Well, here we are again. Another preliminary final. Another chance to go to the big dance. And all we have to do is beat the only team who’s recent historical record could be compared to the last team we beat. Easy as.
Without wanting to sound like a meme, one does not simply beat the Storm. Melbourne have spent so much time being at the top of the competition they’ll have missed as many preliminary finals in the last ten years as the Raiders have made. This is not new to them.
Like silver linings around the death star Canberra have happily proved capable of being a thorn in the Storm side recently. They beat them twice last year, both times in dramatic circumstances and once in the qualifying final. They dropped them like hot pies upon resumption of the competition back in those heady days of May, and then held fast with them in the game they led until Josh Hodgson tore his ACL
and I cried and people gave up on the Milk.
Lord of the Rings and Star Wars metaphors! How original. Please send all suggestions for remotely interesting metaphors to firstname.lastname@example.org or via facebook messenger.
The Raiders are outsiders again this week, by a similar margin to last week. So do they borrow the same platform again?
Don’t Lose the Middle
The Raiders middle forwards spanked the pants off the Roosters last week, particularly in the early going. Papalii, Tapine, Young and Bateman were incredible, and you can include Charnze in that for the sheer volume of work he did around the ruck. The poor contact in defence from the Roosters made this possible, and it simply won’t be repeated by the Storm this week. That doesn’t mean that the Raiders can’t win like this, but they just need to be prepared for a bigger battle than last week.
An additional challenge to this will be that the second rotation will face a near impossible task of holding Brandon Smith, Tino Faasuamelaui and whoever out of Dale Finucane and Nelson Asofa-Solomona doesn’t start. Last week Crichton and Sonny-Bill Williams came off the bench and were the Roosters most effective forwards. The Raiders rotation will need to stand up. More minutes for the first string is unlikely to be an option – Joe Tapine has already mentioned how gassed he was at the end of last week. Lui, Soliola and potentially Havili simply must hold the fort.
Win the set restarts
A strength of the Raiders in the last few years has always been the yardage work of their back three. Against the Roosters they put work in, winning so much of the contact early in sets coming off their own line. Cotric (142m) and Valemei (163m) were both impossible to bring down – Cotric had six tackle breaks and never (that I remember) got to carry the ball in anything other than yardage. It was dominant. Not only did it mean the Raiders never got stuck in their own 30, but it even lead to points, such as the Williams try which began with a Valemei kick return, a Cotric yardage carry, and then Nicoll-Klokstad feeding Papalii into a broken line. A couple of passes later and George Williams was careening into the goal post and scoring. Repeating this will be a big part of competing with the Storm.
Attack the edges
We’ve made a lot about the comparative advantage the Raiders have over the other three sides left in the competition. Jack and George each have an unusual style of second-rower sitting on their shoulder. The unconventional nature of these players opens up a range of options that teams aren’t used to seeing. (For more detail read this again. It has lots of moving pictures).
If there is a potential weakness in the Storm defensive line it has to be the edges. On their left, Cameron Munster injured knee must be tested laterally early. This means the Raiders right-side attack, largely absent in recent weeks must play a bigger role. That means more ball in Johnny B’s hands early, to make Munster make tackles, decisions, and prove he’s fit enough to be there.
On the other side, the Milk’s most slick attack will get a chance to operate. Only twice last week did they set up any of their set plays (the lovely little wrap-around). On one occasion Wighton took on the line, and on the other Whitehead took it himself. I’ll be interested to see if they buildon this with the Storm. But more importantly, Jack’s willingness to trust Smelly and Toots to make decisions on the last will be of great use this year. Beating the Storm means you either have to be perfect in execution, or play unstructured footy. Why not get you a couple of footy players happy doing both?
Look this list isn’t exhaustive, nor would I pretend that doing these things will guarantee victory. You can have all the good set starts you want but if you drop the ball a ton you’ll probably still lose. As an experienced observer of several preliminary finals, I can tell you weird things happen in these games, so I guess be prepared for anything. But this game is within Canberra’s grasp. I hope they take it.
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