It’s normally the haven of the damned. A time when inauspicious seasons can be righted by the taxation of talent for Wednesday nights’ benefit. After dragging their season back from the edge of hell recently, Canberra would have been looking to take advantage of some decimated footy teams through the origin period, while keeping their losses to a familiar minimum.
It hasn’t quite panned out that way. Their opposition this week isn’t as heavy in Origin representation as they may have been in recent years. James Tedesco is there of course, but then it’s only Daniel Tupou and Lindsay Collins. Compare that to the Raiders losing Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii and I’d argue that the Milk have lost more from their core than the Roosters have. What a world.
Unfortunately for the good guys, the Sombreros are starting to round into some form as well after a slow start. Since their nadir five weeks ago (a confusing loss to the Bulldogs), they’ve thumped the Titans, beaten the Eels and the Sharks, and only managed a loss to the red-hot Panthers. What’s worse is that in that time they’ve found what was lost early in the season – a bit of old fashioned go forward. Last week everyone in the starting pack (minus the hooker) cracked 100 metres. Give Keary, Teddy and Manu an inch of space and chaos will reign.
Replacing Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii feels a thankless task. Who better to take it on than Matt Frawley and Corey Horsburgh. Frawley is a solid and unspectacular player who’s good performances are met with relief rather than excitement. I suspect he’s been picked because he’s left side dominant, which will please him.
Poor Red Horse somehow always makes the more glaring of errors, dissipating the goodwill that should be built from his very good season (and last month in particular). Last week it was a kick when he didn’t hear the six again call. The Eels scored on the next set and suddenly a million angry eyes pointed towards the most inconspicuous man on the field. He’ll do a good job filling Papalii’s early minutes, and his ability to offload is probably only bettered by Josh in the squad. I’ll be interested to see how he lasts in bigger minutes. He always has a really high work-rate. Is that sustainable over a longer shift? Time will tell.
At the back end of the bench we get Trey Mooney’s debut. He’s surprisingly mobile for his size, and hopefully gets through a full rotation as a middle forward. By body and style he’s a lock, but he’s played plenty on the edge in NSW Cup this year. I have assumed this is about risk management for the roster and diversifying his skill base (and getting minutes into his legs). It’s not a position that suits him though.
Corey Harawira-Naera returns from exile, and will presumably get through some minutes in the middle too. He’ll need to be effective in that role, because the middle forty minutes of the game is a long time for Ryan Sutton to carry the load. Adam Elliott is at 13 in the starting line-up, which is funny because I thought Sticky might load him into a catapult out of the squad, but he’s still there. Its a testament to how the season has turned around. No time for grudges when finals are still an option.
It’s noteworthy too that the Raiders won’t be carrying a utility back for the first time in a long time. Harawira-Naera will likely be the person that covers out to centre if such a change is needed.
What we’ll be watching
Beating the Roosters starts with beating them in the middle. If the Roosters can’t get any go forward, there’s just no space for Keary et all to work, and they become somewhat manageable. The Raiders are a little less prepared to do that than they otherwise would be. Can Joe Tapine continue his second career year in the last three? He’s already clocking 150m on the ground (on average) and looks like he has more minutes in his legs most weeks. It’ll be harder without his partner in crime, and it will be on the rest of the middle to make his job a bit easier.
We wrote earlier this week about the pressure being put on Jamal Fogarty to make a team without any continuity in key combinations function. It’s a hefty responsibility. He’s only just working his knee back into contact, and now he’ll be asked to make an offence work with unfamiliar faces around him. Frawley, Woolford and Savage were not part of genuine spine considerations when Fogarty was building a relationship on the right edge with Adam Elliott in the preseason. It’s a tough gig.
One thing we’ll definitely be watching is how the Raiders manage to keep Joey Manu in check. Manu seems to save his best for Canberra. If the Roosters win, it will be because at some point Manu embarrassed the Milk.
How we win
The good news about playing the Roosters is that the way you beat them is coincidently the same way the Raiders have been playing. Keep him stuck in the middle, don’t give the edges any space to run, and hope that they’re still not quite fluid in their shifts. I suspect the Milk can do the defensive side of this, but how do they find their own points? Maybe Joe Taps scoots around the entire Roosters team like he did in the 2020 semi final. Maybe Xavier Savage finds his feet as a creator. Maybe Zac Woolford asks some questions. To be honest I don’t have many answers. I’m sure it will be fine though.
Raiders on a Jordy field goal.
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