The Raiders Finals campaign is off to a good start, with the shoulder charge against Jack Wighton being dropped after it was proven that held less water than a sieve. The verdict was returned faster than a poorly done steak, and Nick Ghabar immediately cemented himself a spot in Raiders folklore for (a) looking a bit like Dennis Denuto from the Castle and (b) poking holes in the MRCs’ flimsy prosecution (and pretty much rendering the shoulder charge an obsolete ruling).
This is actually as much a win for the NRL as it is for the Raiders – If Wighton had been suspended the League would have faced damning criticism for days on end. Instead the right call was made (in the end) and everyone can now get back to the task of sledging their opposition in the media while claiming non-existent underdog status.
Wighton’s plight aside, Canberrans have been embracing their home final at breakneck speed – seating capacity at GIO is already sold out, and standing room tickets are expected to be snapped up within minutes of release. Yes, the stadium can seem like a cold, dreary place in the depths of winter (because it is) but it makes for a great venue when full. I’ve personally been lucky enough to attend two finals there – the loss to the Tigers in 2010 and the victory over the Sharks in 2012. A roaring home crowd in full swing should go a long way to getting the Raiders to the win.
Form is always a thing you want going into finals, and the Raiders showed that for most of the game they were simply too good for a stuttering Tigers side. For mine it actually seemed as though the Green Machine were still down a gear (hopefully conserving their defensive spark for Week 1). They did a reasonable job in defence, although Mitchell Moses was given way too much latitude on his attacking runs. The attack of the Raiders took a while to click, but when it did it became something best described as amusingly magical. Leilua’s pass encapsulates this best – how he managed to throw a flick pass around his own back while facing the wrong way is beyond even the best physicists.
The Raiders have, deservingly, started picking up minor accolades this week, and they’ll need to use these in a positive fashion rather than drink the kool-aid.
The Sharks haven’t had the greatest start – the Raiders swiped their place at 2nd on the ladder (and the home final that goes with it), along with more bad publicity that is the walking scandal known as Andrew Fifita. It also didn’t help that Jack Bird whinged about having to travel to the Nations’ Capital (presumption of 2nd place, Mr Bird?).
Battle of the Big Boppers
It’s time for one of the best forward packs in the game to roll up its sleeves and go to work – in games where they have fired the Raiders engine room has simply monstered their opposition. The best example of this was the round 23 match against the Storm, where the forwards demonstrated that sometimes defence is more important than metres gained.
Tackle positioning has massively improved in 2016, with more forwards now able to hit the ground stomach first and rise for the quick play, of which Tapine and Vaughan are the two best proponents. Tapine again has to be singled out for metres gained after contact, dragging multiple defenders while still standing in the tackle. Vaughan has a somewhat different method, crashing into the line and falling forward so that defenders are forced to tackle him face down, allowing for his quick play. Boyd and Paulo simply just wreck anything in their path (I’m pretty sure Jamie Buhrer still needs counselling for that hit from Paulo).
Bateman and Priest are serviceable, and Bateman in particular has started running with greater gusto. Sia Soliola is the utter definition of a proper veteran – from barnstorming hit ups to deft passing and on to grubbers on the break, his value in multiple roles across the pack is huge.
And then there’s Whitehead and Papalii. The Englishman has to be, much like Hodgson in 2015, one of the best buys of the year. His speed and strength on the fringes cause all sorts of headaches for defenders, especially due to his outside men in Leipana. Papa may not be as fast, but his constant effort to cart the ball forward, attack defensive weak spots and accurate offloads makes him one of the best 2nd rowers (if not forwards) in the whole league.
The Sharks also have forward (mongrel) pedigree, with the likes of Gallen, Fifta, Lewis, Graham and Bukuya – a strong sample of club and representative talent. Papalii famously rattled Gallen in 2012, and he’ll no doubt be watching montage clips of that as he gears up for Saturdays match.
Vaughan was named at 18, which is well odd, as his stats against the Tigers show he’s back in form and arguably of much greater value than Priest. Fingers crossed that he’s one of 17 come game day.
One concern of note is ruck defence in recent games – teams such as the Sea Eagles and Tigers have been afforded too many chances to poke around the ruck and find a way through, so the forwards will need to assign considerable training time to fixing this.
Your cue, Maestro
Still no Austin, although word is that he’s recovering quickly. In the meantime Sezer and Williams are proving more than capable of steering the ship. Williams may not have run all that much against the Tigers, but his long kicking was on point, finding space and the touchline when needed. Sezer ran set plays well, although his short game was a little bit off (expect it to back to 100% this weekend). Hodgson as always was masterful, despite two early bad reads, and once he got going he tore the Tigers structures to shreds. His scoring dart from dummy half may not have been an intricate set play, but it perfectly sums up the vision he has and his ability to lure in defenders. Baptiste was consistent, and ran a very nifty 55 metres off 3 runs.
They face Ennis, Townsend and Maloney who were red hot over 15 games, and could well discover that form this weekend.
Put your Back(s) into it
Do you remember when Leilua had a burger problem? When Rapana was just a missionary playing footy? When Croker had spirit but still couldn’t quite tackle? When Lee still made bad choices? When Wighton was still a young star in the making? They’re all gone, and in their place stands easily the hottest backline of 2016. Leilua and Rapana simply exude speed and strength, fending opponents off at will and making tacklers look weak and slow. Wighton still has the odd blip, but his last line defence is now so nearly perfect it doesn’t matter. Lee has had a quitter year than his peers, partly due to injury, but also because he has matured greatly, especially when making defensive reads.
Against them is a backline of Barba, Bird, Feki, Leutele and Holmes – Barba, Bird and Holmes have been superb this year, but they’ll need to be much more to match it with Canberra’s backline.
Stuart is now in full control – with the exception of some defensive issues that need fixing his men are on a roll. Some games they win scrappy, and some they win in style, but however it’s been done they’ve now won 10 straight and bagged themselves a starting home final.
A few months ago Shane Flanagan would’ve been a lock for coach of the year – it was the Raiders however that brought the Sharks hot streak to a proper end and began their misery in the run through August.
Power of Three
Raiders – Wighton, Hodgson & Papalii
Sharks – Barba, Ennis & Gallen
They made it! After a slow but steady start in 2016 the Green Machine has gained momentum, cruising into 2nd place in the minor premiership on the back of 10 straight wins. I could write reams about flipping the bird to the naysayers, but it’s been done, and now it’s time to sit back and see how far the dream goes.
Raiders by 10!