The Canberra Raiders need to beat the Penrith Panthers this weekend.
Not because they can’t make the finals if they lose. They could and just might. But this is more about proving they’re serious. Over the last three weeks they’ve brought themselves back into the finals race by beating a good team mid plummet, and then two terrible teams with nowhere further to fall.
In two of those games they played mixed footy. Against the Warriors good and evil Canberra was split by halftime. Against the Titans it was patchier that a teacher’s leather blazer. They didn’t ruin two perfectly good games, but they did make them harder than they needed to be. The search for eighty minutes of good footy remains elusive. I think I wrote that last week, but it speaks to the ongoing nature of this pursuit. They got by rubbish teams by playing periodically good footy.
They won’t be able to do that this week. Penrith, even without their lead choreographer Nathan Clearly, will play disciplined intelligent footy. They’ll defend, and they won’t do all the things Canberra so often does to make life more accommodating for their opposition. Jerome Luai is out too (RIP my NRLCEO team), and it means the Milk are facing a Penrith team as weak as it’s been in a hot minute. But you don’t get the best defence in the competition by relying on Jerome Luai to make tackles. It’s systems and fitness and technique. Simply, Canberra won’t be able to walk it in (that’s the problem with Arsenal).
The Raiders have a made a solitary change, bringing back Jordan Rapana, who presumably is quite cranky at missing the last few games and is ready to palm the opposition into submission.
Emre Guler retains his spot ahead of Corey Horsburgh, which makes sense to me. Emre has been really good in his return (better in the Storm and Warriors games than against the Titans), and Corey is returning from pneumonia. As we wrote last week it’ll be a while before his fitness is up to scratch. I’d be surprised if we see him in the top level for a few weeks yet.
Apart from the aforementioned ‘outs’ of Cleary and Luai, the Panthers will have Stephen Crichton returning from being Tysoned. He’ll wear headgear
because he wants to be as cool as Jarrod Croker to protect his ears.
What we’ll be watching
Without Clearly and Luai there will be a bigger emphasis on other key places in the Panthers attack. Anyone that watched Canberra last week will be looking at Viliame Kikau, and at Canberra’s right edge defence, and reaching for the calming whisky. Jamal Fogarty did a lot of good work when isolated against big runners last week, but this is a bigger problem. In particular, watch for Kikau coming back on the angle to test just how agile Elliott Whitehead is, and how committed the middle defence is to supporting him by pushing out.
Isaah Yeoh will be a key creator in the middle that will test the agility of the Milk’s middle defence, and take plenty of the organisational weight off Sean O’Sullivan and *checks notes* Jaemon Salmon (cool name). The middle needs to make sure his decision-tree of run/pass has to happen in tight time-frames.
Over the last few weeks Fogarty and Jack Wighton have begun to look increasingly functional. What’s been less fun but more rewarding has been both of these players pushing the Raiders towards something approximating smart footy. Both have found repeat sets, or kicks to corners, right when the moment demanded it. It’s been unfamiliar, but welcome. Can they keep it up?
I’m also curious if what we’ve seen the last two weeks is how Stuart plans to use Corey Harawira-Naera. He’s come on for the last 25-30 minutes of the game. Against the Warriors he was dominant. Against the Titans he wasn’t as good (actually he was terrible). It seems to be the way with Corey. Here’s a crazy thought. The dominance of the Panthers is built from a pack that hounds their opposition. They’re quicker, fitter and more aggressive. Could the Raiders use Harawira-Naera earlier in the game, either to spell a middle for a change of pace, or to allow Whitehead to do the same?
How the Raiders can win
It’s overly simplistic, but maybe do the good stuff they do more often? Is that too much to ask?
But seriously, they need to keep Yeoh and Fisher-Harris in check, and hope the right edge can keep Kikau out. After that it’s about hoping the improvements in attack of the last few weeks are real. And then, maybe, hopefully, play smart when the game is to be won. They’ve done it in parts and they’ve done it in patches. Now they need to do it all.
Canberra by one after a Jack Wighton two-point field goal.
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