Broncos v Raiders
Suncorp Stadium
Sunday 2pm
 
It falls to the ‘baby Broncos’ to extract revenge against the Raiders, who rammed a dagger through the hearts of players and fans alike with an 18-16 victory in Round 26 last year that halted Brisbane’s impressive 18-year streak of playing semi-finals football.

Even though Brisbane is missing five key stars to the Queensland Origin team – Darren Lockyer, Jharal Yow Yeh, Ben Hannant, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker – they get a huge chance to avenge that misery with the Raiders severely down on form and fit troops.

The Broncos occupy sole fifth place on the NRL ladder on 18 points with eight wins and four losses at the midway point of the season. They ended a hat-trick of worrying losses last week when blitzing the Sharks away.

Coach Anthony Griffin has sprung a bit of a surprise in his team reshuffle this week, with centre Jack Reed asked to cover for lock Corey Parker. Dale Copley shifts from wing to fill in for Reed at centre, with Dane Gagai rejoining the squad on the wing. Shea Moylan fills in for Yow Yeh, with Corey Norman joining the top squad again to fill in for Lockyer. Nick Kenny starts at prop for Ben Hannant with Dane Carlaw assuming Sam Thaiday’s position in the second row. Dunamis Lui is the new face on the bench.

Meanwhile the Raiders will be looking to propel themselves off the bottom of the ladder – although their task has been made all the more difficult with the news beleaguered playmaker Terry Campese and star fullback Josh Dugan are out for extended periods. Campese will be sidelined for up to three months after tearing a groin muscle just nine minutes into his long-awaited comeback last week, while Dugan has a badly sprained ankle that may require upwards of a month’s rest.

They’ll also be without centre Joel Thompson for a fortnight after he strained his groin last week too.

Despite those injuries the Raiders let a golden opportunity slip against the Cowboys. They raced to a 22-nil lead in fast time but then sat back and let one of the most damaging attacks in the NRL run rampant. Given they were coming off the back of two stirring victories over the Bulldogs and Storm, it was a huge opportunity for the Green Machine to make a real statement and maintain momentum at a crucial stage of the season. Instead they need to regroup… again.

Coach David Furner has been forced into some major personnel changes. Nathan Massey fills in for Dugan at the back, with Blake Ferguson delivered his wish and finally getting to play centre (for Thompson). James Stuart plays his seventh NRL game on Ferguson’s wing. In some good news, David Shillington returns on the bench after recovering from his pectoral tear, while Glenn Buttriss rounds out the extended bench.

Amazing stat: Raider prop Josh Miller hasn’t missed a tackle since Round 8 against the Wests Tigers!

Watch Out Broncos: Blake Ferguson’s move closer to the action will present a threat. The enigmatic Ferguson can ruin opposition defences when he’s on song and he’s a tough finisher who can’t be taken for granted even when seemingly halted near the tryline. He has 58 tackle-breaks and 12 offloads, plus he averages 134 metres a game; he’ll no doubt add to those figure considerably here.

The Broncos’ attack should steer well clear of lock Shaun Fensom, who is fast establishing himself as one of the best defensive players in the game. Fensom currently averages 39 tackles from his total 30 NRL appearances, which ranks him as the most prolific Raiders defender of all-time. In fact, only David Stagg, Dallas Johnson and Nathan Friend have a higher average.

Out wide, Broncos’ wingers Gagai and Moylan can expect it to rain bombs – the Broncos have defused just 58 per cent of cross-field bombs.

Danger Sign: If Ferguson and centre partner Jarrod Croker get plenty of ball in the opening 20 minutes you’ll know coach Furner is banking on their pace cracking the Broncos open on either side of the field – like they did against the Cowboys last week.

Watch Out Raiders: Fill-in captain Alex Glenn is flying in 2011; having played all 12 games he’s posting career highs in runs (11.4) and tackles (27.8) and is the equal top second-rower for tries scored with five – including a dazzling double last week.

The Raiders need to muscle up in defence. They’re currently missing 36.2 tackles a match, the third most in the comp. They won’t get that sort of leeway from the Broncos, who have been strong to date and only missed 30 tackles a game (fourth fewest). The Raiders’ defensive woes are a major reason why sides have averaged almost five line-breaks against them each week, the second most in the comp.

Also, Peter Wallace will be a danger with his short passes close to the Raiders’ line – Canberra have conceded 16 tries from passes, the second most by any team.

Danger Sign: If the Broncos get into the Raiders’ 20-metre zone with good tackles up their sleeve expect Wallace to keep probing for openings.

Plays To Watch: The Broncos playing shallow in attack with close, flat passes; Jack Reed using his speed to bust open the Raiders around the ruck; Josh Hoffman running an inside line in the go-zone; Blake Ferguson looking to get on the outside of defenders; Josh McCrone’s running game (34 tackle-breaks); Jarrod Croker’s one-handed offloads.

Where It Will Be Won: Commitment to the cause. There’s still a long way to go in 2011 but with every loss the Raiders’ task just gets tougher. They need to put last week’s debacle behind them, forget about their injury woes, and think of the sparkling opening 25 minutes against the Cowboys last week when everything clicked for them.

That also means paying attention to the one-percenters. For example, the Raiders can’t afford any poor chases or the Broncos will eat them alive. Currently the Raiders have made 131 poor chases, the third most in the competition. They need to hustle after every kick or else the Broncos’ back three will have no problem relieving the pressure.

The Raiders also need to focus on their discipline. They’ve conceded 78 penalties to date, the second most in the comp, compared to the ‘angelic’ home side who have conceded just 56.

Meanwhile the biggest threats for the Broncos, given their young and inexperienced squad, could be themselves. They need to keep a lid on emotions and focus on their completions. If they finish on the right side of the possession ledger the rest should take care of itself.

The History: Played 40; Broncos 22, Raiders 17, drawn 1. The Raiders have an excellent record against the Broncos, winning four of the past eight games. The Broncos hold an 8-4 advantage in games played at Suncorp Stadium although the Raiders won 18-16 the last time they met in Round 26 last year. However, that was their first win in Brisbane since 2006.

Conclusion: The Broncos are travelling okay at this stage of the season but this is an important game for them so don’t expect their intensity to drop simply because they’re up against the current cellar dwellers.

The Raiders showed glimpses of what they are capable of last week but given their horror injury toll and even accounting for the loss of Brisbane’s stars to Origin, it’s hard to get excited about anything other than a Broncos win.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats