Be honest, at 0-4 you never really considered the possibility of 5-5. But with a win this weekend that’s where the Canberra Raiders would find themselves. Suddenly relevant, season alive, finals not guaranteed but not out of the question. It would be stunning.
Helped by a friendly draw – the 4 wins have come against 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th – the Raiders have played much smarter, if not perfect, football over the last month. The defence has corralled uninspired attacks relatively easily – though the capitulation of the edges against South Sydney remains a prominent memory. The attack has hardly been fluent, but has manufactured plenty of points – the Raiders do have the fifth best attack in the competition after all.
They come against an honest Cronulla side. The Sharks, like the Raiders, are unlikely to win the premiership this year. But their forward pack will make sure they compete in every game they play. Occasional Andrew Fifita brainfart aside, they’re a smart football side and rarely are they as helpful as any of the sides the Raiders have beaten in recent weeks.
Some of the Raiders best games in recent years have been against this Sharks side. They announced themselves late in 2016 with a Josh Hodgson-inspired victory, and repeated the dose last year with their best game of the season against the men from the Shire. Also the 2012 semi-final was a day of wonder.
The Green Machine start favourites, which given the Sharks position above them on the ladder, is probably pricing in a home ground advantage that may be a little less than normal given the late afternoon game.
Junior Paulo has hurt his foot and will be missing a long time. Shannon Boyd will happily slot back into the starting side (where he would have stayed if Paulo’s power had not been oddly diminished by starting on the bench) and Charlie Gubb’s magnificent locks return in Boyd’s bench position. Josh Papalii is starting to make the lock position work for him – the 32 tackles he made last week were as impressive as the 55 post-contact metres he made. Joe Tapine is free to play after he was inexplicably charged for making a textbook tackle, and is set to have a really interesting battle with the Sharks experienced pack.
The Sharks are missing Wade Graham, which is a godsend for Raiders’ fans. Graham has scored 436 tries in games against the Raiders (approximately), the perfect mobile forward to take advantage of flimsy edge defence. So perhaps a little relief there.
But there’s no relief in the middle of the park. Teams rarely find it hard to second-phase play against the Raiders, and Andrew Fifita leads the competition in offloads so you know what’s coming. But if the Raiders can corral his passing, they can compete in the middle.
A Mighty Fine Spine
The Raiders spine has had some good moments recently. Aidan Sezer has been effective as the focal point in attack. He handles the ball more often on sets, and both Blake Austin and Jack Wighton usually operate outside him.
Against the Titans over-excitement with the easy metres meant the ball started to get into Austin’s hands more than Sezer’s. The Raiders attack started heading towards the corner posts instead of the goal posts, and only recovered when Shannon Boyd straightened the attack through brute force. Such ill-discipline must be avoided against the Sharks.
The Sharks will be without Josh Dugan again so Valentine Holmes slots into the custodian position. He’s a slightly worse ball-player than Dugan but is a quality runner and will challenge out the back of sweeping movements given half a chance. Matt Moylan tortured the Raiders in Bathurst last year, and his un-coordinated play is offset by Chad Townsend’s organised methodical style. Moylan is exactly the kind of player than can take advantage of big defenders that are slow to come off their line.
You Can Do It (Put Your Backs Into It)
The Raiders back five have been stellar this season, and were at it again last weekend. Only Croker had less than 100 all-run-metres last week. Their yardage work coming off the goal-line will be critical to give the forwards rest in combatting the Sharks big men. If they mirror last week’s return this weekend the Raiders will be well placed.
The Sharks have Edrick Lee. I know Edrick is unpopular because he dropped a pass against Melbourne, but I always loved the guy, and respect his decision to rock cornrows this year.
Where It Can Be Won
The Sharks aren’t going to hand this game to the Raiders with either errors or the insipid attacks that the Cowboys, Eels and Titans threw at them. The Green Machine will face a side that is designed to combat it’s strength in the middle, and attack its weaknesses on the edges.
Winning this game starts in the middle, as do all games against the Sharks. But they’ll need to combine that with defensive edges that don’t give Matt Moylan or Valentine Holmes too much room to manoeuvre. If they can achieve that, and let Sezer continue to control matters at first receiver, well then they could be in the money.
Raiders by 2