Raiders Rumble! Round One v Cowboys Preview


Welcome back, and I’d like if we could all get together and promise not to panic.

The Raiders are in Townsville for round one this weekend. It will approximately 300 degrees and 4000 per cent humidity. The game will, for what I presume are reasons related to it taking three days and a fast horse to travel to North Queensland, be played in the day-light. Canberra enter the season with injuries, change, and poor trial form, and will now travel from Valhalla to Helheim to try and prove that Sticky was just foxing this whole time. I hope.

If it feels like it’s a stretch that’s because it is. Trial form and team-list change isn’t a determining factor in how the Milk will go come Saturday, but it’s the only data we have at the moment. This makes me a sad panda, because none of what we’ve seen has been particularly good. The jury is out as to whether some of Stuart’s more controversial team changes will work; nothing in the trials gave us an indication either way.

Starting the season with a win would be ideal. The last time the Raiders made the finals after losing the first week was over a decade ago. But there’s been plenty of examples of a slow start not being the end of everything. Shit, once upon a time it was a speciality of the region. Call it Cuvee d’apathy. Slow starts are just good excuses for fast endings. Right?

*breathes into handily close brown paper bag*

Team list thoughts

All Canberra eyes have been focused on the 1, 9 and 13 selections, only for the late rumour of injury to Josh Papalii to trump them all. If the Raiders have trouble competing with the Cows middle with Big Papa, it’s going to be quite a test without him. Pasami Saulo takes his place in the starting lineup, with Ata Mariota another relative newcomer on the bench. Mariota’s similarity in physique and style to Papalii has been remarked upon. Let’s hope he has a similar impact.

Corey Harawira-Naera has been given the spot at 13. We had thought that might go to the Red Horse first, allowing Harawira-Naera to fill in at 13 (or 12) off the bench. It screams a smokescreen that will either lead to, or start with, Smelly shifting to the middle. Horsburgh is on the bench with Emre and Ata, which is quite a large pack. They’ll need everyone to play big minutes in this heat.

Danny Levi is now the chosen one at hooker, and it seems in a summer he’s become Sticky’s ride or die. Just 12 months ago Stuart was pushing out Josh Hodgson. How far we’ve come. I hope Stuart’s new love has a similar impact to Hodgson when he joined the club from the Super League in 2015. A man can dream. Partnering him in hooking duties is Tom Starling, which is lucky for him and unlucky for Zac Woolford. Danny and Tommy is a bit same-same for me, but perhaps Levi has added more to his bow while he’s been overseas.

At fullback is Seb Kris, which frankly is not something I ever thought I’d write. He’s there because Xavier Savage is injured, because Canberra’s development projects haven’t made enough progress (apparently), and because Jordan Rapana pulled a Roger Murtaugh. It’s hard to know how Seb will go. He doesn’t seem to have the pace or the creativity to be a long-term one. I assume he’ll have better kick positioning than Savage, and be a decent goal-line defender, but I’m not sure that will make up for a lack of athleticism. Whether or not he’s safe under the high ball will no doubt get a proper testing this weekend. It also means Harley Smith Shields gets a run in first grade, which is good. The kid has quite a future.


The Raiders have always had trouble with the massive Cowboys pack. Even when they haven’t been good, the Cows have Jason Taumalolo and other massive humans who can demolish a ruck at will. This is a test at the best of time; the fatigue brought by routinely having to chase the ruck usually results in metres, penalties or worse (in order of how likely they are to make you throw a remote, a tantrum, or up). The Raiders will be kicked into the corners, and the yardage work of backs will be so critical to ensure they’re not treading water in the corner. Add to that that they’ll be playing in a kiln (never get in the kiln!) and you can see why one might meet this game with a healthy dose of trepidation.

The other thing in this match up that terrifies me is Scott Drinkwater. Handling creative fullbacks who thrive as a ball-player on sweeping movements is a test of the organisation of defences. It requires each defender seeing their emergence, and reacting to key decisions in the same way. Drinkwater is a constant threat and his ability to take advantage of whatever the edge offers – be it through his nimble feet, or his beautiful cut-out passes – will have been a focus for defensive guru Madge Maguire. It’s doubly a concern because Canberra’s edge defence was atrocious in the trial games, and with Kris’ shift to the back, has added a degree of unfamiliarity to proceedings.

If the Raiders are to win one would think it’ll be through manufacturing an early lead, and then grinding a victory in the most defensively-oriented and ugly sense. An expansive attack-focused game will put their fatigue at risk more than the Cows. But Canberra can’t afford to be too simple – the defensive game plan of the Cows will be to try to physically overwhelm the Milk, jam the outside in and basically remove any space for Jack and others to play. If they play with no creativity around the ruck, and no ambition or variation on the edges, they’ll be playing right into the teeth of North Queensland’s defence. There’s a weakness in the Cows edge defence (see Hess, Coen). They should seek to exploit that at every opportunity. If they manage that, then comes the task of tackling their way to victory, with a healthy dose of intelligent kicking to ensure it’s the Cows, not the Milk who are dragging themselves out of the corner. Easy.


This year I’ve decided I’m doing real predictions.

Cows by 13+

Actually scratch that. Let me believe for another week.

Raiders by seven.

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