Raiders v Eels preview

Raiders v Eels
Canberra Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The Raiders and Eels come together with plenty to be thankful for – mostly the fact despite playing poorly for the majority of the year they still have slim hopes of making a run to the finals.

There are five clear leading sides in 2011 who all appear to have their finals papers stamped – but the six-points drop off from fifth to sixth has given huge life to those at the back end of the ladder.

Two of those teams at the rear come together on what will no doubt be a chilly Canberra evening.

The 15th-placed Raiders can just about call it off this year; they have just three wins – the fewest of any club – and while they have improved from earlier in the season, they are still struggling.

But thanks to banking their two byes they are now on 10 competition points, amazingly just six points away from fifth. They come into this must-win encounter with the Eels off the back of a golden-point loss to Brisbane and last week’s rest.

While their confidence can’t be too high, they have to be motivated by the look of the table and the fact a season of mediocrity so far is still alive… if they start cranking now.

David Shillington will return to the starting side at prop this week, pushing Dane Tilse to the bench, while Josh Papalii has earned a starting second row berth at Bronson Harrison’s expense.

Trevor Thurling and Josh Miller have been added to an extended bench.

The Eels sit down in 12th spot on the ladder, only doing slightly better than the Raiders with one win more and a draw lifting them to 13 competition points. They find themselves in the same boat – having played pretty awful they have a chance to rectify the season… but it needs to start here.

Manly came home over the top of them on Monday might but coach Stephen Kearney nonetheless liked what he saw; he’s remained loyal and retained the same squad of 17.

Watch Out Raiders: It’s not often you need to pay extra special attention to a winger but Eel Luke Burt seems to lift when a milestone is in reach and this week he needs just two points to post a century against the Raiders. It would be the ninth club Burt has scored triple figures against, something just five players in the history of the game have done before him.

He will join illustrious company in Michael Cronin, Hazem El Masri, Andrew Johns, Graeme Langlands and Eric Simms.

So far he has nine tries tallied against the Raiders from 16 games. He is averaging nearly seven points a match in 2011, has five line-breaks, a line-break assist, a try assist and seven tries.

Danger Sign: Players often underestimate Luke Burt but they do so at their peril. He’s not big like a Uate-type player but he is extremely skilful. He is one of the best exponents at kicking ahead for himself when he makes a break and also one of the best kick-chasers in the game when someone else puts the ball in play from the boot. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

Watch Out Eels: The Raiders haven’t had a lot of success in many areas but they still like to hunt for points on the right-hand side, a place the Eels have been struggling to defend.

Despite being without their dynamic right-side duo in Joel Thompson (injured) and Bronson Harrison (bench) from the get-go, the Raiders will still send plenty of traffic right, knowing the Eels have leaked 22 tries there.

Some 12 tries have come on the fringe (only three teams have let more in down this corridor) and 10 on the right sideline, which is actually the most leaked in the NRL.

The blue-and-golds need to find a way to muscle-up here.

Danger Sign: Harrison’s injection from the bench will be a massive danger for the Eels. He’ll be fresh – he’ll be angry he’s lost his starting spot… chances are he’ll find some form… he is a former New Zealand international! And he will go straight to work on the right. Trouble.

Plays To Watch: Blake Ferguson’s speed; Jarrod Croker running hard inside shoulder lines near the Eels’ tryline; Jarryd Hayne’s loop into the backline before a long, no-look cut-out pass wide; Hindmarsh tackling his heart out (no doubt including pulling off some miracle, scrambling try-saver against a back).

Where It Will Be Won: The kicking game. This contest is going to be heavily influenced by the boot. Sam Williams loves a sneaky 40/20 attempt, Jarryd Hayne can kick a ball high enough to scare a 747 pilot… basically the side that controls the ball from the boot will go a long way to winning.

The Raiders have scored 15 tries from kicks this season, equal second most in the NRL behind just Manly, but the Eels aren’t far behind with 14 tries from the boot. Defensively Canberra have conceded nine tries to kicks, the Eels just five. The Eels are more accurate with long kicks, finding space 54.7 per cent of the time compared to the Raiders’ dismal 42.6 per cent. But both sides have also had further issue with direction – the Eels have kicked out on the full seven times (most by any side), the Raiders six. The team that literally gets the bounce of the ball could end up the victor.

The History: Played 45; Raiders 21, Eels 24. The Eels have won four of the past six but it was Canberra that prevailed in the last encounter when they won 24-14 in Round 5 last year. The Raiders have a distinct advantage over the Eels when playing in Canberra, having won 10 of 14 games. The last time the Eels won in the national capital was 2006. The Eels need 27 points to reach 1000 scored against the Raiders but they have averaged just 18 in the past four games against them and 16 in all games this season, so it might not happen here.  

Conclusion: The Eels were much improved against the Sea Eagles, so much so they are to be given some hope of overcoming the cold and getting a result in Canberra.

The Raiders have definitely been better during the past month and are well rested so it could easily fall their way.

The influence of Hayne could be big – will he play in a dinner suit, thinking about Origin III? If so, the Raiders have the edge. Or will he focus purely on dragging his team back into contention (he has four tries from as many appearances against the Raiders). If so, the Eels are the ‘lean’.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Chris James; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Paul Mellor.

Televised: Foxsports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.