Canberra Raiders (2nd) v Cronulla Sharks (3rd) @ GIO Stadium
The Raiders and Sharks square off at GIO Stadium on Saturday night for the right to host a Preliminary Final in Week 3 of the NRL Finals. The Sharks fluffed their chance of winning the Minor Premiership and opened the door for the Raiders to host this week's game which they took in rampaging style against the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval. The sides last met in the finals four seasons ago with the Raiders coming out victorious 34-16 at GIO Stadium. The game was notable for Raiders' rookie Josh Papali putting a few big and late shots on Paul Gallen in a rivalry that has simmered between the two players ever since.
The Raiders welcome back big prop Junior Paulo for the clash with Paul Vaughn relegated to 18th man duties. The week was not without controversy for the Raiders with Jack Wighton forced to clear his name at the NRL judiciary for a shoulder charge. Wighton was cleared and would have missed the whole finals series if found guilty. The Raiders will still be missing electric five-eight Blake Austin and will be relying on a steady hand in Sam Williams to help steer them around the park. Make no mistake, the Raiders are the form team in the NRL bar none riding a remarkable 10-match winning streak as they surge into the finals. The Raiders have scored a gigantic 349 points in those 10 victories at a tick under 35 points per game. In Josh Hodgson the Raiders have a creative dummy half pulling all the strings that might just win the Dally M Medal this year. With Joey Leila and Jordan Rapana forming a formidable right hand side combination and a big and aggressive pack of forwards, Ricky Stuart has quietly put together a tremendous football side.
The Sharks have suffered a big blow on the eve of the match losing inspirational captain Paul Gallen to injury. Joseph Paulo suffered a knee injury last week with the Sharks getting back strike centre Ricky Leutele. Gerard Beale drops backs to the interchange bench with Kurt Capewell a chance to be elevated from 18th man in place of Gallen. The Sharks enter the finals at the opposite end of the form spectrum to the Raiders having won just one of their past six matches. Last week the Sharks created 7 line breaks against the Storm and numerous try scoring opportunities, only to bungle them or be stopped in their tracks as the Storm swarmed to a 26-6 win. During the last 6 matches the Sharks have only scored 99 just over 17 points per game which is a long way short of what they are capable. The Sharks halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend have experienced dips in form and they will need to return to somewhere near their best if the Sharks are to book a home Preliminary Final.
Verdict - I have been switching my pick in this game most of the week, not able to fully commit to the side I feel confident of winning this game. What I am confident about is this game will be highly entertaining and high scoring. I expect on a fast track in Canberra both sides to play a really expansive game and not in any way go into their shell. I really thought the extra experience of the Sharks might be able to put Canberra off their games here. Guys like Ennis, Maloney, Lewis are big game veterans and I think the Sharks have been waiting for the finals to start in some respects of late. I expect the Raiders Sam Williams to be put under pressure defensively in this game and the Raiders to miss Blake Austin. However you also have to take into account the Raiders have won 10 straight compared to the Sharks 1 from their last 6, that is a mismatch form wise. Both sides have been suspect defensively of late and whichever team can win the possession stakes is likely to come out on top. I am going to stick with my original thought of Cronulla, however my confidence is starting to wane especially with the loss of Paul Gallen close to kick off. Sharks by 2 in a high scoring game.