The Raiders host the Dragons this Friday in Canberra, a game headlined by two sides looking to move out of a slump in form. Both sides come off a bye, and enter the game with near-full strength squads.
Last Time Out:
The Raiders hosted the Cowboys in round 17, coming off a tough loss against the Broncos and looking to, for a countless number of times it seems in 2017, get their season back on track. Against a thin Cowboys side, it couldn’t have been any easier to get a solid result. The Raiders were dismantled in a game that was dominated by Cowboys half Michael Morgan, who scored two tries while assisting in two others. Canberra struck first in the best possible way with Elliot Whitehead retrieving a pinpoint Blake Austin grubber, giving the Raiders a 6-0 lead after just 4 minutes. From there though the Cowboys began to play like a true premiership contender, and finally grabbing a bulk of the possession were able to create opportunities through their star man Michael Morgan. Their first try came off a Morgan pass to Te Maire Martin in the 13th minute. The Raiders looked to get back into the game with a shift in momentum, but that was quickly isolated as Morgan on the ensuing set for the Cowboys set up Antonio Winterstein to give the Cowboys a 12-6 lead after half an hour. The Raiders looked to change the course of the game at the start of the second half, with good passing opening up the defence, and leading to a try for Joseph Tapine, reducing the lead to just 1 point. The Raiders mistakes though continued to pile and the Cowboys took advantage almost every time. 2 more tries to Morgan and another to Martin gave the Cowboys a comfortable victory on the road 31-18. The Cowboys without Thurston in the past have looked shaky, but recently the work of Michael Morgan shows there is a fair amount of light at the end of the tunnel. The Raiders on the other hand have had a horrible 2017 given the expectations. Big time players like Joey Leilua and Josh Papali haven’t been anywhere near their best, and a top 8 berth is looking far from likely at this stage.
The Dragons travelled up to the Gold Coast in round 17, and faced a Titans side who were having a rough 2017 with chemistry issues featuring Jarryd Hayne, and failing to fire in some of their easier clashes. When it came to big games, the Titans surprisingly turned up for their tougher games, and a win over the Sharks and a close encounter with the Broncos showed the merits of their good efforts. The game was dominated early by the Titans, with Don catching an Ash Taylor kick with one hand, while trying to evade a defender with the other, and giving the Titans a 4-2 lead after 10 minutes. Later, Jarryd Hayne would have an act of class to set up Don for his second try in the 32nd minute. The Titans later kicked a penalty to have a comfortable 10-4 lead, in a game the Dragons were virtually inexistent. Tyson Frizell was forced to leave the field early in the second half due to fitness issues, and the departure of Josh Dugan 8 minutes later put the Dragons in a far worse position than they were already in. The thin side gave Jarryd Hayne an opening in the 54th minute, and set up Don for his 3rd try, with the Titans extending their lead to 16-4. The Dragons had no conviction in their attack and the losses of Frizell and Dugan meant they effectively had no hope of getting back into the match. A try to Jason Nightingale was the only silver lining in a sub-par performance from the Red V, and penalties to the Titans gave them a convincing 20-10 win over a quality side. The Titans have won 2 games in a row, and with Hayne beginning to look more comfortable at his club a run for the finals is not so outrageous. The cracks are starting to show for the Dragons, and their lack of class compared to other top 8 sides is becoming a reality. With Paul Vaughan returning against the Raiders, maybe some firepower in the middle can give the Dragons a chance.
Two top playmakers, Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop, will both be keys to execution at the end of sets. The Dragons have a reliable number 7 for 2018, with Ben Hunt making the trip down from Brisbane. But until then, they have to survive with arguably the weakest halves pairing in the competition when taking into account the rest of the respective side. Widdop has been the go to man for class and spark, but his average kicking game when transferring to the Dragons in 2014 meant his duties now would be met with some nervous fans. McCrone has never been a class act with the boot, and with developed running and passing games between the two players, the kicking game will be a huge asset they need to execute. As always, Widdop will be Mr. Reliable.
Austin on the other hand has a more polished game, and can meet all aspects of his position with relative skill and experience. His task, logically, will be to simply give his backline the space and set-ups they need to score points. Matching Widdop will be no tough task, but for the Raiders to succeed Austin needs to be at the very peak of his performance, assuming the likes of Leilua, Rapana and Wighton can complement him.
The Dragons have struggled ever since their matchup with the Roosters, dropping 6 games in their last 8, and need to get themselves moving if they are to remain in finals contention. The Raiders have far more firepower in their side, but have failed to string together some good performances this year so far. A game that could be a turning point, at best, for either side. Raiders by 4
Raiders team: 1. Jack Wighton 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 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 14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Luke Bateman 16. Dave Taylor 17. Joseph Tapine 18. Michael Oldfield 19. Erin Clark 20. Clay Priest 21. Royce Hunt
Dragons team: 1. Jason Nightingale 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Taane Milne 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Kurt Mann 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Josh McCrone 8. Russell Packer 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Leeson Ah Mau 11. Tariq Sims 12. Joel Thompson 13. Jack de Belin 14. Jacob Host 15. Blake Lawrie 16. Hame Sele 17. Matthew Dufty 18. Jake Marketo 19. Josh Dugan 20. Luciano Leilua 21. Paul Vaughan