The Canberra Raiders will be looking to qualify for their second Grand Final in as many years when they take on the Melbourne Storm at Suncorp Stadium this evening.
The Raiders are coming off the back of an enthralling semi-final victory over the Sydney Roosters last weekend, while the Storm are well rested after enjoying a week off.
Ricky Stuart has named the same 17 players who got the job done last week, with Tom Starling and Sia Soliola named to start, shifting Siliva Havili and Hudson Young to the bench. However, that was how the team was named last week before Stuart made late changes so expect something similar tonight.
The Raiders got off to a fast start against the Roosters, with their middle forwards dominating early thanks largely to the work of Josh Papalii.
Papalii scored the first try of the night before setting up the second with a lovely offload and made plenty of metres every time he carried the ball. There’s no doubt the Raiders grow an extra leg when their forward pack leader is dominating so they’ll need him to be at his best again.
Joe Tapine and Young started alongside Papalii in the middle and also played a big hand in the Raiders’ fast start. It wouldn’t surprise to see Stuart start with those three in the middle again, although Young can also be very effective coming off the bench.
Jack Wighton and George Williams have been in sensational form and have been pivotal in the Raiders’ two finals victories.
They’ve both managed to hit the scoreboard, scoring three tries each over the first two finals. Wighton has been superb with his powerful running game and strong defence, while Williams also possesses a strong running game and his kicking has been pin point.
The big question mark for the Raiders is how they’ll recover after such a tough slog in their semi-final victory. The game was played at such a frantic pace that many of the players looked out on their feet in the final 20 minutes and with the Storm playing on fresh legs, it could be the difference.
The Storm would’ve loved watching the Raiders and Roosters belt each other for 80 minutes, as they got to relax in the Sunshine Coast bubble with their feet up.
They seemed to have enjoyed relocating to Queensland and escaping the cold Melbourne winter, with their record sitting at 9 wins and 0 losses in the Sunshine State this season.
Cameron Munster has been passed fit to play after recovering from a knock to his knee, while Dale Finucane has been named on the reserves list as he races the clock to be fit for game time.
Under Craig Bellamy, the Storm have become renowned for their ability to grind out wins in low scoring matches with their brilliant defence. However, there has been a real shift in the back end of the season, as they became a point scoring machine, averaging 38 points in their last four matches, but also conceding 22 points a game.
Ryan Papenhuyzen has become a star fullback this season for the Storm. He scored two tries, had two try assists and ran for a game high 265 metres in the qualifying final victory over the Eels. Not bad for a bloke nobody wanted 18 months ago.
Despite the rise of Papenhuyzen, Munster and Jahrome Hughes over the past few seasons, so much of what the Storm do comes off the back of their veteran Cameron Smith.
Smith has played a remarkable 428 NRL games and will likely go down as the greatest rugby league player of all time when he decides to retire, which many expect to be this year.
That means that tonight could be the final game of Smith’s glittering career if the Storm were to lose, so expect his teammates to do everything they can to send Smith out on a high.
The two sides famously met in the finals last year, with the Raiders scoring a try in the dying minutes to secure a 12-10 victory in a qualifying final in Melbourne.
The teams split their matches this season, with the Raiders winning the first encounter 22-6 all the way back in round 3 at AAMI Park, while the Storm won their last matchup 20-14 at GIO Stadium in round 9.
Jack Wighton (Raiders) vs Cameron Munster (Storm)
Wighton got the better of his matchup with Luke Keary last week, but it doesn’t get any easier this time around against Munster. Wighton was again fantastic last week, using his power to run for 136 metres and also scored the match-sealing try. He has taken his game to a new level this season and will again need to be at his best for the Raiders to book their spot in the Grand Final.
There was huge doubt whether Munster would play this week after leaving the field in the qualifying final with a knee injury, but he’s now ready to go. Munster is such an important player for the Storm and can be destructive when at his best. The Raiders’ right-edge defence looked vulnerable at times last week, so they’ll have to watch out for Munster and Papenhuyzen when they decide to attack.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Raiders) vs Ryan Papenhuyzen (Storm)
Nicoll-Klokstad was brilliant in the first half last week, and even fought off some late cramps to pull off a try-saving tackle to keep the Raiders in front. He ran for a game high 276 metres and probably edged James Tedesco in the battle of the fullbacks. He doesn’t have the pace that Papenhuyzen possesses, but he is so strong running the ball back and is consistently in the right position defensively. He also has the happy knack of pushing through the middle at the right time and played a big hand in the Raiders’ second try last week. He has become Mr Reliable in his time in Canberra and will have to rock solid once again.
Papenhuyzen has turned into a superstar over the past 18 months, and his display in their qualifying final was scary good. He carved up the Eels’ defence with his electric pace and was involved in almost all of their tries. He chimes in equally as well on the right edge as he does on the left and the Raiders will need to make sure their kick chase in perfect as he can pierce a hole in the blink of an eye.
The victor will take take on the winner of the Panthers vs Rabbitohs preliminary final in the Grand Final on Sunday evening, 25 October