Schick Hydro Preview: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers
It's the question on every Raiders fan's lips: Will Blake Austin and Josh Hodgson play in Canberra's elimination semi-final clash against the Panthers on Saturday afternoon?
Austin hasn't been sighted since Round 24 after he broke his hand in a training mishap. The five-eighth has been named in place of Sam Williams this week and is at the very least rated a better chance of playing than influential hooker Josh Hodgson.
Hodgson was carried off midway through the Raiders' last-start 16-14 loss to the Sharks with ankle ligament damage and bone bruising – and while he's been named by coach Ricky Stuart he's rated very unlikely to play.
The Panthers have had no such injury troubles and have named the same team for the third straight week following their bruising 28-12 win over the Bulldogs last Sunday.
Watch out Raiders: Hodgson's absence is a massive issue for the Raiders but so is the form of Panthers skipper Matt Moylan. Moylan is currently sharing his time between being a fullback in defence and a frontline playmaker in attack and it's paying dividends for Penrith. The 25-year-old has been just about the form player in the NRL over the past month and he'll be looking to build upon his 20 try assists so far in 2016.
Watch out Panthers: The Panthers would've watched the Raiders' loss to Cronulla last weekend and caught an insight into the treatment they'll receive on Saturday night. The 25,000-strong GIO Stadium crowd were immense and a similar atmosphere is expected this weekend. It doesn't bode well for the mountain men who have quite the ordinary record in Canberra. The Panthers have won just a third of their games in the nation's capital since the NRL's inception while also failing to win their two previous finals there in 2000 and 2010.
Key match-up: Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana v Tyrone Peachey and Josh Mansour. Two of the best wing-centre combinations of 2016 will collide in week two of the finals. The barnstorming quartet have combined for a whopping 60 tries, 470 tackle breaks and more than 13,000 metres this season alone. While Leilua and Rapana are more likely to run over their opposition, Mansour and Peachey ran rampant against the Bulldogs last week and will be looking to exploit any deficiencies in their opponents' defence.
The history: Played 69; Raiders 34, Panthers 34, Drawn 1. The Raiders and Panthers have shared the chocolates in their two clashes this year. The two clubs started their respective 2016 campaigns against one another with the Shaun Fensom-inspired Raiders emerged 30-22 victors in Round 1. They last played in Round 9 in Bathurst when a Peter Wallace field goal separated the two teams.
What are the odds: All of the money has been with outsiders Penrith, who may end up challenging for favouritism if the flow of money continues. Sportsbet has received 50 per cent more bets on the Panthers, though both teams have been backed to win the game within a margin of 1-12. Rapana and Mansour are best supported in the first try-scorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Gerard Sutton. Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live Coverage from 7pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live Coverage from 7pm.
The way we see it: The Raiders played several big games heading into the finals series, producing wins over the Sharks and the Storm, and even getting a win without Hodgson against Parramatta. Penrith have won their past six but faced far less superior teams in that run, including last-placed Newcastle, the Roosters without Mitchell Pearce and the Wests Tigers without James Tedesco. The Raiders will be primed for a big one and with the likely return of Austin to offset the absence of Hodgson, Canberra will be keen to right the wrongs of last weekend's home defeat. Raiders by four points.
Game on. Data off.
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