Holy shit, it’s the finals.
The Canberra Raiders, masquerading as Paul Rudd on Hot Ones, are back where they should be, but no one really thought they would be a month ago. Fortunes change quicker than the seasons it seems. In front of them is the hardest path to the promise land. They start with the Melbourne Storm, in front of a (nearly) packed house at AAMI Park.
Are Canberra in form? They’ve won seven of their eight games since the bye. They beat the Storm on the way, and put 104 points on the Sea-Eagles and the Tigers in the last two rounds. Over the same period their opposition has gone four and four, with a loss to the Raiders back in round 18. They played one of the best games of the season against the Roosters and still lost, and were less competitive than 22-14 suggests against the Eels.
Of course Melbourne have been very good from the get go this season, but struggled when injury came to bite them at the back end of the year. Notably Ryan Papenhuyzen remains out on account of his horribly shattered knee-cap, and there’s a strong feeling of before and after when it comes to the Storm’s play around the moment he did that (in case you don’t remember, it was in a straight on clash with Jack Wighton’s titanium bones).
The Storm will be worried about the Raiders this week. Not specifically because of anything they’d done on the field this season. Rather, Canberra offers historical trauma by way of a series of surprising victories, sometimes in big games. On top of this, the boys in green have absolutely zero to lose. It’s an awful place to be – knowing that if you win you’ll get know kudos, but if you’ll lose you’ll get heckled, doubly so for confirming their spot as the Milk’s bunny. Weird place for the Storm.
The only way to overcome these battles of expectation is to play with the same methodical execution that good team’s usually display. Normally you’d say the Storm are the best at that robot like repetition of smart footy. But lately it hasn’t quite felt that way. There not Canberra levels of inconsistency in games, but there’s enough chaos in there that a team like the Milk can find themselves with enough of a hole in the matrix to squeeze themselves through.
So it might be hope to think the Raiders will win, but it’s not hopeless.
Raiders are as expected. Jack Wighton comes back for Matt Frawley, Elliott Whitehead returns too, with Corey Harawira-Naera shifting back to the bench and Albert Hopoate to 18th man.
The Storm squad is also as strong as it’s been recently. Felise Kaufusi is back where he belongs on the right edge. Harry Grant is named to start, with Brandon Smith on the bench. There’s a question mark over Jerome Hughes, who terrorised the Raiders last time out (though borked two tries that could have changed the game). I assume he’ll be there on Saturday night.
What We’ll Be Watching
We mentioned this in our piece earlier in the week. Canberra are a rare team that can match the Storm in the middle, and not let them use their size to dominate field position, and create the broken defensive lines that Cam Munster can tear to shreds. Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii, Adam Elliott and Corey Horsburgh are all arguably in good form at the moment, and Emre Guler has probably had the best two weeks of his career the last two. Corey Harawira-Naera can fill either middle or edge, and Hudson Young sometimes does that within the one set. Elliott Whitehead isn’t the smelly of old, but he knows how to find his belly when he takes a hit up. None are afraid of contact in defence.
We also pointed out that to win the Milk would need to settle their right side defence. In their win against the Storm earlier in the year Whitehead was out, and the opening twenty minutes was chaos down that edge. Elliott isn’t the player he once was, but he’s still the most reliable defensive option the Canberra has to fill that spot. Jamal Fogarty does his job one-on-one, but it’s about what helps he gets, particularly because at some point either Nelson Asofa-Solomona coming inside-out, or Justin Olam going outside-in, is going to test him. That Olam run is particularly worrying given how Whitehead has been between a few times this year by anything stepping inside off the straight line. Harawira-Naera presents the opposite problem – he often is unwilling or unable to help inside-out, putting inexorable pressure on Fogarty to fix problems himself. If the Raiders win, maybe this side isn’t water tight, but they do enough to keep the Storm honest.
Of course Canberra needs points and the middle can’t do it all. Last time out against the Storm the Raiders showed for the first time all season that they were in fact capable of shifting the ball right. Since then the Milk have been far more capable – though not actually good – at shifting there, finding more opportunities to get people like Harawira-Naera, Xavier Savage, and Matt Timoko moving in motion. Against the Tigers there were moments that the right side looked down right fast (though, you know, Tigers). I hope there will be more of this.
How the Raiders win
We’ve laid out the plan above but against the Storm Raiders victories always come with a side of amazing. BJ’s flick pass, Papa’s barnstormer, George Williams’ harbour-bridge pass, James Schiller’s brilliance. You get it. Big moments matter, and in finals games the big moments come thick and fast.
One final thing. God bless all Raiders fans, but particularly those in the ground on Saturday night. Your boy can’t be there (Happy 40th [redacted]), but please make sure the players know you’re there. Part of the secret sauce of the Raiders in Melbourne is the noise made by the green army.
Oh yeah. One more thing.
Raiders to win.
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