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Starling, Havili gear up for Smith challenge

"You need two blokes to cover for one of him."

They are the words of Raiders captain Jarrod Croker, when asked how big an operation it is to counter the Cameron Smith-effect in a game.

"He's a pretty fair player," Croker said, as hookers Tom Starling and Siliva Havili prepare to match up against the greatness of Smith at Suncorp Stadium on Friday.

In truth though, the demise of Josh Hodgson (knee) has seen the rise of Starling and Havili.

"The first thing Tommy said to the team was 'I'm not Josh Hodgson'. But the way he runs the ball and feeds the ball to our running halves, or big forwards, you have to look twice to think it’s not Josh.

"In defence he's not letting anyone down either. And when Siliva has been there he's just as comfortable and effective.

"Those two haven't taken a backwards step. They're playing really confidently and they're not going into this game saying 'I have to take down Cameron Smith'.

"They go in saying 'I've been doing my job for the last three months so I just do it again'.

"Josh is still in the bubble with us and travels around with us, is in the sheds to talk to us so we've not lost his input in that respect."

Storm v Raiders - Preliminary final

Croker admitted a dark cloud did descend for a day or two on the playing group when Hodgson's scans showed a torn ACL – ironically while playing against Storm in round nine.

"First off it was real disappointment. I felt like snapping a few golf clubs initially but it wasn't a throw the toys out of the cot kind of mentality," Croker told

"You immediately felt for him – his second ACL and they're not fun. So you want to make sure your mate is alright more than anything.

"But losing him is losing one of the best hookers in the game like Cam Smith or Damien Cook. It is such a big loss.

"We couldn't beat around the bush – he was gone for the year – so we set about finding other players to do the job."

So with one problem fixed, other potential speed humps arose with season-ending injuries to Corey Horsburgh (foot), Emre Guler (ankle), Curtis Scott (leg) and Bailey Simonsson (shoulder). Thankfully Sia Soliola (face fractures) made it back.

Remarkably 10 of the 13 starting players from the Raiders 2019 grand final team are still there for this week's preliminary final. Only Hodgson, Joey Leilua (Wests Tigers) and Aidan Sezer (Huddersfield) are missing.

Then there were four …

"You still get nervous before big games like this but knowing that (10 starters) brings the confidence right back in. It's only three out from last year so that's a pretty good thing when you're talking experience," Croker said.

"Then we are talking Melbourne who have been the benchmark for such a long time."

Croker must match himself against an old friend in Storm right centre Brenko Lee, who spent three seasons in Raiders colours (2014-16).

"We won't be friends Friday night but we got on very well when he was here," Croker said.

Papenhuyzen eager to face former junior teammate

"I don't see him as much as I used to but he's a nice, good, young kid through and through. He's found a home down there with Melbourne and he's obviously playing very well.

"He's a hard player to handle. He's got a lot of skill, good on his feet, with a fend and a flick. I want to do better than I did last week against Joey Manu.

"We had a couple of goes at each other and Joey got me once or twice. Joey is similar to Brenko in strength so I know where I have to improve."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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