If you’re anything like me this week you have been vacillating between excitement and terror. Excitement at the prospect of a prelim in Canberra and maybe a grand final appearance, terror that it could all come crashing down. We’re so close there’ll be tears either way.
It’s been so emotional for many just making it this far (two thumbs pointing at this guy), it’s almost as though we’ve forgotten what the game will entail.
The Green Machine are going against a team that has been considered part of the ‘big-three’ sides of the NRL this season (along with the Storm and the Roosters). They’ve got a litany of Origin players alongside internationals. They have arguably the greatest coach in rugby league history at the helm. They have beaten the Raiders in Canberra already this season, part of the five games the Raiders have lost in their last seven at home. To beat the Bunnies will be a feat. So how to do it?
Please note what follows is not a exhaustive list. It’s just the things I could think of on a Tuesday night that helped me breath. If you’ve got more, I’d love to hear them. I need to hear them.
The middle holds and restricts Cook and Walker
Everything for the Bunnies comes off the back of dominating the middle. The Burgeii push through the middle, Cook runs off the back of it. When it’s working they gut teams, Cook zipping between tiring middle defenders before unleashing Cody Walker and Cameron Murray. They score more than normal in the middle: through 19 rounds, they’d scored nearly 34 per cent of their tries up the guts. That was more than any other team in the competition bar the Panthers, and starkly more than the Raiders 22 per cent (Stats per statsinsider.com and the genius of @JasonNRL).
So stop them in the middle right? That’s going to take a monster effort from the Raiders middle defenders.
The edges make merry
If there was anything that we learnt from the Bunnies victory over Manly last weekend was holy jebus did their edges look flimsy in defence. Their right side, which had only leaked 32 per cent of their tries up to round 19 (as opposed to nearly 47 per cent on the left) looked diabolical, as Adam Reynolds got no support from Sam Burgess or James Roberts. Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead would have been licking their lips. It would also be an opportune time to unleash a play they’d established earlier in the year, with Nic Cotric burning in off the wing on the angle to take a pass from Wighton. Change the angles, test the defensive communication.
Coach Stuart has already said he doesn’t expect it to be so flimsy again. Coach Bennett has said James Roberts is 50/50 and to be honest I wonder if he’s wondering if a personnel change will fix his issue.
That doesn’t even mention what Moses Suli did to Dane Gagai. As Bourkey of Bourkey’s Top 10 fame pointed out, BJ Leilua presents an even bigger challenge for Gagai. You’d assume an origin star wouldn’t be embarassed two weeks in a row, but BJ will give it a red hot try.
Add to that the surprising variety the Raiders through at the Storm – Tapine pushing wide, Bateman back against the grain – and the Raiders are ready to give Gagai nightmares if he (and the less laterally mobile) Sutton fits.
The Raiders find a way to negate Adam Reynolds
Adamn Reynolds is a damn genius. His kicking game keeps the Bunnies in positions, both on the field and on the scoreboard, that their play often doesn’t deserve. The Bunnies can have a rubbish set, but all of a sudden Reynolds will pin the opposition on their own line.
This will be a test of the back three. You can rest assured that if there’s a weakness they have (think Nicoll-Klokstad’s marginal shakiness under the high ball recently) they’ll be force-fed a steady diet of it. And even with the best of positioning and kick returns, the Green Machine are simply going to start some sets in shitty position.
That means with Nicoll-Klokstad, Nic Cotric and Jordan Rapana are going to have to excel in the yardage carries coming off their own goal line. Luckily they excel at this, as does Nicoll-Klokstad. And if they get tired, you can bet supersub Bailey Simonnson will be up for this job, and BJ Leilua, fitness pending, will turn dead sets into successful ones by punishing defenders with his 112kg frame.
The Raiders take more dummy-half runs than any other team in the competition (even more than the Bunnies) and this is largely because in yardage these back three just get the ball and go through and around the defence up the middle. It’s not the only way to defuse a kicking game, but it’s damn effective.
More important than all of the above, the Raiders goal-line defence needs to hold. It will be tested. The left edge will have Sam Burgess pushing into them, the middle will be tired containing Damien Cook. It will be a massive test. But this is a side that has thrived in those circumstances. It made the best attack in the competition look pedestrian. Twice in the same season.
If they get it done it will be the same way they’ve done all season. They’ll be fast off the line. The middle’s will push up and out to remove the space for the Bunnies ball players. And the edges will be resolute in the face of difficult circumstances.
So can it be done?
As we said at the top, Souths are the real deal and deserve to be here as much as the Raiders do. They’ve been one of top sides all season, are packed with internationals and origin players, and are coached by possibly the best to ever do it. We’ve given what we think might be the how the Raiders can do it, but will it happen?
I’m too nervous to have a view, and whatever it is now, it will be different in five minutes. But we’ll find out on Friday. See you there!