Well here’s where it gets difficult.
The Canberra Raiders have made it to week two of the finals because they are a very good footy team, when they want to be, and they find a way when they’re not. It’s been a long time since they put together a complete performance – approximately 11 weeks since they coincidently beat the Sombreros in Sydney. Since that game they have vacillated between being electric and uninterested, depending on the point of the game, but always returning to the very central point: they are good, and they don’t give up.
Just how good, well, this week is hopefully the first of a few tests of that fact. The Raiders didn’t really give too many hints against the Sharks. They get rolled for 30 minutes, then eventually decided to win. It wasn’t a good performance, but it was enough to move on a week. When it comes finals time little else matters. Of course this week had to be the Roosters, because it’s only just clicked a year over since that happened.
The Raiders won’t be able to play with their food as they did against the Sharks (or the Warriors, Dragons, Bulldogs, Titans, Cowboys etc etc), which is worth noting and also the most obvious point we could make. If they get dominated by the Roosters in the same way for a full half, an interception on the break will bring them back within 30, rather than 10. Starting ‘fast’ isn’t so much the plan – the Milk have shown that’s not really how they roll.
Instead they seem to feel out their opposition, tire their middles, in order to create space for havoc later on. Part of me wonders if this is a Covid, or more accurately, random-rule-change-specific strategy, one that will be abandoned next year because they’ll actually be able to train for the increased fitness requirements the new rules bring (not a faster game, but rather more time with the ball in play). Maybe they know they have sixty minutes of good football, and are just trying to hold on around that.
But it wouldn’t hurt if they showed a bit more poke in the early goings. As we noted earlier in the week this disinterested phase hasn’t been an issue against the top sides, and I don’t expect it to be this week. Those hoping for changed personnel will be disappointed – the Raiders have gone with the same structure of the 17 they used against the Sharks. Some were hoping for Havili to start to offer a bit more bulk when the big men are angriest. I think Papalii’s big minutes last week, and Soliola’s lack of match fitness, render that hope obsolete. Sticky will have to hold ‘Liva back to cover the middle rotations, assuming a ferocious beginning. His partner in crime last week, Hudson Young is
my forever love is showing that those of us who pleaded for people to stay patient with him right. He’s a weapon now and he’s going to be a weapon in the future. I am also writing Joe Tapine here because he’s been so good that this article we wrote in August speaking of his breakout year seems to perilously understate his impact. If anyone is going test Jake Friend’s match fitness, he’s your guy. He, and Papa, will need to be up for a battle in defence, because Taukeiaho is a beast, and Warea-Hargreaves can still find his fastball when he needs to.
Regardless, it may be useful to play with a bit more width early and really let Jack and George test the edges a bit. Jack has looked unstoppable running the ball, and you and I know that young Flanagan fella is going to have to find a way to bring down the Titanium man repeatedly. Apart from a run I’m hoping that Jack also gets a chance to build over the game with Smelly and Toots. They’ve been building well-oiled attacking structure over this season, and if they get a chance in this game they put something together it could be the culmination of something beautiful. At the very least it will tire out in-form backrower Angus Crichton.
On the other side of the field the Raiders right edge will need to simply be better. In defence they’ve been the place where most tries are scored against the Milk. Last week the opening try came because Rapa run up when Williams and Bateman hung back. It wasn’t the only time this happened, and well, you can’t mess around like that with Keary, Cordner and whichever Morris is planning on taking a dive this week. They know they need to be better, and i’m excited to see if Bateman can find his best on both sides of the ball. He’s always up for a big game.
Whether this is all enough, well, that’s why they play the games. I hope it will be. Not because ending the Roosters dynasty would be sweet (though undoubtedly it would). Not because it would guarantee the Raiders are good enough to win it all (the Storm and the Panthers wait on the other side of this, and far out if they aren’t good). But rather I love that this side keeps finding a way and I want people to recognise that. They’re an impetuous, imperfect child, but they haven’t given up. When they got smoked out of training in January they found a way. When they had to get on the bus for 3 hours just to get to a ‘home’ game on the world’s slipperiest ground, they found a way. When Josh Hodgson, Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler, Sia Soliola, Michael Oldfield and Curtis Scott all got hurt, they still found a way. No matter the deficit, no matter the task, they’ve kept building over this season, digging deep each time, even if it was them that dug the hole they were in. I want them to win so people will talk about how far they’ve come, how much they’ve achieved, and how they’re built for tomorrow as well as today. They deserve that recognition. Yes, here’s where it gets difficult, but nothing has been easy this year, and win or lose on Friday it won’t be then.
Here’s hoping they find a way. Again.
Raiders by a Josh Papalii field goal.