The Raiders have ridden quite the rollercoaster since last Wednesday. First the NRL came in over the top and slapped an extra four weeks onto Wighton’s suspension. Havili agreed to stay an extra two years. The Raiders trounced the Cowboys in freezing conditions 38-12. Jarrod Croker buggered his knee for the year. Hattrick star Oldfield signed on for another two seasons. And to top it all off, Sezer tore his hamstring at training.
To say this leaves Canberra a bit short is an understatement. Sezer’s combination with both Hodgson and Williams was crucial to Saturday nights win, and it’s fair to say that Austin won’t be able to replicate the kicking game.
Austin has excelled in the last two games, first as a late game injection of energy and then as a more than competent cover for the injured captain. He has a new lease on footy, now that his future is secured with Warrington for the next three years. With Hingano already out it’s understandable why Ricky has reverted to this setup. With the Raiders swinging from the rope ladder beneath the finals bound chopper the coach was always going to stick with experience over any notion of youthful experimentation in the likes of Roache.
Brad Abbey returns from his concussion to take up the custodial position, and with no disrespect to Croker, this has to be the biggest, strongest backline (sans Wighton) that the Raiders have fielded in a while.
The Raiders can gain some belief from the fact that the Sharks home ground has been a very good location for the Green Machine in recent years. Having said that, the Raiders will need to bring their best game to get over Cronulla, who have a habit of firming up at this time of year.
I was really pleased with the attitude of Canberra’s pack in round 18, in particular the likes of Lui and Knight. While we have come to expect high-quality output from the likes of Papalii and Soliola we need to acknowledge the progress that some of the Raiders more “junior” forwards are making. While he didn’t smash out huge metres Lui ran with intent, barrelling into the defensive line and often requiring three + defenders to drag him down. Knight continues to improve at either prop or second row, and it’s often closer to the edges where he seems to be having an impact.
The Sharks pack is a nightmare for oppositions. Veteran Gallen is surrounded by the likes of Graham and Fifita, and defending teams can often find themselves expending a lot of energy trying to stop Cronulla from getting a roll on. Splice in Graham’s ability to kick well and the Raiders need to be on high alert.
A Mighty Fine Spine
Sezer’s control kicks were an integral part of the round 18 win, and his loss means that Williams and Hodgson will need to divide the duties between them. Expect to find Hodgson kicking on tackle 4/5 trying to catch the Sharks wings out of position.
If Austin is to have a good effect here, he needs to be the end of the Hodgson-Williams pendulum, following Williams to which ever side the play is shifting to. If they play split halves they’re going to get frustrated very quickly, and I’d rather have the pair of them keeping the Sharks defence in two minds.
Moylan and Townsend can be a pretty crafty duo, and I’d expect the Raiders to hopefully put a lot of quick line speed pressure on them. If the Green Machine can foul up their rhythm they may be able to unsettle the Sharks as a whole, but if they give them space they’ll suffer the consequences.
Put Your Backs Into It
No Wighton. No Croker. And yet, no worries. Abbey is growing into his position as a first grader, and the other four are all proven talent of the highest order. Abbey is the smallest of the five, still growing his somewhat slight build, but the other four are towers of power. If I was the Sharks backline I’d be slightly pooping myself.
Rapana was everywhere on Saturday, covering the width of the field and helping out in anyway he could. Cotric will relish being restored to the wing, and the idea of Oldfield slicing through with Nic in support is a tantalising image. Leilua conducted most of his efforts through the middle, but don’t be surprised is he and Rapana target the Sharks down their edge.
Valentine Holmes is clearly a better, older player than Abbey but I feel that the Raiders have the edge over the likes of Katoa, Ramien, Leutele and Lee.
Off The Bench
Havili – Possibly the best bench player the Raiders can currently access. His quick and stocky frame means he can grab easy metres through the middle, and that the Raiders don’t have to sacrifice Hodgson in defence.
Bateman – Continues to be a solid and dependable rotation, especially since he can now take 10-12 metres a run without losing 6 of them being pushed back.
Knight – I get the feeling Knight may well be a more integral piece in 2019. He threatens with his runs more often than not, and has already proven he can break the line with a good carry.
??? – At this point Jack Murchie looks the most likely to grab the final bench spot, but Emre Guler and Royce Hunt are also possibilities.
The Sharks have Joe Paulo, Woods, Segeyaro and Bukuya at their disposal.
A loss here means that the Raiders will simply play for dignity and experience in every remaining game. A win however will keep them in touch with the 8, lurking and waiting if either the Warriors or Broncos should falter.
Raiders by a hard fought 6!