The Raiders good fortune in 2016 came to an end last Saturday when the Titans stole a late lead to win the two competition points. The Raiders once again had a decent lead, which, just like the Knights game, they squandered in the final quarter of play. Frank Paul Nuasala’s brain fart penalty was simply adding insult to injury, a sign that the Green Machine’s constant brush with close finishes could be frustrating some players.
The task unfortunately does not get any easier, as the Raiders must now face the competition leaders at their spiritual home of Belmore Park. All is not lost however: after weeks of playing coy and hinting at a slow and measured return Ricky Stuart has named both Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer to return to their respective positions, meaning Canberra will now have its first string spine back in full service. Joey Leilua returns too, with Brenko Lee and Sam Williams dropping down to Mounties.
The Bulldogs destroyed the Bunnies on Good Friday, the scoreboard rout nearly complete by half time. The Dogs marched in to score 6 times in the first 40, with the Bunnies only able to muster two tries in the last 20. While one can argue that Souths were recovering from a short turn around off a sodden SCG deck they were still no match for the Berries.
In short, the Raiders simply have to play the game of their lives. Any penalty or error will be extremely costly, as will concession of metres and space.
Battle of the Big Boppers
The Dogs boast one of the form packs in the NRL – Graham, Tolman, Eastwood, Kasiano, Klemmer and Josh Jackson. The Raiders will be without Jeff Lima (broken hand), but still have Soliola, Fensom, Papali, Boyd, Whitehead, Vaughan and rookie Joseph Tapine. This is undeniably one of the pack battles of the round, a contest where the leadership of Soliola and Fensom are equally as valuable as the energy of Vaughan and the sheer lumbering strength of Boyd.
The Raider forwards will need to manage their workload carefully – The Dogs pack are notorious for making huge metres up the middle, as well as being agile ball players capable of multiple offloads. Defence will need to be quick and strong, without getting bogged down in the tackle.
Your cue, Maestro
Raiders fans are no doubt buoyed by the news that the star halves are set to return. Austin’s speed and Sezer’s short kicking game have both been sorely missed. If the Raiders forwards can hold their own against the Dogs, and even wear them down a bit, expect Austin to run riot in the general ruck area as bigger fatigued players struggle with line speed. One of Sezer’s biggest weapons is his pinpoint grubbers, which usually result in at least a repeat set. Look for these to connect with the backs screaming through the line.
As a knock on effect, expect Josh Hodgson to have a much more energetic input at #9 as the weight of playmaker is lifted somewhat from his very capable shoulders.
Reynolds and Mbye have enjoyed three games of terrorising opponents. Mbye in particular is having an excellent start to the season, demonstrating strength, speed and vision in his attacking raids close to the line.
Ricky was no doubt disappointed after last weeks result, but he needs to instil the confidence that the job can be done for the solid 80 minutes. In every game this year the Raiders have flagged somewhere in the second half, inviting their opponents into the comeback window. Des Hasler, apart from the minor hiccup against a resurgent Eels outfit, has had a very promising start to 2016.
Lucky Numbers Player Bingo
#6 Blake Austin #3 Josh Morris
#7 Aidan Sezer #7 Moses Mbye
#9 Josh Hodgson #10 James Graham
#16 Paul Vaughan #14 Sam Kasiano
This is undoubtedly the toughest task for the Green Machine so far in 2016. Playing the Dogs is hard enough at the best of times, but facing them at their spiritual home with your two star halves just making it back from injury means there will be no easy going for the Raiders. At no point can they afford to take their foot off the pedal – to do so would invite the Dogs into the game.
Raiders by 2!