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Canberra Raiders v Newcastle Knights
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Wind the clock back a month and this game didn’t loom so large on the NRL calendar.

Locked on 14 competition points – four points outside the eight – and heading nowhere fast, neither Canberra nor Newcastle had shown anything like the form they would need to stage a late-season surge into genuine finals contention. Yet here we are, with rival coaches David Furner and Wayne Bennett suddenly sensing an opportunity to turn their respective seasons around.

The Raiders might have struggled to get anywhere near their immense potential for most of 2012 but they have been nothing short of explosive in recent weeks with huge wins away to Melbourne and Cronulla and a dramatic victory over St George Illawarra helping them join a logjam of sides battling to steal a finals berth.

It is Canberra’s ability to score points in a rush that has really caught the eye – particularly the manner in which they demolished both the Storm and Sharks. Blessed with pace out wide, they boast the competition’s top point-scorer in Jarrod Croker on their left edge, while Blake Ferguson and Sandor Earl have formed a lethal combination on the right since the latter arrived from Penrith a month ago.

Just as intriguing is the battle for the No.1 jersey. Josh Dugan showed his value at the back after returning from injury against Cronulla last week but even his spot isn’t safe given the form of Reece Robinson (who started on the left wing on Sunday) and it came as no great surprise to see the two swap positions at times at Toyota Park.

The worry for Furner, however, is the inevitable shocker that this Canberra side produces from time to time – as evidenced by their woeful showing against the Gold Coast at Canberra Stadium two weeks ago. Needless to say, they can’t afford any more of them over the remaining six rounds of the regular season.

Newcastle’s form has just about mirrored their opponent’s this week. Despite all the pre-season hype over the arrival of super-coach Bennett and a plethora of returning locals, they have for long periods of the year looked clueless and lacking the firepower to trouble the top sides.

Yet, just like the Raiders, something appears to have clicked over the last month. Having grinded their way to a 20-12 win over Parramatta to stop the rot in Round 17, they fell away to Souths before thrashing Manly and staging that remarkable comeback against the Warriors last Saturday night.

The result is that they now sit alongside the Raiders as one of five sides on 20 competition points – and with Wests Tigers now just two points above them and suffering a major injury crisis, the opportunity is there for whoever wants it most.

This game will go a long way to sorting out the contenders from the pretenders.

Canberra coach David Furner has named an identical side to the one that beat Cronulla last week with Jarrad Kennedy the 18th man.

Newcastle will also field the same side that upset the Warriors.

A few Raiders milestones are looming on the horizon with centre Jarrod Croker a great chance of becoming just the sixth Canberra player to score 500 points for the club (currently 490). Josh Dugan could also contribute to a moment in history. There have currently been 298 tries scored by Canberra fullbacks over the years, with Brett Mullins adding the most with 72. Only once in six career games against Newcastle has Dugan scored a try but he scored a hat-trick that day in a 52-18 win in 2010.

Akuila Uate needs two tries to equal Andrew Johns for the most tries scored by a Knight against Canberra. He currently boasts six in six games.

Watch Out Raiders: State of Origin provided a huge confidence boost for struggling Knights fullback Darius Boyd who has returned to Newcastle a different player. Boyd produced two try assists against the Warriors last week while his kick-returns suddenly appear to have some extra starch. He can cause the Raiders all sorts of problems if allowed time on the ball this weekend.

Danger Sign: Newcastle’s back three of Boyd, Akuila Uate and Kevin Naiqama are hugely important to the side’s success in both attack and defence. Their 43 line-breaks in 2012 see them ranked third in the NRL; however it is their ability to defuse tricky situations that is particularly valuable. They are the best in the league when it comes to successfully picking up or catching kicks at 95.8 per cent and rank third under the high ball at 69.3 per cent. The Raiders must place their kicks carefully.

Watch Out Knights: Newcastle’s right-edge defence – Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate – will be tested by a Canberra outfit that heavily favours their left side with the ball in hand. The Raiders have scored 36 tries on their left this season (compared to 26 on the right and nine up the middle) with Jarrod Croker the side’s top tryscorer (14).

Danger Sign: The Bulldogs are renowned as the NRL’s long-range specialists but Canberra are just as lethal from inside their own half in 2012 with both sides scoring 12 tries from distance. Reece Robinson is the man to watch in this regard – Robinson has scored five long-range tries in his 16 games.

Akuila Uate v Reece Robinson: It’s rare that two rival wingers so often have such a big say in their respective teams’ success but it’s hard to ignore the influence these two have had of late. Uate has been particularly impressive since he was dropped from the NSW squad for State of Origin III, scorching Manly with a sizzling solo try two weeks ago and sparking Newcastle’s second-half surge against the Warriors after an embarrassing early mistake. Likewise, Robinson’s speed and ability to beat a defender has been a highlight of the Raiders’ attacking feats over the past month.

Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle promises to be brutal. Combined, Canberra and Newcastle boast five forwards with State of Origin experience including both Raiders starting props – David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs. Expect fireworks when they come face to face with Willie Mason, Neville Costigan and Danny Buderus.

The History: Played 36; Raiders 20, Knights 15, drawn 1. The Raiders have dominated clashes at Canberra Stadium with 14 wins and a draw from 18 meetings.

The Last Time They Met: David Furner made it five wins from five starts against Wayne Bennett-coached sides as the Raiders scored an emphatic 32-16 win at Hunter Stadium in Round 14.

Confining the home side to their fifth consecutive loss, Canberra shot out of the blocks with Edrick Lee collecting the scraps of a Josh Dugan bomb in just the fifth minute to take an early 6-0 lead.

Four minutes later the lead was doubled as Joel Thompson stepped out of a Jarrod Mullen tackle before racing 20 metres to score. A Jarrod Croker penalty goal extended the lead to 14 before Newcastle finally got their act together as mid-season recruit Dane Gagai – playing his first game for the club – stepped inside Croker to narrow the gap to eight.

Canberra regained their 14-point buffer when Bronson Harrison scored from a Josh McCrone cross-field bomb but the Knights returned the favour right on half-time as Willie Mason stormed onto a Zeb Taia short-ball to make it 20-12 at the break.

The Knights’ faithful was back in full voice midway through the second half when a slick backline move saw James McManus cross to narrow the gap to four points, but that’s where the joy ended: Trevor Thurling helped regain control for Canberra when he crossed from a Dugan inside ball, then Lee secured victory when he took an intercept and ran 70 metres for his second.

The Raiders ran for 1382 metres to Newcastle’s 1153, with Lee contributing 159 metres to go with his two tries, and Jarrod Croker ran for 131 metres and added 10 tackle-breaks.

Chris Houston made 40 tackles for the Knights.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Gavin Reynolds; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: This is a huge clash in the race for a finals berth and we don’t expect either side to go down without a fight, but it’s hard to go past Canberra’s tremendous record on home soil against the Knights. We predict that they will keep their season alive… just. Raiders by two points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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