Finals football is a gift given to us by the best bits of humanity bottled into an 80 minute package that allows us to believe all good things are possible.
The only thing better is the Canberra Raiders being involved.
All good things are possible but actually, are they? The Raiders start with what I called an almost impossible road trip a month ago. They took that ‘almost’ and ran with it. At the ground I was literally shaking when the siren went. If you asked me then if i believed I would have been told you “no. I know.”
It hasn’t been smooth sailing since, the kind of thing that turns “I know” to “I think” and “I (still) believe.” The Raiders haven’t found the perfect 50 minutes like they did in the back half of that game. Losses to Manly and the Warriors, and a close win at Cronulla have shown that while the Raiders took their finals dress-rehearsal, there’s still space between them and perfect. But they’ve shown enough this season, an attitude and a game plan to win games just like this one.
Perfect is what they’ll need to be this weekend, or near enough. The Storm of 2019 have been verging on unstoppable – their biggest loss was to the Raiders. Their +331 points differential is bigger than their 2017 version (+297) who were one of the most dominant sides in recent memory. The side has changed since four weeks ago, and while it’s hard to say so about a side so far ahead on the table, they’ve gotten better. Ryan Papanehuyzen is at the back, shifting Jahrome Hughes to halfback, with Brody Croft out of the side.
This move gives better balance to their attack. The Storm have scored a bucket-load of tries this season through their left (as they did against the Raiders when they last met). Bringing Hughes into a ball-playing role instead of Croft makes the Storm an infinitely better attacking side, bringing unpredictability to their right side attack (in a good way), while retaining the threat of pace alongside Cam Smith in the middle. Cam Munster and Kenny Bromwich will still be creating havoc on the left side, and I hope that BJ and Bateman can use their physicality to limit Bromwich’s ball-play at the line.
And they’ll also have Brandon Smith. He missed the first clash with the Raiders, and is exactly kind of player you hate to see coming off your opponent’s bench. He’ll push around the middle, ferocious like a badger in a doghouse (definitely not Milhouse).
The Raiders have got some returning players as well, providing some context for their disappointing result last weekend. John Bateman, Sia Soliola, Jordan Rapana and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad all return from their rest. BJ Leilua returns from suspension, and Joe Tapine has been named to start at lock after being out with sore ribs.
It’s a sight for sore eyes. Bateman brings back stability to the right edge defence that looked vulnerable last weekend and will be tested this weekend. Not only his defence, but his right side attack provides such important variety simply because he can’t be pigeonholed as one type of edge player. He’ll run back against the grain to get metres behind the ruck. He’ll play wider to allow Josh Hodgson the manoeuvre the middle defence. He’ll force Justin Olam into one-on-one situations with Leilua which could be a real opportunity for the Raiders. He might even connect with Nicoll-Klokstad with a perfect ball like he did the last time these two sides played. It’s just nice to be thinking about him again.
Leilua joins him, and fitness pending, will be the physical presence on both sides of the ball that Nic Cotric has surprisingly not been at centre. Cotric for his part returns to the wing, where he’ll get involved more often through yardage work. I suspect the extra opportunites with the ball will feel more normal to him and improve what was a less-than-perfect outing last week.
Before he injured his ribs, Tapine had quietly been putting together a good little period for the Raiders. Reader Tim Darke (@tim_darke on twitter) informs me that sore ribs are painful as all get out, essentially are unable to be managed through pain-killers or strapping, so I hope that Tapine is fully recovered and not just toughing it out for the sake of the finals. If he’s healthy though, he gives the Raiders another ball-runner in the middle (alongside Papa) that can turn a set around simply through his footwork and strength.
Head to head
So how do you beat a side like the Storm? It’s not an easy question to answer. A good place to start is not giving them an 18 point lead and get two people sin-binned.
The Storm concede most of the tries scored against them down their right edge, so getting Jack Wighton involved and letting him see if there are seams for him to work through is good place to start. Letting Bateman and BJ work the right edge with some early ball will be good too. But mostly I want them to keep playing direct as much as possible. The Storm are massive in the middle, but Josh Hodgson can make them dance and Josh Papalii can run through them.
The big risk for the Raiders comes the other way. The massive Storm forward pack can do a number on any team in the competition – they did it to the Raiders early in the season. It gives them the space that Smith, Munster and Hughes will thrive in. Holding the middle is a pre-requisite to competing. Sia Soliola and Dunamis Lui will need to have good defensive days.
Green Star Award
While everyone else rested last week, Josh Papalii rampaged. He took 200 plus metres with such ease, scoring a try by basically eyeing up the defenders and daring them to tackle him. He’ll have a much harder time against the big Storm pack, but he’s shown time and time again that he is one of the best props in the competition this season. He’ll do it again this weekend.
The Raiders will be better placed to handle the niggle and the high-pressure stakes of finals footy after their last month or so. They have proven they can score points against far-and-away the best defence in the competition. They are ready.
I believe in finals footy all good things are possible.
See you at the game.
Raiders by 4.