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Andrew Pelechaty previews Canberra hosting Cronulla-Sutherland in the elimination final. This is what we have to look forward to.

FORM LINE

Canberra Raiders

It’s been an eventful week in Canberra, with a win over the Sharks in round 20, cult hero Tom Starling re-signing for two years, and – probably the biggest news of all – Canberra Milk returning as major sponsor for 2021.

With their slim top four hopes reliant on a win over Cronulla and the Wests Tigers beating Parramatta, Ricky Stuart rested most of his stars for the game at Kogarah Oval. Captained by the ultimate clubman Sam Williams, Canberra out-enthused the Sharks, leading 24-4 after 28 minutes. The Sharks fought back, closing the gap to 10 points as they looked like coming over the top. Impressively, the Baby Raiders hung on, keeping the Sharks scoreless for the final 13 minutes to win 38-28. In a free-flowing game, Canberra scored seven tries (Dunamis Lui, Nick Cotric, Tom Starling, Williams, Kai O’Donnell, Matt Frawley,and Harley Smith-Shields), continuing their recent tryscoring glut. While the Raiders did their bit, they couldn’t stay in fourth as Parramatta beat the Tigers two hours later.

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A host of regulars return for the qualifying final: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Elliott Whitehead, George Williams, Jack Wighton,  captain Jarrod Croker, John Bateman, Jordan Rapana, Joseph Tapine, Josh Papalii, and Michael Oldfield.

The news of Canberra Milk’s return (major sponsors of the Raiders from 1993-1995 and the ACT Brumbies from 1996-1998) has made Raiders fans deliriously happy, and will lead to a 1,000% increase of the #upthemilk hashtag on social media: expect the 2021 Milk jerseys to literately walk out the door when they go on sale. Will that goodwill give the Raiders a short-term morale boost as they push for another grand final?

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Before their round 20 game, Cronulla had yet to beat a fellow top eight side. While guaranteed to finish eighth regardless of the result, they would have fancied themselves against the Baby Raiders, but were blown away early; they threatened a late comeback (trimming a 24-4 deficit to 38-28), but it wasn’t enough. Briton Nikora scored two tries, with singles to to Ronaldo Mulitalo, Wade Graham, and Bryson Goodwin.

While the Sharks get a few players back (Blayke Brailey, Chad Townsend, Jesse Ramien, Josh Dugan, Sione Katoa, Siosifa Talakai, and Toby Rudolf), they’re still missing Shaun Johnson. More importantly, what psychological effect will losing to the Baby Raiders have?

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SQUAD NEWS

Canberra Raiders

1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Semi Valemi 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Jordan Rapana 5. Nick Cotric 6. Jack Wighton 7. George Williams 8. Josh Papali’i 9. Tom Starling 10. Dunamis Lui 11. John Bateman 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Joseph Tapine 14. Siliva Havili 15. Iosia Soliola 16. Hudson Young 17. Corey Harawira-Naera 18. Sam Williams 19. Kai O’Donnell 20. Michael Oldfield 21. Matthew Timoko.

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

1. Will Kennedy 2. Sione Katoa 3. Josh Dugan 4. Jesse Ramien 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Connor Tracey 7. Chad Townsend 8. Braden Hamlin-Uele 9. Blayke Brailey 10. Aaron Woods 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Toby Rudolf 14. Siosifa Talakai 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Andrew Fifita 17. Jack Williams 18. Teig Wilton 19. Braydon Trindall 20. Mawene Hiroti 21. Bryson Goodwin.

KEY STAT

There’s been some cracking finals clashes between these two: the Sharks beat Canberra twice in the 1997 Super League finals series; the third-placed Sharks beat the sixth-placed Raiders 36-10 in 2008 (with the Warriors’ shock win over Melbourne eliminating Canberra under the confusing McIntyre System); Canberra beat Cronulla 34-16 in the 2012 elimination final at Bruce; and Cronulla beat Canberra 16-14 in the 2016 qualifying final, also at Bruce. It was a huge win for the Sharks in 2016, not only breaking the red hot Raiders’ 10-game winning streak, but taking the garden path to the preliminary final. While they eventually beat Melbourne to win their only premiership (porch lights, etc), Canberra were a whisker away from meeting them in the 2016 grand final.

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BATTLE TO WATCH

Elliott Whitehead vs Wade Graham

“Smelly” Whitehead (as he’s affectionately known) has been one of Canberra’s best in an up-and-down season. The Englishman has played 19 straight games in 2020 (only missing last week) and captained the Raiders’ Mounties-dominated Nines side way back in February: incredible durability for a big man. Fresh from the week off, there’s no doubt that Smelly will be ready to rip in and take Canberra to week two of the finals.

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The Sharks’ captain, Graham – looking brilliant in his retro three-quarter-sleeve strip – was one of Cronulla’s best last week (after missing round 18 and 19), scoring a try as the Sharks began their second half comeback. Like Whitehead, Graham has played the majority of games this year (18), and if the Sharks are any hope of causing an upset, Graham will need to have a big “captain’s knock”.

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GAME DETAILS

Canberra enter this game with all the expectation: they’re riding a three-game winning streak, their stars are rested after a week off, they’re playing at a sold out Bruce Stadium (or as full as it’s going to be due to COVID-19), and the Sharks – as previously mentioned – are winless against top eight teams.

Canberra’s attitude will be crucial: if the Raiders aren’t switched on, Cronulla are the perfect team to slip under their guard, rattle them, and cause an upset.

Assuming the Raiders are switched on, then they should win, though it’ll be tighter than expected.

Canberra by four.

Date: Saturday, October 3.
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra.
Kick-off: 5:40pm.

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