Warriors v Raiders preview

Warriors v Canberra Raiders
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)

Fresh from taking down competition pacesetters Canterbury in emphatic style in the nation’s capital the Green Machine get their chance to cement a position in this year’s finals against the woeful Warriors who are staring down the barrel of a club record eight-match losing streak.

On the backburner of semi-finals discussions just a month ago Canberra have flared to life with four successive victories that now see them on the verge of leapfrogging Cronulla into sixth place on the ladder should they get the verdict in Auckland and the Shire side succumb to fifth-placed North Queensland.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround from a team that entering Round 22 was languishing two wins outside the finals zone. However with playmaker Josh McCrone calling the shots and driven by huge territorial gains from their speedy back three of Josh Dugan, Reece Robinson and Sandor Earl, incredibly Canberra fans are set to buy semi-finals tickets for only the fourth time in eight years.

Judging by their scintillating 34-6 defeat of the Bulldogs they certainly won’t be simply making up the numbers.

However, first they need to consolidate their position with victory over the Warriors, who with defeat here would arguably claim the tag of biggest disappointment for season 2012 – even allowing for Parramatta’s first wooden spoon in 40 years.

In what must come as a huge slap in the face to the legion of new fans that jumped on board their wagon after their runners-up finish last year the Warriors have looked disinterested and bone-china brittle over the back half of the year.

Their season plumbed new depths last week when they surrendered 10 line-breaks to St George Illawarra as the competition’s worst attack registered 38 points – easily their highest score of the season. In reply they could manage just one line bust of their own.

The writing is on the wall for a number of their players to perform this week – or risk having asterisks pencilled alongside their names when the 2012 post-mortem commences next week.

However, the Warriors will welcome the opportunity to bounce back with a win over a favoured opponent – Canberra have won just one of eight games at Mt Smart Stadium over the past decade. The Green Machine have performed well on the road in 2012, winning six of 11, but this week will provide them with their toughest test on the eve of entering sudden death.

Warriors caretaker coach Tony Iro has wielded the axe this week, dropping halfback Shaun Johnson and relegating Roosters-bound five-eighth James Maloney to the extended bench. Pita Godinet will wear the No.7 jersey with Feleti Mateo shifting to five-eighth. In a boost, Simon Mannering returns to captain the side after missing the past five games through injury. Their only other change sees Ben Matulino start at prop, with Russell Packer benched.

No surprises from Raiders coach David Furner who has stuck solid with the 17 who got the job done against the Bulldogs.

It’s a milestone week for Raiders interchange Joe Picker who plays his 100th game in the lime green jersey.

Also, Warriors lock Micheal Luck ends his career on game number 150. One of the Warriors’ best Aussie imports Luck remains the all-time leading tackler at the club (5,590) – equating to a mammoth 50 per 80 minutes played. He is still credited with the single greatest defensive performance in statistics history (78 tackles v Storm in 2009).

Watch Out Warriors: The Warriors must show more resolve in defence or they’ll be steamrolled by the Raiders, who tick plenty of boxes with their attack, discipline and attitude. While the Warriors have the worst record for missing tackles (38 per game) the Raiders make the fewest errors (9.7 per match alongside the Storm), score the fifth-most points and tries and concede the fewest metres of all teams every 80 minutes.

Jarrod Croker will be out to cap a wonderful year. He has the title of top points-scorer in the bag (he has 206 to date, 28 ahead of Adam Reynolds) and will be out to add to his 16 tries, 14 line-breaks and 85 tackle-breaks. His pairing with Reece Robinson down the left edge will pose a huge threat.

The laws of probability suggest the Raiders’ front-row rotation could turn heads this Sunday – not since Round 24 last season has any Canberra prop crossed for a try. Should Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, David Shillington or Dane Tilse fail to get across the stripe here it would mark the first time in club history their bookends have failed to contribute at least one four-pointer during a season. Shillington and Tilse laid a huge platform against the ’Dogs last week when combining for 306 metres; they will be pushing team-mates out of the way to receive the Steeden when they get within 10 metres of the Warriors’ line.

Danger Sign: Any time Josh McCrone or Sam Williams drop the ball onto their boots for an attacking kick: no team has scored more tries from kicks than the Raiders who have 28 to date – including four against the Bulldogs last week. Meanwhile the Warriors have leaked 19 tries to kicks.

Watch Out Raiders: Don’t underestimate the effect of Simon Mannering’s return on the Warriors. Yes they lost two of their current seven-game losing streak with him at the helm but they have sorely lost their compass over the past five games. His presence will be worth points in attack and defence as he rallies his troops.

Konrad Hurrell gets his chance to make mincemeat of a potentially weak left-edge defence when he tackles Jarrod Croker and Reece Robinson this weekend. The Raiders have leaked an NRL-high 47 tries through their left corridor (Warriors’ right side attack). We figure coach Iro has been revving up his young charge all week.

Danger Sign: If the Warriors base their game plan around second-phase play it could bring the Raiders undone. Canberra concede the second-most offloads every week (12.1); while the Warriors have been more conservative with their offloads in 2012 than in past seasons they are certainly capable of throwing the ball around with abandon. Feleti Mateo, in the No.6 this week, will offer them plenty of creativity one off the scrum base – he leads all NRL players for offloads with 57 so far. Expect him to run to the line often and keep the Raiders in two minds.  

James Maloney v Josh McCrone: Coming off the bench this week Maloney will be keen to exit the Warriors on good terms before joining the Roosters in 2013 after a pretty ordinary back half of the season, with his defence in particular (5.3 misses per game) letting him and the team down. When he’s switched on there’s no better ball-running five-eighth – he leads his position for line-breaks with 12 to date and has added 15 try assists for team-mates. Meanwhile Josh McCrone has been invaluable for the Raiders, with his 14 line-break assists ranking him second among five-eighths behind Johnathan Thurston. Watch for his delicate grubbers into the in-goal on the right edge for chasers Jarrod Croker and Sandor Earl – the wingman bagged two tries this way last week.   

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude and focus. Whoever wants it more will win – it’s as simple as that.   

The History: Played 27; Raiders 15, Warriors 12. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes. The Warriors boast a 9-5 advantage in matches at Mt Smart Stadium. Canberra have won six off 11 games on the road in 2012; the Warriors have just five home wins.

The Last Time They Met: The Raiders thrashed the disappointing Warriors 32-12 at Canberra Stadium in Round 6.  

In what would prove to be Terry Campese’s last full game in 2012 before his season-ending injury against Brisbane the following week, the Raiders showed great skill and flair to score a pair of tries on both the left and right edges to race to a commanding 16-nil lead after 35 minutes (the normally reliable Jarrod Croker was unable to cash in with any of his conversion attempts).

Croker’s wayward boot saw the visitors stay in the hunt when Ben Henry crossed for a try in the right corner two minute before the break for a 16-6 scoreline at oranges.

Josh Papalii charged through a yawning gap on the right edge to advance Canberra’s tally to 22 points at the 57-minute mark before James Maloney crossed in the 65th minute. That was the end of the celebrations for fans of the visiting side as the Raiders bagged two more tries to Reece Robinson and Croker to run out convincing winners.

It was an entertaining clash with the focus firmly on attack – the 80 minutes yielded 14 line-breaks, with the Raiders leading the way with nine throughout the afternoon.

Missed tackles (36), poor completions (65 per cent) and a struggle for territory (just 1098 metres gained) cruelled the Warriors’ chances.

Blake Ferguson, playing on the wing, was the Raiders’ star with two tries, a try assist and nine tackle-breaks. The scoreline flattered the visitors, with Croker successful with just two of seven attempts at goal.

Manu Vatuvei was the only Warriors player to hit triple figures in metres gained (132).

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: A Wests Tigers loss to the Storm on Saturday night could prove dangerous to the Raiders’ chances here – they’ll know they’re in the top eight regardless and a drop in intensity might not be too far away as they contemplate next week instead of this week. Meanwhile the Warriors have been too bad to believe. We’ve rubbed the crystal ball and see the Tigers losing, the Raiders playing mothballs footy and the Warriors jumping out of their skins under Mannering’s leadership to snatch a morale-boosting win as they head to the off-season. Warriors by 10 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 12 noon.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats