This is it, the final round of arguably the most chaotic season since the league split in half all the way back in 1997. It’s a pre-finals matchup that will most likely see these two teams face off two weeks running, given the Raiders fourth place finish is reliant on the Eels totally bombing against Wests.
It also represents a chance for Stuart to tinker, re-blood and rest specific players. O’Donnell, Smith-Shields, Cook, Timoko, Frawley, Medlyn and Subloo are all either making their debut or just their second or third appearance for the club. Stuart has rested first string players across the squad: CNK, G.Williams, Croker, Rapana, Bateman, Tapine, Wighton, Whitehead and Big Papa all get a solid fortnight to recuperate ahead of what will be a hectic finals campaign.
The Sharks have had their hand forced on changes, with Dugan, Hunt, Johnson and Katoa all out, with Wade Graham shifting to #6 to no doubt try and neutralise the Raiders pairing of Frawley and Sammy Williams.
Sam Williams had his career best performance against the Sharks all the way back in 2012 and boy do we hope he turns it on again. If he and Frawley can keep it together for even 60 minutes it will go a long way to getting the Raiders home.
Canberra’s spiritual leader returns to reinforce the forward pack. Sia Soliola has made an amazing recovery from the (excuse me while I’m a bit queasy) godawful facial fracture he sustained earlier this year. Dan wrote about his value both on and off the field and I’m sure he’ll provide not only sterling leadership through his own efforts but also reassurance for the juniors alongside him.
The shifts in the team list means that Havili is starting at lock, and I fully expect Starling to be sending him looking for holes of laziness around the ruck toward the back end of the first half. Other Raiders need to make sure they go with him for support when he finally finds a Shark napping.
Stuart’s logic in the mass restings is clear: jag a win with a 17 composed of juniors and second string players and the Raiders could start the finals fresh against the Panthers, but armed with the immunity that a top four finish provides. Finish fifth and start the long road of finals where it’s sudden death from the word go. Either option sees the Green Machine start their campaign with well rested personnel.
It also gives the rested ones time to reflect on their attitude against the Warriors. While both sides were guilty of niggling behaviour it was disappointing to see the Raiders get drawn into the tit-for-tat exchanges that had them struggling to dominate in the first half and it’s certainly behaviour that would prove extremely detrimental in a final.
The Raiders came so agonisingly close in 2019 and anyone who thinks they’re a better chance this year is an eternal optimist of the highest level. The next two-three weeks is going to be edge of your seat stuff. Anything after that is a testament to this sides resilience.