Raiders v Cowboys
FORMER clipboard colleagues Neil Henry and David Furner come head-to-head for the first time in an important early season fixture to finish off the round.
While they have certainly been unlucky in their opening three games, particularly last week, the Canberra Raiders are running out of time to get into the winner’s circle.
Very few sides have fought back from a 0-3 start to the year to make the finals and even less have rallied back from losing their opening four games.
They currently sit dead last due to an inferior differential to the also-winless Sea Eagles and need to lift their game to compete with the 10th-placed Cowboys.
The Cowboys may have only won one game themselves but their losses have been against powerhouse teams Brisbane and Melbourne and in both games they were reasonably competitive.
Furner has dropped fullback David Milne and winger Brett Kelly and replaced them with Josh Dugan and Adrian Purtell.
Dugan is a whiz kid from the Raiders’ under-20s team and could be a real crowd pleaser in his top grade debut – even though Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen are bound to give him quite an initiation.
Skipper Alan Tongue also returns, which pushes Trevor Thurling back to the bench.
Former Raiders coach Henry brings his Cowboys down to Canberra having lost at home to Melbourne, with Ashley Graham back at centre. This pushes Shannon Hegarty out of the side. Grant Rovelli is also out, replaced by Clint Amos on the bench. Steve Rapira has been added as an 18th man.
Carl Webb has been named to start with Scott Bolton back to the bench.
Watch out Raiders: The Cowboys are aware the Raiders have leaked nine tries on the left side of the field (their right-side defence) compared to four on the right and as such will be sending plenty of traffic that way.
If anyone can unlock a dusty defensive structure it’s Thurston and Bowen and with coach Henry having intimate knowledbaggyge of the Canberra defenders it could be open slather.
The Raiders badly need to communicate better in defence, otherwise they’ll be looking smack bang at a 0-4 record.
Watch out Cowboys: Discipline is the key in this match. The Cowboys have been hammered by the referees in the opening three weeks of the premiership, giving up 26 penalties (or 8.7 a game) to be the second-worst side in the NRL. On the contrary the Raiders have been the competition’s cleanskins, giving up just 13 penalties (or 4.3 a game) to rank first in the category.
Tony Archer and Steve Lyons could be the bane of the Cowboys’ existence if they continue to show ill-discipline. It will be very difficult to win away from home if they concede twice as many penalties.
Where it will be won: Ball control. Despite losing all of their games the Raiders have been fairly disciplined with the ball in hand. They have just 34 errors to their name – the fewest in the competition – while the Cowboys are the sixth-worst team in the NRL.
The Raiders have managed to do this while still providing the third-most offloads in the competition.
In order to get their first win the Raiders will need to continue their positive approach to ball control and hope the Cowboys have a rough night. If the visiting side can hold on to the pill in what will no doubt be uncomfortably cold weather, then Thurston and Bowen could run amok.
Canberra will need to not only hold on to the ball, but stay committed to defence for the entire 80 minutes. They had the Eels on the ropes last weekend and while they cried foul of a critical ref decision that went against them, they still should have been good enough to hold on for victory.
The History: Played 23; Raiders 16, Cowboys 7. The Raiders might lead the overall head-to-head convincingly but the Cowboys have won four of the past five against Canberra, including the past three in a row. The Raiders hold a 9-2 advantage over North Queensland when playing at Canberra Stadium however the last win against the Cowboys at the venue was in 2005.
Conclusion: If the Raiders are to win their first game they’ll need to play disciplined football for 80 minutes.
They will need to limit the speed of the play-the-ball to negate the pace of the Cowboys’ little men like Aaron Payne, Thurston and Bowen and speed up their own play from dummy-half. Furner might be better served banking on Waddell at acting half rather than the slower Stuart Flanagan.
Thankfully for the home fans the Cowboys historically struggle in the nation’s capital where it is usually cold and damp, making it more difficult for the unbridled Cowboys’ attacking machine to hit full gear.
Tipping either way here has its benefits. If possible wait till Monday evening before making a decision. But if not, either choice is okay.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm (AEST).
* Statistics: NRL Stats.