The Canberra Raiders will start their quest for a fourth premiership with an elimination final against the Cronulla Sharks at GIO Stadium on Saturday evening.
The Raiders were desperately close to finishing in the top four to secure a second chance but will now have to win four straight matches if they are to go one better than last year.
They defeated the Sharks 38-28 last week at Netsrata Jubilee Stadium, but with 16 changes in total between the sides for this final, it’s hard to take too much away from that game.
The Raiders rested nine of their starting 13 last week in preparation for finals, so they should be fresh and ready to go in front of a sold out 9,600 capacity crowd at GIO Stadium.
Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii were announced as joint winners of the Meninga Medal for 2020 which was no surprise as they both play such important roles for the club.
Papalii is the leader of the forward pack and along with Dunamis Lui, Joe Tapine and Sia Soliola, they form an experienced, formidable combination in the middle of the ground.
Wighton has become one of the premier five-eighths in the competition over the last two years and his powerful running game could prove a handful for a leaky Sharks defence.
The Sharks were the definition of average this season as they finished the season with 10 wins and 10 losses, they also scored 480 points and conceded 480 points to finish with a points difference of 0.
The 480 points they conceded was 106 points more than the next worse top eight side, proving their defence has been an issue all year.
They even conceded 38 points last week against a Raiders side missing their key attacking players, but the Sharks were also missing some stars.
Chad Townsend is the most notable inclusion as he returns to partner Connor Tracey in the halves, which allows Wade Graham back into his usual spot in the second row.
The second row battle promises to be a beauty with Briton Nikora and Wade Graham of the Sharks taking on the Raiders’ Englishmen John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead, so expect some fireworks on the edges between those four.
This result will likely come down to how the Raiders play. If they are on their game, the Sharks simply won’t be able to go with them, but if they’re a fraction off, it could open the door for a major upset.
George Williams (Raiders) vs Chad Townsend (Sharks)
Williams was forced from the field in round 19 with concussion before being rested in the final round against the Sharks so should be right to go for this clash. After coming across from England this season, Williams has been a great addition for the Raiders, recording four tries and 12 try assists. The finals are a big step up in intensity, but Williams has plenty of big game experience in the Super League so should be up to the task.
Townsend hasn’t played in three weeks after copping a suspension for a nasty shoulder charge on Kalyn Ponga. His absence was felt by the Sharks with Wade Graham forced into the halves last week, so his return is a timely one. He has plenty of finals experience after being part of the Sharks 2016 premiership, but he doesn’t have the same quality around him this time, so will have take on more of a load.
Elliott Whitehead (Raiders) vs Wade Graham (Sharks)
Whitehead is still one of the most underrated players in the competition and he possesses plenty of skills for a big man. His skills were on show two weeks ago when he filled in at halfback and was man of the match in the Raiders win over the Warriors. He is also a top-quality defender and is rarely caught out of position and will need to be at his usual best to defend against Graham.
Graham is similar type as Whitehead with plenty of skills for a player of his size. He is a strong ball-runner, can pass the ball well and also has a handy kicking game so the Raiders right edge defence will need to be on their toes. Graham is an extremely tough competitor and if he is going to lead his team to an unlikely victory, he needs to produce his absolute best.
|1||Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad||1||William Kennedy|
|2||Semi Valemei||2||Sione Katoa|
|3||Jarrod Croker||3||Josh Dugan|
|4||Jordan Rapana||4||Jesse Ramien|
|5||Nick Cotric||5||Ronaldo Mulitalo|
|6||Jack Wighton||6||Connor Tracey|
|7||George Williams||7||Chad Townsend|
|8||Josh Papalii||8||Braden Hamlin-Uele|
|9||Tom Starling||9||Blayke Brailey|
|10||Dunamis Lui||10||Aaron Woods|
|11||John Bateman||11||Briton Nikora|
|12||Elliott Whitehead||12||Wade Graham|
|13||Joe Tapine||13||Toby Rudolf|
|14||Siliva Havili||14||Siosifa Talakai|
|15||Sia Soliola||15||Scott Sorensen|
|16||Hudson Young||16||Andrew Fifita|
|17||Corey Harawira-Naera||17||Jack Williams|
|18||Sam Williams||18||Teig Wilton|
|19||Kai O’Donnell||19||Braydon Trindall|
|20||Michael Oldfield||20||Mawene Hiroti|
|21||Matthew Timoko||21||Bryson Goodwin|