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Forward thinking: Green Machine jam-packed with quality options

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was scratching around for middle forwards by the end of last season but his squad is jam-packed heading into 2021.

He had a different kind of headache this week, forced to leave out some high-calibre big boppers. Stuart had already said he would not select Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera for their drink-driving offences before they were officially banned.

Even so, it was tough to settle on his forward rotation for Sunday's home game against the Wests Tigers, in stark contrast to the end of last year when the likes of Sia Soliola, Horsburgh, Emre Guler, hooker Josh Hodgson and edge forward John Bateman all experienced long-term injuries.

With all the current squad fit, including new recruit Ryan James, Stuart was forced to leave out Guler and breakout hooker Tom Starling, among others.

"It was a hard decision; Tommy did a great job for us last year filling in for Josh, as did Liva," Stuart said.

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"Liva can play every position in the forwards, he's been working as an edge back-rower, he's been working at lock, he's been working at front row and also at hooker.

"He gives me great utility value but both boys will be used right throughout the year.

"Either way I go I was very comfortable with either player, both great players, both NRL players and they'll serve us a purpose right throughout the year."

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Stuart was delighted to be able to start the year with James, in what will be the inspirational former Titan's first game since round six, 2019.

"I was really happy for Ryan because he's worked really hard since his bad luck with two horrific knee injuries," Stuart said.

"His perseverance and resilience has kept him in the picture. It was a great opportunity to have his signature at the start of the season and now for him to be able to make game one is a great sign of the courage and commitment he's shown."

Stuart also had no hesitation throwing Seb Kris into Jarrod Croker's centre role over the likes of Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields, though the injured co-captain could be back as early as round two.

"It's a really good story with Seb – it  shows a young man who I suppose wanted to face up to some tough times mentally last season and fell away from the game a little bit," Stuart said.

"The club gave him a lot of support and understanding. He's put his hand up to give it another crack, we put him on a train and trial. His performances over the off-season have been outstanding. He's been leading everything in fitness.

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"It's a credit to him and his family how he's bounced back in regard to wanting to play the game again. With the unavailability of Jarrod, no one hesitated in thinking Seb was ready.

"Jarrod was very enthusiastic to play but I sort of had to protect Jarrod from Jarrod.

"He was there wanting to play for the team, he wanted to make sure he filled his spot but I want Jarrod to be 10/10 to come back, I don't need him to come back and be a little bit down on conditioning. That's what it is, it's not his shoulder, it's just a little bit of condition.

"I just get a gut feeling he's not 100% yet and I don't want Jarrod playing at 90% at this stage of the year.

"I want him to come back when he's at 100%. It's a long year."

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Halfback George Williams has edged out Jordan Rapana for goal-kicking duties in the interim.

"Georgie Williams will be kicking, to the great disappointment of Elliott Whitehead who wanted it," Stuart joked.

"We've had a lot of the boys practising, Darryl Halligan's been doing a lot of work with them."