The Raiders left Canberra on Tuesday morning keen to be on good terms with the sapping humidity of Townsville on Saturday night. They start their 2017 campaign somewhat understocked, with Croker out and Lee gone, the right side now being filled out by Whitehead and Cotric. Change is afoot around the pack and bench, with Paulo and Taylor serving their respective one match bans, Ricky has chosen to blood new recruit Dunamis Lui and give Adam Clydsdale another shot at bench hooker.
The Raiders carry more expectations than any other team in 2017; they’re regular #1s on the majority of commentators pre-season prediction sheets. A gritty 80 minute battle against perennially in-form North Queensland should be an ample gauge of the Green Machine’s ability this year.
Despite the speculation surrounding Shaun Fensom’s sudden transfer, his name appears nowhere on the Cowboys extended team list. Raiders fans will have to wait awhile before the former favourite son goes toe to toe with the pack he was once an integral part of.
It’s hard to know what this adjusted Raiders squad will produce – they’re minus their captain, and have new players in previously solid positions. There is also the matter of the Raiders’ attitude. The end of 2016 belied the ragged start, and it’s important that when they run out they carry some of the team spirit that connected them all during that winning run into the finals.
Due respect must be paid to the opposition too. The Cowboys represent one of the top three most challenging sides in the NRL, a tough and well-tuned side that knows how to use the very immediate advantage of its home ground for maximum gain. The Cowboys love a grind in Townsville, safe in the knowledge that almost every opponent will wilt before they do.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
Even sans Paulo and Taylor the Raiders pack represents one of the heaviest hitting forward rotations in the comp, and they’ll need every ounce of starch available to match it with the tough as teak Cowboys boppers. As I’m writing this Matt Scott is in hospital with a leg infection, which may rule him out of Saturdays clash. Not that it will give the Raiders any space to breathe easy – Taumalolo, Cooper, Bolton and Lowe are just the front line of what is an extremely strong and mobile engine room.
To contain them the likes of Boyd, Papalii, Tapine and Soliola all need to fire in unison. Priest and Bateman provide solid if not spectacular input, and the Raiders will be looking to these two to lift as the rotation begins in the hot weather. There were times last year where flashes of Batemans next level could be seen, his support runs starting deeper and the legs pumping just that bit harder.
For the Raiders forwards the key is rotation and energy management. Give too much early on and they’ll be susceptible after the 60th minute, but hold back early and the Cowboys will steal a march on metres gained
It’s nearly here – that moment when we can watch Hodgson play football in lime green. One can only assume he’s spent the off-season evolving into a dummy half demi-god, able to manipulate time and space on a whim. Beside him stand Sezer and Austin, who still have a way to go before they ascend to the plane of Hodgo. The smart assumption is that these two will often stack up on the same side, providing a kick/pass/run option wherever they are. If Ricky is a halfway decent coach he’ll have spent the summer months reinforcing Austin’s defensive capabilities, whilst also imparting some key #7 tips to Sezer.
Across these three positions the Cowboys win 2-1. Hodgson is clearly better than Granville, but unfortunately neither Austin nor Sezer are yet anywhere near the ability of Morgan and JT. Raiders defenders across the park will need to keep a watchful eye on where JT is directing traffic, as well as keeping the running game of both Granville and Morgan in check.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
Yeah, I liked that title, so I kept it.
No Croker. No Edrick. Not even a Cousin Brenko to fill in. So what do you do? Drag Whitehead out of the forwards and pair him up with young gun Nic Cotric in what may prove to be a rather entertaining partnership.
Many of us winced when we saw where Whitehead was positioned, but after some quiet reflection it stands as a rather astute move – he’s big, quick and strong, has good ball-playing skills and should be a good calming influence on young Cotric.
Meanwhile – LEIPANA! That’s right kids, the most awesome centre + winger combo in the NRL is back, and hopefully ready to give the Cowboys fringe defence all kinds of headaches.
Which may take some doing – Coote, Feldt, O’Neill, Linnett and Winterstein are all quality players who won’t be put off by a bit of razzle-dazzle.
Rumours have it that Wightons mental preparation for Saturday simply consist of watching a looped gif of his hit on Granville from last year.
The ascendant Green Machine meet the eternally in-form Cowboys in what is easily the choice match of round 1. The Raiders will need to focus themselves across the full 80 minutes, or the Cowboys will slowly start to turn the screws
Raiders by 6!