Round 1 Preview: Raiders v Sharks

Raiders v Sharks
Canberra Stadium

Sunday 2pm

One of these sides is widely tipped to inflict plenty of damage on their way to a spot high in the top eight in 2011, while the other isn’t expected to offer more than sporadic fire throughout the season. On face value, that might not set up for much of a contest – except these combatants arguably boast the two biggest packs in the NRL, which should ensure plenty of winces from the sideline as the players rip in.

The Raiders are out to win early to prove last year’s effort of progressing to a game out from the grand final qualifier was no fluke, while Shane Flanagan’s Sharks pretty much have nothing to lose as they go about trying to shrug off their low rating.

The home side will be without attacking force Terry Campese for an extended period, but have recruited Matt Orford to steady the ship at No.7. This sees last year’s halfback Josh McCrone push out to five-eighth.

Their pack is super-representative strength, with internationals David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Bronson Harrison in the starting six, with Storm recruit Brett White warming the bench.

Meanwhile the Sharks have reinvested in Paul Gallen as captain, a wise decision that’s sure to inspire the squad. In the pack he’s joined by tough pair Kade Snowden (with a game for NSW under his belt in 2010) and Luke Douglas. Former Dragon Jeremy Smith and ex-Test player Anthony Tupou make up an extremely skilful and aggressive back row.

Former Panther Wade Graham has won the No.7 jersey, with Albert Kelly at pivot. After doing the rounds of the NRL the dependable and still dangerous Colin Best rejoins the Sharks in the centres.

New Raiders winger Blake Ferguson is sure to be sounded out by his former team-mates, having left the Shire club with a few not-too-complimentary things to say about the club last year.

Watch Out Raiders: Paul Gallen will be galloping onto Canberra Stadium and shouting: “Follow my lead!” Which is a worry for the home side given his stellar stats in 2010.

Gallen topped the NRL for territory made (by players with more than two games) with a whopping 176 metres, total runs (505 – 40 more than next best Sam Perrett), total metres (4056), plus was second for offloads (67) and still managed the ninth most tackles (795).

Danger Sign: The Sharks have won five of their past six matches at Canberra Stadium. It won’t hold any fears for them.

Watch Out Sharks: The Raiders – including their tall timber players – are arguably the most proficient and prolific in the comp at offloading and creating second-phase opportunities. Kiwi Test star Bronson Harrison leads the way with 59 made in 2010, assisted by Dane Tilse (37), the injured Campese (30), Shillington (30), McCrone (21), Jarrod Croker (18) and Learoyd-Lahrs 17. 

Danger Sign: The Sharks’ 25.4 points conceded per game last year was the second most in the NRL after the Cowboys. Ditto their 70.96 per cent completion rate. If their defence doesn’t muscle up, they can’t stop the Canberra offloads, or if they don’t respect possession when they get it, it will be like Groundhog Day for coach Flanagan.

Where It Will Be Won: Where It Will Be Won: From what goes on in the attacking team’s 50-metre zone, and also how each side’s halves measure up. For all the emphasis on the packs, it’s the backs that will feast on the spoils of the battle up front. Their creativity will be the telling factor.

Canberra were good at putting points on the opposition from long range in 2010, scoring 24 tries from beyond the opposition 20-metre zone. 

Cronulla were pretty average in this department, scoring just 18. Their fullback Nathan Gardner can’t be singled out here – he scored a couple of dazzling length-of-the-field efforts that helped propel him to a monster 141.9 metres of territory per game.

Likewise Raiders fullback Josh Dugan (NRL-high 192 tackle-breaks) was always a threat coming out of the back for his side.

Cronulla need to do better than their nine tries from over halfway in 2010; with Colin Best back in the fold (53 tackle-breaks, 10 line-breaks, 31 offloads) they’ll get opportunities.

But… Cronulla’s halves Wade Graham and Albert Kelly have a total of just 17 games for the Sharks; the Raiders’ Matt Orford is yet to make his debut for the Green Machine but has 229 first grade games under his belt, while Josh McCrone has tallied 22 games.

It doesn’t matter how well the Sharks’ pack goes if their halves don’t keep the same beat..

Plays To Watch: Dugan’s no-fear kick-returns; Matt Orford waiting patiently for the Raiders’ decoy runners to do their bit before firing behind the bodies in motion to pick up the speedy Raiders’ backs; David Shillington’s hit-and-spin with an offload to a support up the guts; Paul Gallen refusing to go to ground until his last breath of effort is expended; Jeremy Smith dishing out a few ‘don’t-argues’ in defence.

The History: Played 54; Sharks 29, Raiders 25. The Raiders have won just three of the past eight clashes but did secure a 20-13 win in the national capital last year. At Canberra Stadium they hold a 12-7 advantage over the visitors.

Conclusion: The Raiders appear to have a good opportunity to set themselves up for the season with this, the first of two home games. They then play three of their next six at home, totalling five important home games early on. Given they’ll be without Terry Campese for at least this period you can expect coach David Furner to have impressed the importance that they are switched on.

Cronulla certainly have the potential to provide an upset. If they do, don’t expect to get the odds of in excess of $3 any time again soon!

The visitors will be competitive but should be outclassed. Canberra by six points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

See the official team lists for round 1