Hanging on by the slimmest of threads, the Canberra Raiders travel to the chaos that is Newcastle.
Newy are having a rough time. Kalyn Ponga is injured, evidently hurting so bad he needs help to go to the loo. He’s now been joined on the sidelines by frequent Raiders’ tormentor Brandon Best, and Enari Tuala, for violating team rules. Amongst all this the Knights have suspended, and then apologised to David Klemmer for him
trying to get out of his contract behaving poorly in a work environment, and only managed victories over the Tigers and the Titans in recent times. Their attack has looked so pedestrian that Canberra’s has looked dynamic in comparison. Their effort level has been so poor that Anthony Milford has consistently been leading them for intensity.
Canberra, on the other hand, desperately need to win to keep their hopes alive. The mathematical dream can stay real with a victory, but it dies with a loss. Winning big would be very helpful, and if the Milk put together some improvement to the for and against, it could increase the miniscule margin for error. Everything comes down to giving an 80 minute performance against a team that can barely manage to get on a bus now without incident.
So, of course, you should be very, very nervous.
There’s been little change for the Milk. Importantly prop forward extraordinaire Joseph Tapine returns, and hopefully he’s recovered as much as is possible from his rib injury. Given that he’ll likely be playing through pain and painkillers, I’d be surprised if we get all 100 per cent of Taps, but even 80 per cent would make him the best Raider middle at the moment.
What’s a bit confusing is that this has moved Emre Guler to the bench and Ryan Sutton off it. I presume this has been done with an eye to next year, because Sutton vastly outperformed Guler last week. Corey Horsburgh is on the bench with him. Given how sick he was, it was great to see his output last week. Here’s hoping he can up it again this week.
Nic Cotric also returns for Albert Hopoate. This is to be expected, but I’m a little surprised Albert didn’t get the usual “utility back” spot, instead becoming the 18th man.
Does it matter who’s playing for the Knights? A weakened side is probably more of an obstacle for the Milk. As it is, David Klemmer returns. There’s plenty of big names, and that makes this team hard to get a gauge on.
What we’ll be watching
Can the Raiders muster a redzone attack that doesn’t resemble a three-toed sloth crawling through mud? Is it possible for the ball to get wider than the second-rower on a shift play? Is it plausible to run a shift without three settling crash balls first? We won’t know, but far out it’d be nice if the brains trust could work it out. The Knights are two points off the worst defence in the league, and last time the Milk played them they only won because Hudson Young saved the day. Manly and the Roosters put 40 on them. The Dogs put on 24 points in the first 45 minutes then went to sleep. We could say the Milk should find a heap of points, but at this stage that feels too hopeful.
The Knights concede most of their points down their left (or Raiders right). That should mean lots of Matt Timoko and Xavier Savage working together out wide. Should is probably an important word there, because it’s not something they’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to do recently. When either does get some space, they can really punish a team. But how do they get space? Better service from 9 and a bigger threat from the back-rowers line is important, but perhaps a bit more willingness to take a risk or two would be appropriate.
I’d like to see Jack Wighton get the ball in a bit of space to test the edge of the Knights defence with more than just his run. Jack running at the line is always a good option, but it sometimes feels like something that is done when the Milk run out of ideas, rather than as part of a variety and mixture in attack. Continuing to trust Savage as a second-man out the back would be good to see too.
Newy have struggled to score points up to this point of the season (their attack averages an anaemic 15 points a game). What they do muster comes attacking the right. Last week Fogarty and Timoko did well working with the second-row rotation to keep their opposition out. To say the challenge is less this week is accurate, but is no guarantee for the Milk.
How the Raiders win
In reality, the attack from the Knights will be predicated on what damage the array of New South Wales forwards does to the Milk’s middle. The big boys for the Raiders were impressive in defence last week (at least, outside of the goal-line). If they do something approximating that again it’ll go a long way to shutting the Knights down.
If they can win the middle they’ll likely find a way to score some points. But let’s be real. The Raiders have done that at some point in every game they’ve played. It’s about doing that a lot, preferably for the vast majority of the game. Then, when it looks like the game is won, putting their proverbial foot on the opposition throat and running up the score, rather than putting out a picnic rug and inviting the opposition for some cheese. One day they might just do it.
Ok, let’s be realistic. Let’s just make sure we win. This weekend is about maintaining hope and staying alive. It may be the last week we get to have it.
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