The fixture details for this year’s NRL preliminary finals have been confirmed.
The Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers have arguably nowhere to go but up in 2017 after they both fell out of the race before the big show in 2016.
The reason they fell short ultimately could be put down to a lack of experience and losing home ground advantage to their opposition.
The Panthers trounced the Bulldogs in week 1 of the finals before the Raiders used their home ground advantage, a fast start and a little luck to defeat them in week 2. The Panthers took an hour to get on the board in that clash, unable to replicate the form that saw them account for the Bulldogs.
A couple of quick tries and they drew within six but it wasn’t to be as two unfortunate penalties consigned them to a ten-point defeat.
The Raiders recovered from a week 1 shock loss to the Sharks to beat the Panthers before going down in a thriller to the Storm at AAMI Park in their first preliminary final since 1997.
Again the Raiders could put this loss down to a bit of inexperience and some luck running against them. Edrick Lee epitomised that, bombing at least two tries in the game as the Storm again progressed to the grand final.
What sets these two teams apart from the rest going into 2017 is that they have some newfound experience on top of already highly talented squads.
Both sides had indifferent first half’s of the season but brought some momentum and breathtaking attacking football into the finals.
They both have settled squads and star players who if their form continues on from last season could take them even further in 2017.
The Raiders will be asking for much of the same from their right side combo of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana who together scored 31 tries. They’ll also want more out of their halves combination of Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer.
The pair were both injured throughout the season and didn’t spent as much time as they probably hoped on the field. If Austin in particular can rediscover his running game then that is just another attacking weapon in their already dynamic attack.
The Raiders have a strong forward pack. Josh Hodgson was a revelation for them last season at hooker, their backline is electric and their coach Ricky Stuart has proved a few wrong already in his methodical building of this squad.
The Raiders go into this season without losing much but having gained a lot in the way of experience in finals footy. Mostly untroubled over the Origin period, the Raiders fans could be staring down the barrel of ending a 22-year premiership drought.
Over at the foot of the mountains and the perhaps the Raiders biggest rivals are gearing up for one of their most anticipated seasons in recent memory. The Panthers not only gained experience from 2016 but have more players than the Raiders coming in or returning from injury.
Of the squad that went down to Canberra they have four props to add in Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Sam McKendry, Tim Browne and James Tamou. They also have Dean Whare, Pete Hiku and Te Maire Martin retuning from injury.
Mitch Rein and Michael Oldfield join the squad also. The headache for Anthony Griffin will be how to fit everyone in and just who misses out. Zac Hardaker, Suiaia Matagi and Chris Grevsmuhl are really the biggest losses for the Panthers, but these are more than covered for.
The loss of Josh Manour is a big one but with plenty of competition for spots this should be adequately filled. Not only have they bought well but the Panthers proved last season just how well their junior development is working in Nathan Cleary and James Fisher Harris. This bodes well for them over the Origin period.
While the Storm and Sharks played long seasons, lose some experience and will find they take a heavy toll during Origin the Panthers and Raiders will be buoyed by season where perhaps they both went further than anyone expected.
These two sides have met in a couple of grandfinals and a few more finals series as well. They are set to add to that tally in 2017 with two of the most exciting attacking squads going around and a better idea of what it takes to win games.
Complacency, injury and expectation are their biggest obstacles, not to mention 14 other teams but get it right and expect these two sides to be there at the pointy end of the season once again fighting for their survival or better yet fighting for a premiership