Round 14 sees teams 9 and 10 clash, and while they may be close on the ladder their immediate paths to this game are differing tales. The Raiders struggled against the Sea-Eagles in the first half last Sunday, only to mount a second half fight back before being denied the two points in extra time.
The Panthers meanwhile were firing on all cylinders, easily dismantling an insipid Bulldogs outfit 38-0. It’s the kind of score that the Raiders were putting on other teams in the back half of 2016.
The Raiders can’t afford another start like last weekend. Injury was added to insult when both Boyd and Lui were forced off with leg problems, with both looking at extended periods out of play.
The Raiders forwards depth is being sorely tested. It is not helped by the fact that the bench remains the biggest weakness in the side week in week out. It is most puzzling to see that Stuart is refusing to at least reinstate veteran Jeff Lima who could add some defensive starch off the pine.
The Raiders need to evolve, and they need to do it quick. Relying on referees to award penalties is not a consistent tactic, so the Green Machine need to be clearing space for themselves around the ruck as much as they can. Space is at a premium in the NRL at the moment, as the Panthers proved against the Dogs last weekend.
Between a Pack and a Hard Place
The Panthers forwards completely annihilated the Dogs engine room, and the Raiders forwards will definitely have their hands full containing such an energetic pack. While the likes of Paulo, Papa and Soliola remain key contributors, it really is way past time for the rest of the pack to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.
The reshuffle sees Sia taking up Boyd’s spot in the props, which should help with defensive consistency in the opening stanza. With Sia there, however, Bateman moves into lock, which means that Stuart will have to be very astute with where and when he subs his limited three-man bench.
Youngster Royce Hunt got the nod for his NRL debut this week, and he certainly has the height (180cm) and the weight (112kg) to make his presence felt. With the forward stocks feeling very undernourished in Canberra this year many will be hoping the Raiders have uncovered another gem.
One Panthers forward the Raiders must nullify is lock Trent Merrin – he ran for over 200 metres last round with 19 carries (avg 11.26m per carry).
It’s almost like the spine are taking turns at having a bad day at the office. The latest culprit is Sezer, who had what can only be described as a mixed bag against Manly.
Meanwhile, the rumblings around Baptiste’s imminent return continue, but we’re not so sure that this will help fix everything currently going wrong in the creative department.
One solution would simply be the benching of Austin when Clydsdale/Baptiste takes the field. Having Hodgson/Sezer/Austin and either Clydsdale or Baptiste overthinks the ball player mix, while also starving the side of a forward.
The Panthers forwards laid it on against the Dogs, and the Raiders need to make sure they don’t fall for short passes on the line the way they did last round.
Put Your Back(s) Into It
We waxed lyrical about Rapana last week, and our status hasn’t changed – he remains the most influential of the Raiders back five in this period, dragging the grade average above what it truly is. His incisive run to score a 70 metre try from dummy half was epically easy in the way that only Rapana can do something. For a player that was somewhat fraught with injury in his first season with the Raiders he is now the most fearless back (and braver than some forwards) when it comes to putting his body on the line.
Mansour proved his worth in a solid return from injury, setting up a try and scoring one himself for Penrith. The Raiders fringe defenders will need to mark him closely, and be ready to knock him sideways if he dives for the corner.
I’ve never tipped against the Raiders (you guys don’t like it!) but it would be an understatement to say that they need to aim real high to overcome the Panthers. Still, stranger things have happened.
Raiders by 6!