Brisbane on March 24.
Austin admitted it was a tough start but was quick to turn it into a positive, declaring the opening month was a good time to take on some of the best teams in the competition.
"You'd probably prefer to knock some of the better teams over early before they really hit their straps so you could look at it either way," Austin said.
"We know what's waiting for us in Townsville.
"What happens in Rounds 1 to 10 is not the be all and end all but to start fast is something we really want to do.
"We're going to be heading out there sticking to the things that worked last year and then it's all about some small improvements to take our game to the next level."
This article first appeared on NRL.com