With Origin now essentially a mere scheduling quandary the NRL starts the final leg of the regular season. Or at least as regular as it can be with half the country in lockdown. For the NRL there is an added complication in the form of ‘Rona baby, and for this round it means a return to stadium restrictions, minimal support staff and players under strict lockdown protocols. With several Sydney based players already in breach of said protocols and Cowboys coach Payten isolating you’d be forgiven for being a bit worried about, you know, everything.
Despite all this the Raiders still have a game to play, against the equally struggling Titans. Both teams have failed to live up to their preseason expectations and a loss now will only drive them further down the ladder. The Giants have arguably more to lose – in thirteenth spot they’re not as based as the Broncos and Bulldogs but they’d probably prefer to not be scrambling to avoid the spoon come round 26.
But it’s not like the Raiders have been in sparkling form either. They’re basically two wins from heaven and hell, and it’s been months now since they put together their last convincing performance, coincidentally against the Chargers back in round 4. That night they held the Seagulls to just six points, with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad bringing love and joy to all except the multiple Gladiators whose tries got taken away from them by the Kiwi heartthrob.
This game will be a battle of the middles. If the Green Machine can mix it up in the same way as they did with Broncos and the Dragons it will go a long way to winning. Unfortunately that means corralling Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Moeaiki Fotuaika, who will likely be looking to take out their embarrassment from last Sunday on the Milk. Moving these guys plenty in defence will be important, and so Josh Hodgson’s role will likely be large in this game.
But that doesn’t mean the Raiders can’t play with width. For all of David Fifta’s ferociousness in attack, he can be found out in defence, and with Corey Harawira-Naera in tremendous form, it will be a big opportunity to let the big man play some footy.
BIG BOPPER WATCH
Fifita v Corey, and Seb, and Sam
The Raiders will be fighting to Titans in the middle and that’ll be a massive battle. But anytime the Seagulls aren’t travelling well they’ll shift the ball to get David Fifita running directly at the 100 game legend of Cooma, Samuel “footy” Williams. Sam can do anything, but Fifita does present a challenge. Harawira-Naera can tire Fifita in attack, but in defence he’ll need to be at his helpful best to ensure Fifita can’t just hit Sam and offload or worse. Seb will have a role here too as he shifts to the right to accomodate the return of Jarrod Croker.
Jack v Jamal
It’s been a weird few weeks for Jack. In attack he’s been really content to play sideways, shifting responsibility for ball playing to Bailey Simonsson and Elliott Whitehead. When the left has tried to run something structured, it’s lacked and pace and fluidity. Jarrod Croker returns, and that gives Jack another set of creative hands to push the ball wide too, and perhaps a bit more fluidity to the structured play. Here’s hoping Jack can also straighten a bit.
Last time around Canberra focused their attack on Jamal Fogarty’s lack of sideways agility (potentially caused by an injury). I’ll be interested to see if they try that again.
BACK IT UP
Brimson v Bailey
Bailey has had a good start to his time at fullback, and here another test for him. Ash Taylor will test out his positioning with grubbers and the big boys will test his willingness at the line when he slots in at A defender. In attack they’ll be plenty of support work to do through the middle, but I’d like to see him operating on the right too, aiding the Milk to target Fifita in defence.
Brimson is the kind of fullback who can turn yardage and kick returns into a weapon. The Raiders shouldn’t kick near him.
BENCHMARK TO BEAT
Tom Starling v Mitch Rein and Jayden Campbell
To borrow a vulgar idiom, Canberra really need to sh!t or get off the pot when it comes to Starling. He can be used, both as a sub or in support of Josh Hodgson (Dan outlined as much here). They can’t afford to carry a bench player they barely use.
The Giants bench is kinda tiny. They too are carrying a hooker (Mitch Rein), though they tend to use him more than the Milk use Starling. Jayden Campbell is small but spicy, and he’ll add agility and pace to whatever the Chargers have him do. Just how he fits in a side with Brimson will be interesting to see.
THE FINAL SIREN
I guess…ah… *squints* …. the Raiders win? By…a Sia Soliola field goal. That’ll do. Seems legit.