The Next Boss

BY DAN

Winning in the NRL finals is just like an old school video game. Beating a ‘boss’ doesn’t spell the end of the journey. In fact, the road just gets harder as you level up. Victory’s reward is a bigger challenge.

Raiders are moving on to a new boss this week, facing their partner-in-time (without a premiership), the Parramatta Eels. To paraphrase the immortal Zaza Pachulia, there’s nothing easy left. After making what most teams find the hardest road trip in the competition look pretty flippin’ easy (never take this for granted – winning in Melbourne is the nectar of the gods and we are lucky to have tasted it so many times) they now get to head to what is another of the toughest places for away teams to win – the Western Sydney Stadium. They’ll be doing it – yet again – with a shorter turnaround than their opposition. This is unavoidable given the Eels played on Friday, and you can’t ask the Bunnies to turnaround against the Sharks on five days rest. Still *grumbles in the general direction of NRL HQ*.

Killer road trips are going to have to be something the team embraces. The winner of Canberra v Parramatta on Friday night will be forced to head to Townsville for a preliminary final in what will be likely 25 plus degrees heat with 70 plus per cent humidity. The Cows have apparently never lost a home final and it’s probably fair to assume the late September weather in North Queensland has played a role.

But that’s a step ahead of where Canberra will be this week. Winning against Parramatta will be very tough. The Eels have been weirdly up-and-down this year, often playing down (and up) to their competition. The Raiders will be familiar with that. Before last Friday I thought the Eels were the team best placed to beat the Panthers. That was proven if not wrong, at least depressingly accurate – we might all be chasing our tails a la the 2017 also-rans watching the Storm light up the competition. The Eels lost because the same thing happens to them that has happened to the Milk every time they’ve played the Panthers since 2019. They got worn down by a team who uses its ferocious defensive energy and precision kicking game to push you back and ask you to constantly be perfect. Teams break. That’s why the Eels were in it for about fifty minutes before it got messy.

That’s all to say assuming the Eels are ready to go out in straight sets – again – just because the Panthers wore them out, is a fools errand. I still think this is the second best team in the competition, but at the moment it’s more like leading the peloton trying to chase down the Panthers. This is a very good football team that will be desperate to play in a preliminary final for the first time since 2009 (I assume? That sounds right to me). They will be rested. They will be willing. There’s no worry here about them ‘taking a game off’ as they had been criticised of doing during the season. The team that walks out of CommWestBank stadium will have earned it.

The Green Machine’s recent history with the Eels is much different to the Storm. Instead of a weird vibe of having a team’s measure, these games have always been tussles, particularly when playing ‘away’, and some of their most frustrating losses have been against the Eels. Earlier this year they lead at half time before only scoring two points in the second half and losing. Last year they won on the Rapa hip-check late in the year, but they lost earlier when their finals hopes were still alive in a game that begat the Hodgson/Sticky situation. The year before they lost in golden point at Parra. It’s been since 2017 since they won against Parramatta outside of Canberra (and that was at the cavernous and catatonic ANZ stadium).

This is partly because the Eels and the Raiders have similar make-ups. I don’t mean in the “I was this old/not born when we last a premiership” vibes. Rather their teams are build similarly. Big packs that can win a game by physically over-powering their enemy. At their best the Eels win the middle, then give the ball to talented edge players – in particularly Dylan Brown and Shaun Lane will be a lot of trouble for Canberra’s sometimes flimsy right-edge defence – and voila. Winning football. The major difference between them and the Milk is a penchant for pushing wider early; a tendency to get over-excited by just how much talent they have outside the pack. I doubt they’ll be so loose. Finals just don’t work like that.

Both sides have some pretty big question marks. Adam Elliott will be probably be out for the Milk with some sort of pelvis fracture (yet to be confirmed), which will leave a hole at 13 that Corey Harawira-Naera will have to fill. He’s the best mix of power and pace to give the middle a bit of variety. It’s a newish role for Corey. He’s fully capable of it, and has played it before for Canberra (and his previous teams). But it’s not one we’ve given him often. He’ll be available to shift to the right edge for minutes to spell Smelly, or to allow the use of three bigs, should it be needed. And given how little he’s been used this year, he should be fresh for the battle.

Mitchell Moses will undergo concussion protocols stuff and likely be right to play. If he doesn’t Jake Arthur will probably less overawed against the Milk than he was in his short stint against the Panthers. Of course the actual question mark for the Eels will be Waqa Blake and catching bombs. When they beat Canberra earlier in the year Bailey Simonsson was in that spot, and as we all know he’s quite handy at that job. Blake entered Richie Tennenbaum territory against the Panthers. I doubt he’ll be as bad again but the mind is a funny thing.

And that’s the test. This weakness is obvious but there’s others. If there’s one lesson that can come from their victory over the Storm it’s that confidence in your game plan, and your ability to win big moments, will go a long way. Working out where, and how to target your opposition is a big part of that. It sounds simple and it’s obviously not. But there’s opportunity there if you can find it.

Every boss has a weakness after all.

I slept four hours last night and feel that unique kind of crud that comes with too much alcohol and not enogh sleep but not an actual hangover. Do me a favour and like the page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or share this on social media. Don’t hesitate to send us feedback (dan@sportress.org) or comment below if you think we are stupid. Or if we’re not.

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