Raiders v Cowboys preview

Raiders v Cowboys
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Three weeks ago we called time on the Raiders’ season. They had won just one game and didn’t look like embarking on a fairytale run, so it hardly seemed a controversial call.

We still like our chances of being proven right – but to the Canberra boys’ credit they have turned things around with back-to-back wins over the Storm and Bulldogs, two highly fancied top-eight sides.

They then grabbed two points courtesy of the bye last week and are finally off the canvass. Sitting in 15th now (eight competition points), the Raiders need to keep the roll going against a Cowboys side who have won two on the trot and six of their past seven to sit in the top four.

The only loss for the Cowboys in their past seven outings came at the hands of the all-conquering Dragons, so form is certainly on their side… even if the Roosters basically handed them victory last week.

The home-side Raiders welcome back two massive names for this vital clash. Josh Dugan returns at fullback for Nathan Massey, while Tom Learoyd-Lahrs is a welcome addition for both the Raiders and the New South Wales Blues. He comes onto the bench for Sam Mataora.

Unfortunately though there’s still no sign of Terry Campese…

The Cowboys are sticking true to what has worked for them, retaining the 17 who got the job done against the Roosters last week. They’ll be energetic in this clash, knowing a win could elevate them as high as second on the ladder. And with Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott in the middle of Origin duty, every match with the duo is vital.

You wouldn’t have thought so a month ago, but this match is shaping up to be a cracker.

Watch Out Raiders: North Queensland lead the league in tackle-breaks, averaging 42.8 a match – the highest figure recorded in club history. Fullback Matt Bowen is the slipperiest character with 68 for the year while winger Kalifa Faifai Loa, prop James Tamou and centre Willie Tonga (now injured) each have 44. Johnathan Thurston (38), Leeson Ah Mau (21), Gavin Cooper (20), Ashley Graham (36), Glen Hall (24), Tariq Sims (24) and Antonio Winterstein (21) are getting in on the party, too.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys’ usual blockbusting game will see plenty of offloads and breaks occur. The Raiders have to find a way to ‘hit and stick’ players, otherwise the Cowboys’ attacking machine will crank up to full gear – and there aren’t many teams capable of stopping the Thurston-Bowen show in full flight.

Watch Out Cowboys: Expect cross-field bombs to rain all afternoon. The Cowboys are one of the least capable teams in the NRL at defusing cross-field kicks, having successfully negotiated just 31 per cent so far this season. The side has a real issue at both fielding the kicks and providing protection for the catcher and the Raiders will certainly look to exploit this.

Danger Sign: The Raiders can kick to either wing with confidence. Kalifa Faifai Loa is yet to defuse a cross-field kick properly, while Ashley Graham has been targeted more often and is defusing 33 per cent. When the ball heads to the heavens Cowboys fans have reason to prey.

Plays To Watch: Both teams pushing for 40/20s early in the tackle count; Bowen and Dugan supporting up the guts; Tom Learoyd Lahrs and Matt Scott coming together… and causing the ground to shake.

Where It Will Be Won: Thurston is the key. How well he fires and how committed the Raiders are to defending him, especially close to the line, will determine the team singing the victory song.

The Cowboys are lethal close to the line, thanks mainly to Thurston’s ability to have defenders commit to him. He leads the NRL with 15 try assists this season and the Cowboys are the second best side in the league at scoring tries from within 10 metres of the line with 29 for the year.

Conversely the Raiders have been abysmal defending their line. They are by far the worst team in the competition, having conceded a mammoth 27 tries from close range. If they remain this poor, they will be wiped out by Thurston.

Defending against the Queensland and Australian half is easier said than done – but the simple rule for the Raiders is not to fall for his dummy! He loves a ‘show-and-go’ more than any other player in the NRL. Someone must be committed to knocking him down every time he has the ball, otherwise it’ll be ‘thank you linesmen, thank you ball boys’, and a Cowboys’ win.

The History: Played 27; Raiders 18, Cowboys 9. The Cowboys took care of business against the Raiders in Townsville earlier this year to the tune of 26-18, giving them five wins in the past seven matches between the clubs. But they haven’t won in Canberra since 2007 and have only won two of 13 games there overall. Canberra Stadium has been a real problem for the Cowboys. They have conceded 30 points or more at the venue on eight separate occasions.

Conclusion: The Raiders have a great chance here thanks to the Cowboys’ poor record in the national capital. But before you jump on board, just remember their win against the Bulldogs had plenty of luck. They scored an intercept try and another following a Ben Barba attempted 40/20 save… so be wary of the form line. The Cowboys are due a lull – but maybe they had it last week when they took most of the night to put away a dismal Roosters. The lean is to the visitors.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Phil Haines; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & David Munro; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.