By Greg Prichard
Dane Tilse is the only member of the Canberra team for Saturday night's game against St George Illawarra at WIN Stadium who knows what it is like to lose to the Dragons – at least in a Raiders jumper.
Tilse started from the bench when the Dragons hammered the Raiders 58-10 at WIN Stadium on June 8, 2007. The Dragons scored 10 tries to three, with five-eighth Jamie Soward enjoying a pointscoring feast. He racked up 22, from a try and nine goals from 10 attempts.
Several players who have long since been starring with other clubs were in the Canberra side that day, including fullback William Zillman, now with Gold Coast, five-eighth Todd Carney, who went to Cronulla via Sydney Roosters, and Melbourne's Ryan Hinchcliffe.
Carney, who was sacked by the Raiders because of off-field disciplinary issues, came up with two tries and two goals in that game. Hinchcliffe scored the other try. Another star player the Raiders sacked for similar reasons, Josh Dugan, is in the St George Illawarra side for this game.
Michael Weyman was in the Canberra side for that game, but he is in the Dragons' side for this one.
Talk about rugby league musical chairs!
Canberra have won eight straight games against the Dragons since that 2007 loss, and they had a hold over them before that game as well. St George Illawarra have won only one of the past 16 clashes, and before 2007 their most recent win was in 2000.
That was at Canberra Stadium, or Bruce Stadium as it was known then, in Round 22, on July 1. The Dragons won 30-20, and it was so long ago that the Canberra side included their current coach, David Furner, and NSW coach Laurie Daley, as well as Ken Nagas, Luke Davico and Ruben Wiki.
This is one of the best clashes the Rivalry Round can throw up, because of the spotlight that inevitably falls on it due to Canberra's extraordinary record against the Red V, but the Raiders are trying not to get caught up in all of the hype.
Asked if the intensity went up in a grudge match like this, starting prop Tilse replied: "It's called a grudge match only because we have that record against them and there are a few exRaiders players in their side, but we prepare pretty much the same for every game.
"It's a big game for us regardless. We're trying to get into the finals and we need that win, so it's always a big game."
It will be the first time the Raiders have played against Dugan since he was sacked after Round 1. Canberra's senior playing group supported the club's decision on that occasion, and it will be interesting to see if there is some extra "feeling" in the Raiders' tackles on the Dragons fullback.
Tilse tried to play that aspect down, and pointed instead to the danger Dugan posed with his tremendous running of the ball – which yielded him a club record 24 tackle busts against Souths last Monday night.
"You play old teammates every now and then in the NRL," he said. "Doogs is a good player, so we have to have a good kick-chase on him. He's pretty hard to get hold of as it is."
All of the publicity over their record against the Dragons might actually prove to be a good diversion for the Raiders, since it has taken the accent off their poor away record this season.
Their only win on the road has, strangely, been against one of the top teams – premiers Melbourne.
Tilse said there had been little talk among the players about the away form, adding: "There's been a lot said about it in the media, but we had a really good win against the Storm and we were also very close against Manly and the Sharks.
"If we'd won those two games, if the bounce of the ball had gone our way, nobody would be talking about the away record. It's a fine line, and it's just the way it has panned out, I think. We just prepare as normal."
As late as Friday, the Raiders were still not saying whether star centre Blake Ferguson would play for them against the Dragons. He has been cleared to play after being stood down for a month following an off-field incident, but wasn't named in the team.
It seems inevitable that he will play, since the Raiders haven't gone as far as to rule him out, but Tilse wasn't giving away any hints.
"It's good to have him back at training," Tilse said. "I'm not sure whether he's playing or not. He's been pretty confident, pretty chirpy around the club, so he definitely brings a bit of enthusiasm."