Twenty of the most tumultuous stop-start rounds of regular season footy have come to a close, leaving eight finalists to duke it out in the first week. Courtesy of a last-gasp Eels effort over the Tigers in round 20 the Raiders find themselves facing the Sharks for the second week running.
The Raiders fifth place finish earns them a home final (already sold out of course), which should boost their confidence over the next eighty minutes. The top flight stars have all had a week off, leaving the “baby” Raiders to run rampant over an under-strength Sharks squad. The week thus far has been peppered with mostly good news, from the Milk returning as major sponsors in 2021 (and that sweet heritage jersey) through to Papa and Wighton’s joint win of the Mal Meninga medal at the Raiders awards night.
The Raiders have named the best 17 available: Ryan Sutton sadly misses out after sustaining an MCL injury against the Sharks. The Sharks welcome back the likes of Blayke Brailey, Townsend, Dugan, Ramien, Rudolf, Talakai and Katoa. Unlike the Raiders, the Sharks had players rested through the necessity of injuries (and suspension), which should give Canberra a bit more edge over their opponents.
So what do the Raiders need to do to get through to week 2? A strong start would be ideal – look for Starling sending the likes of Papa and Lui through the middle to test the Sharks porous ruck defence. Aaron Woods is as mobile as a house. Papa is having a supreme form season, typified by his ability to earn huge amounts of post-contact metres. Lui doesn’t make as many PCMs as his front row partner but he makes up for this with some deft passing and scene-stealing (and league-leading) steals.
The above stats come from Rugby League Eye Test. We often tell you to go there, or follow them on twitter, because they provide some of the best rugby league statistical analysis on the interwebs. So do it. Trust me.
Feel free to throw Tapine into this charge – his footwork approaching the defensive line quite often leaves defenders clutching at nothing as he steps one and fends another. He is very rarely taken to ground and usually gets a quick play-the-ball still standing. If these three plenty can find those soft spots around the Sharks ruck – and they’re there – it could be a big help.
Once they’ve punched holes through the middle Wighton and Williams can start sending traffic either through said gaps or through overlaps and openings appearing on the edges. The Raiders boast two of the best fringe operators in Whitehead and Bateman, players who can either break the line or throw a pinpoint pass to launch the backs on an attacking raid.
Defensively the Raiders need to keep an eye on the likes of Wade Graham – he may not be in peak form but he’s capable of pulling the proverbial rabbit out of a hat if push comes to shove, and has had a habit of tormenting Canberra’s edges for years. Talakai will be a test of a different kind- he and Nikora will run targeted and powerful lines. George Williams and. John Bateman in particular will be tested by the running ball of knives that is Talakai. The likes of Hamlin-Uele and Fifita could cause problems through the middle but on paper the Green Machine are simply a much better pack.
Inside the Sharks 20 watch for close range crash tries with Starling giving face-passes to charging forwards to hit that weak ruck defence, backed by sweeps courtesy of Wighton and cross-field chips from Williams. One would imagine Williams will be keen to intensify pressure by making the Sharks clean up some sharp grubbers.
The Raiders can do this, and do it good. They’ve shown that they’ve got the verve and belief to get them out of tough spots in 2020. Up The Milk!
Raiders by 14+!