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It sounds simple but for Canberra prop Dane Tilse, success against Cronulla this Sunday will be all about avoiding errors.
A key member of the biggest front-row rotation in the NRL, Tilse has seen first-hand just how devastating the Raiders can be when they hold onto the football, with statistics proving the value of completions to the Green Machine during their late charge into the finals this season.
Canberra’s 242 errors at 9.7 per game in 2012 is the fewest of any side in the competition – but it has been their recent run of five consecutive wins in which they have truly excelled, with just 43 errors at a miserly 8.6 per game.
Tilse, who has surrendered possession just four times in his 19 games, said that while Canberra’s pack was their great strength, their lack of consistency this season could be directly linked to their respect for the football.
“I think being a big forward pack, if we’re defending all game it really takes away from our strength,” he said. “Dave (Furner) has had a pretty big focus on completing our sets and getting off to a good start in the game. When we do that we tend to go a lot better.
“The key for us is just ball security and early talk. Talk tends to solve a lot of problems, so there is no miscommunication.
“When we’re playing well it’s about coming out of our own end playing it a bit safer so we get to our kick. It’s only when we get down the other end we take more risks if we’re a chance of scoring.”
While the Raiders took a big hit when veteran prop Brett White suffered a season-ending knee injury in Round 5, Tilse said that he and fellow big men David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs had worked overtime to fill the void.
And although all three have been missing in action at various times of the year, the recent return from injury of both Tilse and Learoyd-Lahrs has coincided with the side’s run of form.
“Mark Nicholls is doing a good job for us in our forward rotation too but there is a bit of experience there up front now,” Tilse said.
“When ‘Whitey’ was injured, the leadership group… we spoke about the fact that ‘Whitey’ is a great talker and a great leader not only on the field but also at training, so there was a big gap that had to be filled with both him and Terry [Campese] missing. A few of us have stepped up, I think, and we’ve been getting better as the year goes on.”
Tilse said that the Raiders’ pack had worked hard on operating as a unit in the lead-up to the finals.
“We’ve really tried to hunt together as a pack in defence, going together and having plenty of talk. In attack it’s important to use combo-plays, trying to support your mate, rather than just going one-out.
“And I think that on our day, even at the start of the year, we’ve shown we can beat the best sides in the comp. Consistency has been our problem but we’ve sorted that out a little bit now. On our day we’re a very good footy side.”
Canberra’s string of six wins from their past seven games is reminiscent of their similar run in 2010 when they won eight from nine to sneak into the finals, then upset Penrith in Week 1 before falling to the Wests Tigers at Canberra Stadium.
They again find themselves with an opportunity to progress on home soil this week, with Tilse insisting the side had learnt from past experiences.
“I think we have,” he said. “Just with getting the home semi (in 2010)… not that we took it for granted but the Tigers came down and shocked us a bit in that first half. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again and we don’t let our home fans down again. A couple of us weren’t great last week (against the Warriors) too, so we know we need to step up.”
In a strange quirk, the Raiders and Sharks are 1-1 in clashes this year with Cronulla scoring an emphatic 44-22 victory at Canberra Stadium in Round 8 and the Raiders returning the favour 36-4 at Toyota Stadium six weeks ago.
Tilse said that the Raiders could take some confidence out of their big win last time they met but promised they wouldn’t be taking the home ground advantage for granted.
“They were a bit off that day as well,” he said. “They’d probably take plenty of confidence out of the game they played down here. They put a few points on us on our home ground.
“I think semi-finals, it’s a new game so you can probably throw those two games out the window.”
So are the Raiders genuine premiership contenders in 2012?
“Yeah, we know that if we play well, we’re a dangerous team,” Tilse said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we turn up for four weeks in a row to win the grand final.
“It’s very exciting compared to where we were nine or 10 weeks ago. It’s been a very good second half of the year for us but we can’t afford to look too far ahead. I’m keen to get out there on Sunday in front of a big home crowd in a game that we have to win.”