The second game in Week 2 of the NRL finals series provides a Grand Final rematch of the 1990 and 1991 deciders. Both the Raiders and Panthers will vie for the opportunity to play for a place in the 2016 decider, 25 years after the last Grand Final encounter. Which side will earn this opportunity on Saturday night in the nation’s capital? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts and a prediction for this game.
Week 1 Finals Review
The Raiders were highly confident heading into last week’s finals game, as they were playing at home and were riding a 10-game winning streak. They started strongly, as they led 12-0 late in the first half and were quite dominant. The try to Matt Prior just prior (no pun intended) to halftime hurt, as the Raiders had the majority of possession in good field position in the opening half. The Sharks were able to swing the momentum in the second half and came away with the win. The result may have been different had Josh Hodgson not been injured. Up until his injury, he was the best player on the field by a significant margin. The Raiders need Hodgson if they are to make an impact in this finals series. His availability will be the story of the week.
Penrith started very well against Canterbury in their elimination final last week, but were unable to capitalise on the scoreboard. After scoring the opening try, the Bulldogs looked to be in control of the game, until the Panthers hit back with a try late in the first half. Despite trailing at the break, Penrith looked like they had more points in them, which was clearly evident in the second half as they blew Canterbury away. It didn’t help the Bulldogs cause that they lost key position players on multiple occasions, but even if injuries weren’t an issue, Penrith would have likely been too good anyway. They head into another elimination final with 7 consecutive wins and are playing at a high level of confidence.
Canberra Raiders vs Penrith Panthers Preview
- Round 1 – Canberra Raiders defeated Penrith Panthers 30-22, GIO Stadium
- Round 9 – Penrith Panthers defeated Canberra Raiders 19-18, Carrington Park Bathurst
Previous Finals Match
- Week 1 Finals, 2010 – Canberra Raiders defeated Penrith Panthers 24-22, Pepper Stadium
- In: Blake Austin (five-eight)
- Out: Sam Williams
- In: Moses Leota (extended bench)
- Out: nil
Both sides possess highly potent attacking backlines, with the individual match-up between Jordan Rapana and Josh Mansour being one that most rugby league fans are highly looking forward to. Last week, Canberra’s backline were mostly held at bay by the Cronulla defence. A big reason for this was the similarity in play of halves Sezer and Williams, who are both steady hands but not necessarily the strongest ball runners. The addition of Blake Austin, if he is fit to play, would be a massive boost for the Raiders, as he compliments Sezer much better than Williams does. Penrith’s backs were outstanding last week, in particular NSW representatives Moylan and Mansour. They turned back the clock with the run around play that led to a second half try and their attack has been highly entertaining in the latter part of the 2016 season. There is expected to be some rain around Canberra on Saturday, which means that the conditions will not likely suit the Panthers’ razzle dazzle.
Both sides possess big forward packs, with Canberra having a slight edge in this department. The starting prop combination of Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd are giants and both take quite a lot of stopping. The Raiders utilise the size of their pack, as their primary role is to gain good field position for their playmakers. Of course, the one forward that isn’t used in this role is hooker Josh Hodgson. Hodgson is the Raiders’ best player and their chances of winning will be far greater if he is able to play on Saturday night. The Panthers forward pack are slightly more mobile than the Raiders’ pack and like to use the ball more as well. Penrith has two of the better ball-playing forwards in the competition in Latu and Merrin. It is very difficult to contain the Penrith side, given the combination of the ball movement in the forwards and strong attacking play of the backs. The linchpin to the whole side is the hooker Peter Wallace. In a team primarily consisting of young players, Wallace is the steady hand that provides direction.
On each bench, both sides don’t have a great amount of impact. Both sides do have a player that can cover a number of positions; Baptiste for Canberra and Hardaker for Penrith. The other forwards, while good players, are mainly used to maintain the momentum built by the starting side. The role of Baptiste becomes even more important in this game, if Hodgson is ruled out with injury. Last week, the Raiders attack simply didn’t threaten the Cronulla defence after Hodgson left the game and Baptiste may be called upon to play more minutes than he has done in most games this year.
Before I provide a prediction, I just want to provide an opinion on Ricky Stuart’s comments about Michael Ennis earlier this week. I thought that Ennis’ mocking of the Viking clap was fantastic for all parties. For Raiders fans, the next time they play Cronulla, they will want to beat them badly, adding passion and excitement about that game. For Ennis and Cronulla, they are a side that has a massive chip on the shoulder and don’t care what anyone else thinks. Who cares if it was disrespectful? If I was a Raiders player, I’d be more concerned about the Mexican wave that went up late in the first half, which changed the atmosphere of the game. This came at a time when the team really needed motivation from their fans to lift their side to a 12-0 halftime lead, which could be partly the reason that Stuart is looking to light a fire under than fans through his comments.
Ricky Stuart has played plenty of mind games throughout this finals series, especially leading into this week. It remains to be seen whether this provides a positive or negative impact on the team, but if they are without Josh Hodgson, then it simply won’t matter. I’m basing this tip on the likelihood that Hodgson will be out and I just can’t see Canberra winning this game without him. In last week’s finals, the Raiders started strongly, but were legless for most of the second half. On the other hand, Penrith weren’t great in the first half but ran over the big Bulldogs side in the second half. I think this will happen again. Penrith haven’t put together a full 80 minute performance this year, but they are peaking at the right time. I think they will have too many points for the Raiders and will go on to play Melbourne next week.
Predicted Score: Penrith 22 Canberra 18