I realised two things this week – I badly need to find my lucky collection of Raiders keyrings on a chain and Frankenflag (the big four flag number that my sister made for me all those years ago). Why, you ask? Well it’s my first chance this year to see the new look Green Machine live in action. The last home game I attended was April 23 2016, and I had to spend the rest of the year cheering on the Raiders from the top of Australia, praying that the strong winds wouldn’t knock out the remote tv service.
Back in April last year the Raiders were still muddling their way through games, displaying periods of brilliance, whilst also lapsing into the agonising ways of old. It wasn’t until they copped a beating from Brisbane mid-year that something finally clicked, and the true Raiders emerged from their cocoon.
The Raiders faced the Sharks three times last year. The first time a still growing Green Machine was comprehensively beaten 16-40 in round 7. Revenge was served in round 22. The Sharks, having drawn with the Titans the week before, faced a Raiders side reborn, and the Green Machine came out on top 30-14, triggering the Sharks horror run into the finals.
The two sides squared off in Canberra in week 1 of September, with the Sharks winning in a tough contest. The rest is premiership history.
Now the Sharks are back, trophy in hand. They were beaten last week by a slick, focused Broncos side. The Raiders on the other hand went toe to toe with the Cowboys all the way in Townsville, losing only by what can be described as a freak accident.
The Sharks are still without key back Valentine Holmes, with Gerald Beale at #1, while former Raider Edrick Lee will face off against his old club less than two weeks after leaving. The Green Machine have lost Joe Tapine (hand) and Clay Priest (suspension) but welcome back Jack Wighton and Junior Paulo. Scott Sorenson comes onto the bench as 2nd row rotation.
The Sharks should expect nothing less than a cold reception after Ennis’ mocking of the Raiders clap in 2016. It may only be March but Canberra will be freezing for at least 17 people.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
Tapine is out (Boooo!) but Paulo is in (Yayyy!). The Sharks boast an extremely strong forwards line up – Fifita, Graham, Gallen, Lewis and Prior, with the added bench starch of Bukuya and Heighington. They find themselves facing off against the scale-breaking assemblage of Boyd, Paulo, Papalii, Soliola and Lima.
For me, personally, the worrying aspect of the Raiders pack in this game is the bench. Carrying Clydsdale as a backup for Hodgson limits the Raiders to three forwards, and they are Lima, Lui and Sorenson. While Jeff Lima is very much a proven asset, Lui and Sorenson are yet to be properly tested for the Raiders, and Stuart will have to be very shrewd when it comes to timing interchanges correctly.
Cronulla were very good at making metres in the middle last year and it is here that the Raider forwards will need to be truly switched on, making sure able ball-runners such as Graham don’t get an arm free for an offload. While he is not in the forwards this week Whitehead should help enforce the fringe defence on his side of the field.
Expect Paulo to run over someone at some point.
Austin and Sezer were good, despite the team not having more than 41% of the ball. While he still has a way to go Austin demonstrated that he can launch bomb raids extremely high, now he just needs to work on generating the feared torpedo effect. He also nearly cracked the Cowboys open with a solo effort, brought down just shy of the line by some very hurried defence.
Sezer only ran for 20 metres, but his short kicking game remains an effective weapon in the Raiders arsenal. If he can get into the habit of taking it to the line he can start to put defenders in two minds about what happens next.
Hodgson made more tackles than any other Raider last week, while avoiding the hit-ups that he has had to do on past occasions when shifting away from dummy half. His switch to a third play maker is the offset for a shallow bench, and it may well come in handy when the Sharks big guns begin to falter late in the game.
While Maloney and Townsend are on par with Austin and Sezer it’s pretty fair to say that young Jayden Brailey is going to learn a thing or two about being a top-flight dummy half on Saturday night (Hodgson mic drop)
Put Your Back(s) Into It
Leilua earnt his keep with two tries, 135 metres and a linebreak, while Rapana flew dangerously close to the sun by flipping the refs the bird (classic Jordy). So while things are all good and well in Leipana land we should get excited by the other three back line members.
Cotric showed glimpses of the future last weekend; a run here, a tackle there, and you know it’s only a matter of time until the shackles of confidence come off and the kid hits high gear. His partnership with Whitehead is actually a great way to ease him into first grade life, and he’ll remain in good hands when Croker returns.
Then there’s the matter of Wighton – if any Raider symbolises the transformation of the team as a whole in 2016 it’s him. From an average start to a horror run followed by the blooming of a great injection ball-player and a fantastic last line defender. Before last week I could only remember the big hits, so if you need a refresh watch this video.
Against them stand Beale, Bird, Feki, Leutele and former teammate Lee. We know that Edrick can be awesome when he puts his mind to it, and that Bird is a top-class player, but you get the feeling that the Raiders back line may have the advantage over the likes of Feki, Leutele and Beale (expect Gerard to have to field a lot of bombs and grubbers)
It’s another tough one for the Green Machine, but they do have some advantages this time out – favourable conditions, the return of 1st choice players and what looks to be a healthy home crowd.
Raiders by 10!