Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v Canberra Raiders
By the time kick-off in this one rolls around, the Leichhardt faithful will know whether they are rocking up to cheer their beloved Wests Tigers towards the most unlikely of finals spots, or whether it is simply pride that is on the line.
The night before, the Cowboys will have downed the Titans to keep the flame alive for the Tigers, or a Titans win will have crushed their hopes.
Regardless, it should be an entertaining clash with a packed Leichhardt Hill as one of the teams few people gave a chance of making finals looks to do exactly that. They will be up against a team which many pundits expected to finish – at best – in the lower part of the finals zone but instead could be vying for a top-two berth (but only if the Storm down the Sharks on Friday night).
The Raiders are flying into the finals on the back of what is currently a nine-match winning run. They conceded too many early points a fortnight ago against the Eels and too many late points last week at Brookvale but they still never really looked like losing either game and it's a sign of a finals team that they can find ways to win without playing their best.
Coach Ricky Stuart has named an unchanged side, though whether he elects to rest key players ahead of the finals may be impacted by whether the team is still playing for a top-two spot and a home final. It means Paul Vaughan retains the starting prop role with Junior Paulo on the sidelines for a second week with a rib injury.
A couple of changes in the back row for Tigers coach Jason Taylor, who has named Chris Lawrence to return from a knee injury with Curtis Sironen dropping out, while Kyle Lovett's return relegates Michael Chee Kam to 18th man.
Watch out Wests Tigers: The bustling Raiders really do live up to the old cliché of having threats across the park. They boast the two most in-form centres in the competition in top point-scorer Jarrod Croker (260) and Joey Leilua who is second for offloads (61) and fifth for tackle busts (115) with his outside man Jordan Rapana (121) second in that stat. Hooker Josh Hodgson is close to the form player of the competition and their relentless forward rotation can match it with any team in the NRL.
Watch out Raiders: While the loss of fullback James Tedesco looked like being one that would put paid to the Tigers' finals chances, Tedesco's junior level teammate David Nofoaluma stepped in with aplomb last week. Nofoluma is up there with Rapana when it comes to the competition's form wingers and he's the only man ahead of Rapana on the tackle bust count, with 137 in 22 games.
Taking over from Jordan Rankin at the back last week Nofoluma busted a match-high nine tackles and ran for a lofty 140 metres with two offloads. Skipper Aaron Woods was the best player on the field and arguably the best-performed player across the entire weekend of NRL with a huge 185 metres plus a pivotal try and try assist.
Key match-up: Tim Simona v Joey Leilua. While the tone will be set by how Woods and co. manage the huge Raiders pack, point-scoring opportunities could come down to how these two close mates and Toa Samoa teammates handle each other. As mentioned above Leilua is in rare form, having added impressive consistency to his doubtless talent. Simona has been a little underutilised this year with plenty of the Tigers attack headed right through Mitch Moses to the in-form pairing of Kevin Naiqama and Nofaluma but he has still managed seven tries and almost 100 metres per game. But it will be how he handled the threat of Leilua defensively that will mean the most to his team on Sunday.
The History: Played 31; Wests Tigers 18, Raiders 13. Canberra thumped the Tigers 60-6 at GIO Stadium in Round 8 in the previous meeting, and also roared back from 22-0 down to win 30-22 in the meeting between the teams at Leichhardt (in Round 7 last year). The Tigers have an overall edge in matches between the two but the Raiders have won three of the past four meetings and six of the past nine times they've played at Leichhardt.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters are waiting to see which side Ricky Stuart puts on the field before committing here. There are twice as many individual bets on the Raiders but they've only been backed to win 1-12 rather than 13+. Probably best to wait for the team line-ups. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell. Assistant referee: Chris James. Sideline officials: Jeff Younis and Tim Roby. Review officials: Luke Patten & Jason Robinson. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 1.30pm.
The way we see it: The team lists but more importantly the mindsets of both sides could shift depending on what the stakes are come kick off in this one, with either side potentially having less to play for by Sunday pending other results. Taking things at face value, and with the Raiders holding no fear of the Tigers' spiritual home ground, we'll cautiously tip the Green Machine by six points in what should be a cracking contest either way.
Game on. Data off.
Stream every NRL game, including finals, live and data free with a 2016 Footy Pass, exclusive to Telstra mobile.
Watch all the NRL action live on your compatible tablet or mobile device with data-free streaming on your Telstra mobile plan.
For use in Australia only.