Tipped to be the grand final at the start of the year by many, the Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers will play like it’s for a grand final as these two sides meet in an absolute blockbuster on Sunday afternoon with a finals spot well within in reach for both sides.

Last Time Out
The Canberra Raiders piled on more misery for the New Zealand Warriors with an easy 36-16 victory in New Zealand. Canberra lead from start to finish and the result was never in doubt. Teenage sensation Nick Cotric was the star once again for the Green Machine after scoring twice and registering six tackle breaks and 156 running metres. The backline of Canberra were slick with both sides of centres and wingers all crossing the stripe. Canberra have now scored 30 points or more in the past three weeks and they have seemed to found their attacking mojo. The New Zealand Warriors have now lost six in a row and have not won a game with Shaun Johnson missing since 2013.

The Penrith Panthers found themselves in the top eight after grinding out a 24-16 victory over the injury-ridden North Queensland Cowboys. Penrith have now won six matches on the trot after starting off the season horribly. The Cowboys found themselves up 16-6 up early in the second half after Jason Taumalolo crossed from broken play, but Penrith came home with a wet sail lead by star halfback Nathan Cleary. Cleary was impeccable once again, the 19 year-old scored twice, made seven tackle breaks, kicked for 261 metres and scored 16 points individually. The Cowboys have now lost three straight and find themselves in a spot of danger with the Raiders and Dragons ready to pounce on their spot in the eight.

Key Battle
In a bit of an odd battle, all eyes will be on Junior Paulo up against Nathan Cleary. Last year in the semi-final, Paulo exploited Cleary beautifully and one would say it just might happen again. Understandably, Cleary had trouble stopping Paulo one on one and if Cleary finds himself again up against the Canberra wrecking ball it may limit his say on the match. If Canberra can put as much pressure on Nathan Cleary as possible, it goes a long way on deciding who wins this game. Although it’s not only Cleary the Raiders have to worry about, his halves partner Matt Moylan goes alright too. Moylan turned on the magic last time these two sides met, especially inside the last two minutes to single handily stealing the two points from the Raiders grasps. Canberra will have bad memories from round 14 this year, so they must go back to the drawing board and utilise their forwards to limit the Penrith halves. It is quite literally David vs Goliath; may the best men win.

Prediction
Canberra will have nightmares thinking about the last time these two sides met, with Canberra leading by eight with two minutes to go but remarkably conceded two tries in the last two to lose the unlosable, that will be fresh in the memory bank. Penrith remarkably could still make the top four and at the same time could miss the top eight. With plenty to play for here, a cracking match is set to be played out. In front of a home crowd and with plenty at stake, the Green Machine may just rise that little bit higher for this one. A close one is expected and don’t be surprised to see this one to go into overtime, cancel your Sunday plans you won’t want to miss this one.
Canberra by 2

RAIDERS V PANTHERS
Sunday 20 August, 2pm at GIO Stadium
Raiders: 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. Joseph Tapine 13. Elliot Whitehead 14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Clay Priest 16. Dave Taylor 17. Luke Bateman 18. Michael Oldfield 19. Jeff Lima 20. Royce Hunt 21. Erin Clark

Panthers: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Tyrone Peachey 4. Waqa Blake 5. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 6. Matt Moylan 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Sione Katoa 10. Regan Campbell-Gillard 11. Corey Harawira 12. Isaah Yeo 13. Moses Leota 14. Tyrone May 15. Bryce Cartwright 16. Tim Browne 17. James Fisher-Harris 18. Trent Merrin 19. Dean Whare 20. Viliame Kikau 21. Mitch Rein