THE year’s first Monday night blockbuster comes to Campbelltown as the Wests Tigers host the Raiders in what shapes up as a tight encounter.
In recent times the results have been very close between the two sides and with each club having their own points to prove in 2009 this shouldn’t be any different.
The Wests Tigers have now gone three seasons without being part of the finals and in their minds, enough is enough. They cleaned out the cobwebs in the trials with a win over South Sydney (30-26) and a loss to the Roosters (16-12) before blowing apart the NSW Cup side Shellharbour (70-4) last weekend.
Tim Moltzen has won first ‘dibs’ on the fullback spot although he’ll know he needs to be good from the start as Rhys Hanbury has been selected on the bench.
Elsewhere the side is as expected, with Benji Marshall at halfback and English Test star Gareth Ellis in the second row.
The Raiders once again have been written off as likely also-rans – despite the fact they finished sixth in the regular season last year before falling out of the finals in week one.
They have a new coach in former player and Clive Churchill Medal winner David Furner and will once again set out to prove the doubters wrong.
They started the trials by beating Cronulla 32-12 but then fell 30-16 to Brisbane and 24-16 to the Bulldogs.
Three off-season recruits in Bronson Harrison (second row), David Shillington (prop) and Stuart Flanagan (bench) have all been named in the Raiders’ line-up.
Watch out Wests Tigers: Raiders five-eighth Terry Campese starts the new season full of confidence after finishing 2008 as an Australian Test player. As Canberra’s chief playmaker Campese is the man the Tigers need to shut down if they are to flourish. In 24 games last season Campese notched 12 line breaks, 25 line-break assists, 25 try assists and 10 tries of his own. He also led the Raiders in offloads with 41 for the year.
Watch out Raiders: Wests Tigers winger Taniela Tuiaki is in blockbusting form having scored four tries last weekend, albeit against weaker opposition. The behemoth combines massive size with impressive pace and will be a handful for the visiting Canberra boys.
The other Tiger to keep a keen eye on is Ellis. In the UK he was an undisputed champion as a grand final winner with Leeds and an established Test star. But here he is starting over. Will he impress, like Adrian Morley did with the Roosters, or will he become another Chris Thorman or Ian Sibbit? Who? Exactly!
Where it will be won: Both sides are famous for throwing the ball around. You could say defence will win this game but in reality neither side is going to record a clean sheet so it’s more likely to come down to errors. Whoever has the least amount of rust when it comes to using the ball will have more possession and ultimately will probably score more points.
Last season the Wests Tigers averaged two errors less a game compared to the Raiders, so they may well have the edge here. The message from the coaches will be clear… complete your sets and the chances will come.
The History: Played 16; Wests Tigers 7, Raiders 9. Having won three of the past four the Raiders have the edge on the Tigers; however they have only won one of four games played at Campbelltown. That was a one-point thriller in 2006.
Expect a close game here as the past seven matches between the sides have had an average winning margin of just six points.
Conclusion: The lean is towards the home side. The Raiders are notoriously poor travellers and the Tigers haven’t looked awful in the trials. But to discount the Raiders is foolish. Every year they are under-rated and every year they win more games then most expect.
The likes of Raiders skipper Alan Tongue and Australian World Cup players Joel Monaghan and Terry Campese will ensure Canberra aren’t easy-beats by any means. The safer bet is to stick with the home side – but don’t surprised if this is one of the season’s early upsets.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm (AEDT)
* Statistics: NRL Stats.