Raiders v Storm preview

Canberra Raiders v Melbourne Storm
Canberra Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm (AEDT)

One of a number of intriguing Round 1 match-ups to kick-off the 2012 season, Canberra couldn’t have asked for a tougher opener than to play host to the might of the Melbourne Storm.

Yet after a surprisingly below-par 2011 that saw them avoid the wooden spoon on points differential alone, there is an air of excitement in the nation’s capital about the months ahead. Never mind last year’s failures – a quick look through the Canberra squad suggests that they should be top-four contenders this season… top-eight at the very least.

The potential positives for the Raiders are numerous. For starters, they boast the biggest forward pack in the NRL. Led by giants Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, David Shillington, Dane Tilse and Brett White, they can and should be aiming to dominate every side they play against.

In new captain Terry Campese they have a seasoned playmaker with the skills and poise to build a campaign around. And they boast a genuine match-winner in the No.1 jersey – a man so devastating with the ball in hand that the club is, unsurprisingly, currently moving heaven and earth to re-sign him.

Yet they face two main hurdles this week: their own inconsistency and a Melbourne Storm side that has been the benchmark for excellence for the past six years. If there is one constant in rugby league, it is that the Storm are the side everyone fears.

Once again, their success in 2012 will be centred around their big four – usual suspects Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith as well as brilliant young five-eighth Gareth Widdop – while the rest of the squad will slot into Craig Bellamy’s meticulously planned structures. Injuries aside, it is impossible to imagine that they won’t be in the running as usual come finals time.

Still, they have some concerns after leaking plenty of points during the trials. Melbourne actually fell 27-14 to the Raiders in their first hit-out of the season, albeit without Slater, Cronk or Smith in their line-up, before downing Brisbane 34-30 in a performance that left Bellamy fuming. Having led 34-16 midway through the second half, Melbourne took their foot off the pedal late in the game with Bellamy highly critical of his side’s attitude so early in the year.

Canberra, on the other hand, head into the season on the back of consecutive wins over Melbourne and Canterbury and will gain plenty of confidence from two solid displays.

The Raiders have named veteran recruit Shaun Berrigan in the centres for Round 1, while impressive youngster Josh Papalii has won a starting spot in the back-row after impressing in 2011. Shillington and Learoyd-Lahrs are the starting props with Tilse and White coming off the bench.

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy hasn’t pulled any selection shocks. Ryan Hoffman moves straight back into his old back-row spot.

The stats don’t make for good reading as far as the Raiders are concerned: Melbourne haven’t lost a Round 1 fixture since 2001 while Canberra’s opening round win over Cronulla 12 months ago was the first time in six seasons they’ve managed to do so.

It could be a big afternoon for Storm fullback Billy Slater: he needs just one more try to reach 500 career points (currently 496).

Watch Out Storm: Terry Campese presents a clear and present danger to the Storm defensive line and his absence for all but nine minutes of Canberra’s 2011 season was a key factor behind their woes. Campese’s return in the No.6 jersey not only provides a steadying influence for the Raiders out wide, it also adds another string to their attacking bow after they struggled to score points last season (only Gold Coast, Parramatta and Penrith scored fewer than Canberra’s 74 tries in 2011).

Expect the Raiders’ kicking game to be much more potent this year. Campese was the club’s main kicker in 2010 – his 9731 metres with the boot second only to St George Illawarra’s Jamie Soward in the Telstra Premiership. By comparison, Josh McCrone topped Canberra’s kicking counts in Campese’s absence last season with just 5794.

Danger Sign: Canberra’s defence was a huge problem last season and they will need major improvement if they are to be competitive in 2012. The Raiders leaked an NRL-high 109 tries during the regular season, with their 897 missed tackles the second most in the Telstra Premiership. And they were just as flimsy defending their line as they were from long range – their 49 tries conceded from close range better only than Cronulla, Gold Coast and Souths and their 19 from beyond halfway the worst in the competition.

Watch Out Raiders: Billy Slater won the Dally M medal as the NRL’s best player in 2011 and he again looms as the man who can tear Canberra apart. The complete fullback, he ranked fourth for total metres gained with 3454 at 144 per game, made 17 line-breaks, scored 12 tries and produced 143 tackle-breaks, 16 try assists and 12 line-break assists.

Danger Sign: Discipline was a problem for the Storm last season. They ranked equal last for penalties conceded in defence with 142 during the regular season and third last for total penalties with 154. Melbourne were penalised 39 times for holding down (second most in the NRL), 20 times for being inside the 10 (third most) and 13 times for a hand in the play-the-ball (sixth most).

The History: Played 29; Melbourne 22, Canberra 7. The Storm have completely dominated Canberra since they first met back in 1998. In fact, Melbourne have defeated the Raiders more times (22) than any other opponent. They have won 17 of their past 19 games against Canberra and nine of their past 10 at Canberra Stadium.

Josh Dugan v Billy Slater: Arguably the two best fullbacks in the NRL go head to head this week with the challenger, Dugan, looking to knock the champion down a notch. Both players will have a big say in their sides’ success.

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne scored an impressive 26-0 win away from home in Round 19 last year to deny Canberra a single point for the first time in 254 games at Canberra Stadium. Matt Duffie scored a double for the Storm while Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater (two try assists) were also standouts. Incredibly, given the scoreline, Raiders back three Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson and Daniel Vidot made huge inroads, running 160, 212 and 200 metres respectively.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: This is Canberra’s first opportunity to star righting the wrongs of 2011 and there is no doubt they boast the talent to upset one of the premiership heavyweights right away. However, they couldn’t face a tougher challenge this week than the Melbourne Storm. Four-time grand finalists between 2006-’09 and the reigning minor premiers, they traditionally start strongly and head into this clash deserved favourites.

The Raiders won’t be the easy-beats they proved to be for much of last season and they can certainly cause an upset but it’s always risky to tip against the Storm. Their big four should fire enough bullets to get them home.

Televised:  Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.