After what seemed an eternity since the Canberra Raiders were last a serious force in Australia’s elite rugby league competition, the men from the nation’s capital destroyed most before them throughout 2016 to finish just one game short of their first grand final appearance since 1994.

Their sensational form across ’16 had most pundits expecting the same from Ricky Stuart’s men the following year. But for whatever reasons, the Green Machine just couldn’t click into gear in 2017.

One man who experienced the frustrating season close up was Blake Austin. The popular 27-year-old five-eighth, who has played exactly a century of games in first grade since his debut for the Penrith Panthers back in 2011, says to Inside Sport being at the absolute top of his game physically will help all parts of his approach to the sport – and will in-turn help the Raiders return to the pointy end of the ladder.

“As far as goals for 2018 go, I think first and foremost for myself, it’s been all about getting myself in tip-top shape,” Austin says.

“I’ve had good pre-seasons in years gone by, but this summer was about going the extra mile; turning a good preseason into a really great one. I think I’ve managed to do that. My body weight, body mass, speed and agility are where they should be. My fitness level and body shape are really going to help me this year.

“I’m really heading into this year with the mindset of having a clear mind about what my strengths are, and then really sticking to them. A lot of my thoughts about where I need to be are based around 2015 – that was obviously one of my better seasons.

“Back then I think I just had a clear mind. I was there to run the footy, and my passing and organisational game came off the back of that ball-running. Again, that probably comes from your fitness and your body shape really giving you confidence.”

Too many times last year the Raiders found themselves with too few answers in attack. More often than not, opposition defences seemed ready and able to shut down the efforts of Austin and his 26-year-old halves partner Aidan Sezer. But Austin is confident the work the dynamic duo has put in over the summer months will translate into a sharper Raiders attack in 2018.

“We’ve been really pleased we’ve been able to work on our attacking footy so much over the preseason,” Austin says. “Aidan and myself are really good mates. We want to enjoy plenty more success together on the field.”