Given most Aussie kids’ memories of Canberra comprise FIFO visits to the War Memorial, Art Gallery and Questacon if they were lucky, it may surprise to learn that growing up in the capital was actually pretty good.
It’s a Thursday night game worth getting excited about when the Sharks head to the nation’s capital to kick off Round 14.
A spot in the top four is up for grabs and in a season where it’s a genuine coin flip for the title, the extra advantage that comes from finishing in the top quarter is going to be more important than ever.
There’s a bit of talk of the Thursday night fixture being a bit of a non-event, with two tired teams going through the motions in front of a negligible crowd. But 2019 has given us some great finishes after a couple of early blowouts.
We’ve had some entertaining clashes in the last four weeks with games decided by eight, six, two and three points, and this week should be no different.
These two clubs have built a pretty good rivalry over the last few years and the victories have gone to the Sharks, 6-4 in the last ten meetings but five times from the last seven.
Interestingly, Cronulla have won their last six games in Canberra. It’s a trend the home side must definitely buck after dropping three games at home already in 2019.
Canberra have the NRL’s second most stingiest defence, letting in 180 points at an average of just under 14 per game. It’s a most uncharacteristic output for Ricky Stuart’s club but it’s obvious hard work and focus on defensive structures and attitudes in the offseason have paid off.
The Raiders have held three teams to zero and took great pride in doing so, which is a great sign for those long, long-suffering green machine fans so used to watching the defence crowd up the middle while opposition centres and wingers strolled over the try line unmolested.
Fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s arrival in Canberra from the New Zealand Warriors was seen as cover at the position but the young Kiwi has quickly become one of the buys of the season.
He’s leading the NRL in run metres and kick return metres, a critical boost to help the Raiders out of danger.
‘CNK’ has been rock solid at the back with few errors and has allowed the team to keep persisting with Jack Wighton at his new position of five-eighth instead of needing to switch back as cover.
So it’s a different Canberra side in 2019 but there’s still areas of concern. The attack can be a little predictable, particularly close to the line.
They’ve lost a game at home to North Queensland they were expected to win and they’ve been blown away early by top sides Melbourne (down 4-22 after an hour) and the Roosters (trailed 6-30 after 42 minutes).
If the Raiders wanted to get a sense of where they’re at, Cronulla are the perfect team to give you a thorough, searching examination of all aspects of your game.
The Sharks aim up in defence and their forwards Andrew Fifita, Matt Prior and the massive unit Braden Hamlin-Uele always keep their opponents honest.
It’s not just dirt and grind from a quality forward pack though. With Matt Moylan, Shaun Johnson, Josh Dugan, Josh Morris and speedy young centre Bronson Xerri, Cronulla can rack up points in a hurry, orchestrated by the fantastic and often underrated Chad Townsend at halfback.
They’re just as happy running up a score as they are getting down and dirty for a 12-10 victory… They’re adaptable like that.
This game is also worth the price of admission for a possible John Bateman vs Paul Gallen match-up. Both players are a talisman for their sides – when they go well, they bring their teammates along with them.
They’ll be more than happy to Test themselves against each other, too. That could be fun.
At the time of writing, Shaun Johnson has been named on an extended bench but needs to pass a fitness Test on his hamstring if he’s to take the field at any point.
Cronulla’s first year coach John Morris couldn’t have had a tougher initiation into the role, taking over in a whirl of controversy and uncertainty after the Sharks were hit hard by a range of punishments for salary cap and governance problems.
Morris has shown to be a more than adept man manager and tactician, as he’s had to juggle a side missing a number of injured stars during the first 13 weeks.
His team has missed at one time or another Gallen, Aaron Woods, Fifita, Johnson, Dugan, Moylan and Wade Graham. It’s a strong endorsement of Morris’ abilities that the Sharks have stayed in touch with the top four and are still a fringe premiership contender.
These two teams put on a great show every time they share a field. They’re well matched, in reasonable shape and able to attack from anywhere on the field.
The questions will be on the Raiders who come in as favourites – can they handle a top four calibre side better than they have so far, and can they grind out a tough performance against a club that does that week in, week out?
It’s predicted to be a cold night with a bit of rain about, which lends itself to some good old fashioned rugby league grinding and slogging with some flashes of brilliance. This should be a great game, no matter the conditions.
Raiders by 2.
1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, 2. Bailey Simonsson, 3. Jarrod Croker, 4. Nick Cotric, 5. Jordan Rapana, 6. Jack Wighton, 7. Aidan Sezer, 8. Josh Papalii, 9. Siliva Havili, 10. Dunamis Lui, 11. John Bateman, 12. Elliott Whitehead, 13. Joseph Tapine
Bench/Reserves: 14. Tom Starling, 15. Emre Guler, 16. Iosia Soliola, 17. Ryan Sutton, 18. Sam Williams, 19. Royce Hunt
1. Matt Moylan, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Bronson Xerri, 4. Josh Morris, 5. Josh Dugan, 6. Kyle Flanagan, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Blayke Brailey, 10. Matt Prior, 11. Briton Bikora, 12. Kurt Capewell, 13. Paul Gallen
Bench/Reserves: 14. Wade Graham, 15. Jayson Bukuya, 16. Jack Williams, 17. Braden Hamlin-Uele, 18. Aaron Gray, 21. Shaun Johnson
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