It’s on like Donkey Kong.
After banging on for weeks on end about how the Raiders were about to face some sort of test via the opposition, well, this is it. The high flying Raiders, sweet off a huge victory over a lacklustre Souths outfit, versus the competition leaders, the Sharks. Cronulla must be extremely fired up after the Titans brought their whopping winning streak to an end. Only the one point for the draw keeps them ahead of the Storm, so they’ll be desperate to maintain a margin anyway they can.
There are pros and cons for the Green Machine: they’ll benefit from the Sharks having a short turn around off the back of an exhausting 90 minute game. Then there’s the very real possibility that James Maloney could find himself sidelined for his play on Konrad Hurrell. The Raiders can’t afford, however, to do anything other than aim up 100% to secure a win in round 22. The 54 point haul against the Bunnies was an indicator not only of the Green Machine’s ascension but also of South’s fall from grace. The overly muscular Hobbits from the Shire are an altogether different challenge.
Having said that, I’ll then make this argument: the Raiders beat Souths not through attack but through defence. It wasn’t spot on and clinical like the Storm, but when it came to the crunch the Raiders were right where they needed to be. Goal line defence, in particular, deserves recognition – time and time again they swarmed a Souths attacker, wrapping him, getting under him and driving him back from the try line. The points came ultimately from Souths becoming frustrated and tired.
Battle of the Big Boppers
This is the round where the Raiders forward pack can either declare that they’ve learnt something over the last 21 rounds or that they are still a work in progress. To overcome the likes of Gallen, Fifita, Lewis and Graham the Raiders engine room will need every ounce of strength they can muster.
On that note, all eyes slowly turn towards Josh Papalii. Papa’s encounter with Gallen in the Raiders/Sharks finals of 2012 is now pretty much woven into footy folklore, with the then quite young 2nd rower putting at least two extremely satisfying shots on the older player. Gallen, quite rattled, infamously whinged about this post match, but it was clear to most that Papa had, quite simply, gotten the better of him.
An observation I made, whilst enjoying Sundays demolition, is that Joe Tapine hardly ever gets taken to ground in a tackle. For a player of such tender years that’s quite, impressive. You watch next time he takes on 3 defenders: he’ll still manage to claw at least another three metres going forwards, all while they struggle to take him down.
Paulo paid great dividends on his runs (129arm/10ar) while both Bateman and Whitehead smashed out 150arm a piece. The size of Paulo and Boyd will be key to battling the likes Fifita and Gallen.
Your cue, Maestro
Austin and Sezer – on Sunday they were close, but there was still just the odd hint of syncopation. Runs were off kilter, and sometimes passes were thrown too flat or early. Having said that every game over the last 7 rounds they edge another few percent closer to unlocking God-mode and destroying the opposition. Sezer’s kicking remains on point, both long and short, while Austin showed yet more signs that his vaunted running game is about to reach peak (IMO he needs to straighten a bit earlier and stop running across the field). Hodgson, as always, makes everyone at the Sportress very happy indeed. We didn’t even miss Baptiste!
Caveat time: These three need to play as though Maloney, Townsend and Ennis are in. Hodgson is about to be put to possibly the biggest professional test of his career over the next two games, facing off against an in-form Ennis and the always strong Cam Smith.
Put your Back(s) into it
The Raiders backline ran riot against the Bunnies. 1-5 all scored tries, while Commander Croker sailed past the 200 point mark for 2016. Leilua and Rapana were brilliantly restrained, keeping the razzle in hand for when it was needed. Leilua demonstrated strength and agility with his pre-half time bust, and Rapana shadowed him every time he found a gap. Wighton was again in good stead, capitalising on the Bunnies drop-a-thon, while, as Dan pointed out in his review, Eddy made a lot of very sound decisions in defence.
All of the above is crucial as these five will now face an equally in-form backline of Barba, Bird, Feki, Beale and Holmes. Barba, Bird and Holmes are a must for containment efforts, especially as allowing them any broken field play could cause problems.
Stuart comes face to face with Flanagan, both coaches enjoying comfortable winning streaks. Flanagan will already be cementing the idea of a crucial win in the minds of his charges, while Stuart’s prediction (we’ll do well to get within 4 tries) for this game was, well, less than encouraging. We’d like to think that the Raiders do have what it takes to go toe to toe with the Sharks – they’re just going to have to apply themselves with gusto and control.
Power of Three
Raiders – Wighton, Sezer & Papalii
Sharks – Bird, Gallen & Graham
This is it.
After 20 games and two byes, this is the match where the Raiders can truly prove themselves in 2016, and perhaps give their fans some insight into how far they can go come finals time. The Sharks are somewhat wounded, but to fall off in intensity at any period will be a big mistake.
Raiders by 2!