The Canberra Raiders will be looking to make a better fist of their second finals chance when they host the in-form Penrith Panthers at GIO Stadium on Saturday night.
The home side will be hoping that Josh Hodgson makes a remarkable recovery after the hooker went down following some friendly fire from halfback Aiden Sezer resulting in damage to ligaments in his ankle.
The Englishman is at long odds to be ready for the clash. They will also have their fingers crossed for the return of Blake Austin, who has missed a number of games after breaking his hand at training.
Both players have been named in the Canberra line up, with Sam Williams making way for Austin if he is proven to be fit.
The Panthers have named an unchanged line from the one that dominated the Bulldogs on Sunday as they look to extend on a six match winning run.
LAST TIME OUT
The two sides started their season facing each other at GIO Stadium in round one, and one of the side’s seasons will end in the same place. On that occasion, the Raiders took the points in a tight but high scoring affair with the final score line reading 30-22 to the Canberra team.
The Panthers gained revenge for the loss in round nine in Bathurst when a Peter Wallace field goal on the stroke of full time gave the mountain men a 19-18 victory, despite the Green machine coming home strongly.
Aiden Sezer vs Nathan Cleary
Both clubs have two young gun halfbacks who are experiencing Finals football for the first time. They both experienced differing fortunes in the first week of the finals with Cleary being a part of a big win, while Sezer suffered heart break.
In the absence of Austin, Sezer has had some pressure relieved with temporary partner Sam Williams taking on much of the kicking duties. These will fall back to Sezer now, with Austin much more of a running half (assuming he does recover from injury as expected). Expect Sezer to do a lot more organising this week.
For Cleary, he will look to continue his meteoric rise and just keep the nerves controlled in order to lead the Panthers around the park successfully. He is already the organiser of the side which allows Blake Cartwright to play his natural power game and like Austin, run the football to keep the opposition defence forward out of the line.
Jack Wighton vs Matt Moylan
Jack Wighton had to fight a judiciary charge in order to play last week and will have enjoyed a smoother preparation coming in to this week’s match with Penrith. This should have the Canberra fullback primed for a big game.
In last week’s clash with the Sharks Wighton managed 158m for his side as well as one line break. He did however look shaky under the high ball, with a number of bobbles from bombs, however he took them securely in the end. Penrith may look to take advantage of this uncertainty and should try to put plenty of pressure on the Raider’s number one as he takes the high balls.
Wighton’s opposite number in Moylan was phenomenal against the Dogs highlighted by two try assists and 142 running metres. He did however, drop one kick under no pressure in the first half and it is worth noting that he stopped attacking the football for the rest of that half following the mistake. While he has all the skills at his disposal, Canberra will know that if they can force him into his shell they will go a long way to shutting down Penrith’s attack.
Both fullbacks have the ability to turn the game towards their respective teams so winning the battle against the opposite number one is essential to winning the war.
The game should be an exciting affair with both sides known for their attacking styles of play. There is some rain forecast ahead of the clash so this may stifle the side’s flowing attack. Statistic wise, the two clubs have similar defensive abilities with Canberra having had 472 points scored against them in 2016 so far, while the Panthers have conceded 475 points.
In the end it may come down to the ankle of Josh Hodgson. The Canberra side looked rudderless without their premier hooker in the second half last week and will struggle again if he can’t recover in time. If he makes it to the game watch out Panthers, as the Englishman oozes class.
The potential loss of Hodgson is offset somewhat by the return of Austin who will boost the Canberra attack, however the loss around the ruck will be hard to counter.
If the ruck battle is lost by the home side, Penrith will go a long way to continuing their march onwards. Michael Liccha struggled in the hooking role last week against Penrith and it allowed them to control the match. It highlights the importance of Hodgson to this clash.
Penrith by 8
Raiders: 1 Jack Wighton 2 Edrick Lee 3 Jarrod Croker (c) 4 Joseph Leilua 5 Jordan Rapana 6 Blake Austin 7 Aidan Sezer 8 Junior Paulo 9 Josh Hodgson 10 Shannon Boyd 11 Josh Papalii 12 Elliot Whitehead 13 Iosia Soliola Interchange: 14 Kurt Baptiste 15 Luke Bateman 16 Clay Priest 17 Joseph Tapine
Panthers: 1 Matthew Moylan (c) 2 Joshua Mansour 3 Waqa Blake 4 Tyrone Peachey 5 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6 Bryce Cartwright 7 Nathan Cleary 8 Leilani Latu 9 Peter Wallace 10 Suaia Matagi 11 Isaah Yeo 12 James Fisher-Harris 13 Trent Merrin Interchange: 14 Sitaleki Akauola 15 Jeremy Latimore 16 Christopher Grevsmuhl 17 Zak Hardaker 20 Moses Leota