The hits just keep on coming.
Another win, another crucial “out” and another top 8 team to contend with. The Raiders collect the complete set in taking on the Broncos this weekend. It completes a period where Canberra will have played five top eight teams in a row. That they will have won at least three is a phenomenal outcome, especially where they were when it started. Another victory would cement their standing as a top 8 side in everything but ladder position.
It’s probably as bigger a challenge as any they’ve faced in recent weeks. The Broncos have been a fairly stunning turnaround this year, and will only be stronger at home. Adam Reynolds has been a huge part of it, proving the old idea that sometimes not doing the wrong thing is as important as doing something spectacular. The young pack that has promised plenty over the years is suddenly delivering. This is all making life gravy for the talented outside backs, and the Broncos have been unleashed. They haven’t lost since round 6, and it feel like the team that was beaten by the Warriors no longer exists.
Canberra too have undergone a change in fortunes, but it feels less that things have been unleashed and more that a forceful will across the club has refused to allow the side to go south. There’s still limitations to this squad that can only be overcome with time and familiarity (and goddamnit a few weeks without key outs). Alas they are not afforded this luxury this week, or any other week in the future in all likelihood.
Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton are back (pending origin). Big Papa reforms the best 1-2 prop punch in the game with Joe Tapine, and they’ll need it given that Payne Haas will be fired up to prove he’s contrite about wanting to go to whoever was offering him a million plus to sabotage his way out the club. Jack gets to play with Jamal Fogarty for only the second time this season. They’ll be doing it with very little time on the training park together, which is just another cruel blow to a team desperate to build something greater in attack.
James Schiller is back in the top line, filling in for Jordan Rapana and his happy feet. It seems like he was chosen ahead of Semi Valemei, and I presume that was primarily because Adam Reynolds kicking to Semi was enough to give Sticky cold sweats. It was one of those decisions I could see the good in both sides (or more accurately, the abundance of risk) so let’s just hope Jimmy Thrills does a good job.
Corey Harawira-Naera returns on the bench and suddenly there’s a bench that makes a bit of sense. Perhaps forced by the knowledge that Papa probably can’t play 50 plus minutes (as he’s done semi regularly lately), Stick has done and put three middles on the bench, including one that can cover edge and even centre in a pinch. It’s the kind of bench that will be needed this weekend.
The Broncos have picked Ezra Mam in the halves with Reynolds which is annoyingly the right decision. Kurt Capewell isn’t playing, but I’ll wait for Saturday to believe that.
What we’ll be watching
In their purple patch, the Raiders have beaten teams with smaller packs: the Sharks, the Bunnies, and the Roosters (without Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Lindsay Collins). The team they couldn’t dominate in the middle was the strong pack of the Eels, and it resulted in an L. The Broncos have been powerful through the middle, so how Canberra handle such a big pack will be interesting. Is it just an old-fashioned “two rams trying to establish dominance” showdown or do the Milk try to move the opposition around? What they do, and how successful they are at it will be interesting in the context of what they do later in the year.
Tom Starling’s use in that context will also be interesting. He’s always best when the pack is dominant. If it’s not will he play even less minutes? He’s not come on until the second half two weeks in a row now, and it seems that Sticky is less deploying him as a change of pace and more to spell Woolford because he can’t play the full 80. Starling looked good to me in the second half against the Roosters. I’ll be watching his minutes closely.
One challenge will be how Canberra handle the Broncos kicking game and turn that into exit sets. Jimmy Thrills isn’t the strongest in yardage, and neither is Xavier Savage (noting his improvements recently in that area). I presume this means long kicks will go towards Nic Cotric, to make Savage and Thrills do the hard work. Reader Ian Downs points out that Seb Kris (and I’d add Matt Timoko) would be useful if they get back to help out. That can be a positional and fitness challenge on long kicks, but it might be necessary.
On shorter kicks it’ll be a massive trial across the back three. Cotric got jumped over by Joseph Suaalii last week, and gets the equally talented Selwyn Cobbo this week. Then on the other side rookie Jimbo Thrillho gets the 12-foot-tall veteran giraffe Corey Oates.
The other challenge is how Canberra go about points. We’ve noted in recent weeks they’ve more found points than made them. Improvement has been incremental and stilted. This week though the Broncos will be without Kurt Capewell (probably) and it might be an opportunity to take advantage. Get Matt Timoko the ball and let him cook!
How they win
Start fast. Billy Walters is not good, and the Broncos attack suffers every minute he’s on the field. Corey Paix is better, and Brisbane scores something like 104% of their points while he’s on the field. Given Walters is starting, it behooves the Milk to start fast and build from there.
Raiders win when Thrillbo Baggins, the unexpected hero, scores on the buzzer.
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