The Canberra Raiders have pulled off a dramatic late escape to avoid another horrendous defeat, scoring late to avert disaster against the Newcastle Knights.
It’s a three-horse race as far as the betting markets and popular opinion may be concerned.
The Roosters, Panthers and Storm are all contenders, all coming from very different places at this point in time. The Panthers with all the youth and exuberance in the world, top of the table and unstoppable after 14 wins on the trot.
The Storm, the consummate professionals but looking more flamboyant than seasons gone by with an enviable backline.
The Roosters, searching for a three-peat, just humming along nicely and building into finals the way they have the last two years.
If they are the favourites, then the Raiders are the smoky – sorry Eels fans. Everyone is tipping the big three but ultimately wary that the Raiders probably do have the football in them on their day.
It came as no surprise that the Storm and Panthers have rested players this weekend with nothing to gain and definitely something to lose. The Panthers had already rested some players in the lead-up but will take the opportunity against the Bulldogs to rest Dylan Edwards, Villiame Kikau and Stephen Crichton.
The Storm have rested 12 players. It is staggering, but they play the last game of the round. There is no guarantee they will get the Sunday game in the first week of the finals, and even if they do, they would be playing the Roosters or Eels, who will have an extra day to prepare. It only makes sense for the Storm at this point to give as many players as possible a break.
What is surprising was how many players the Raiders are resting. That decision is a real tactical call by Ricky Stuart, who is playing some odds heading into this finals series. There is a chance the Raiders could yet finish fourth. That is dependant on them beating the Sharks and the Eels losing to the Tigers.
The keyword is ‘dependant’, and a portion of the scenario is out of the Raiders control. Even if they put out their biggest stars and see off the Sharks, if the Eels win, it all counts for naught. They will play the Sharks in Canberra in the first week of the finals.
This season will have gone for 17 weeks straight by the end of this round. Ricky could have named a team that would have ensured they got a win against the struggling Sharks, but that adds to the fatigue his side is already under and comes at the risk of it not even being beneficial for them. In naming a second-string side he still gives them the opportunity to win but allows his stars a rest when they otherwise wouldn’t have had one. If the Eels win, he is vindicated in the decision; if they don’t, he’s still playing some important odds.
We have seen teams play each other in the final round and then Week 1 of the finals before. The Eels turned a final-round 38-0 loss into a 25-12 finals win against the Dragons in 2009. The Panthers turned a 28-12 loss against the Sea Eagles in the final round into a 22-10 win against them in the first week on the 2017 finals.
The match on Saturday gives Ricky a first-hand look at the Sharks and their vulnerabilities while having the advantage of sending out a very different side to face them the next week. The Sharks can’t afford to rest players and need the momentum heading into the finals. A win may just give them a false sense of confidence before they head to Canberra a week later and get bundled out. The Raiders don’t lose much in the way of confidence, with a loss this Saturday dealt with by a vastly different team to play a week later.
This week is the only guaranteed week off Stuart can give the Raiders. Teams so rarely win from the bottom four because they don’t get the advantage of a week off or a home final after week one. However, we did see the Cowboys in 2015 lose in the finals but win the premiership. If the Raiders do finish fourth, they are ‘rewarded’ with a trip to Penrith. Stuart would know that if they are going to pull off a win in that one, rest is more important than momentum. It would mean they get a chance to earn a home preliminary final and another week off.
If they finish fourth and lose to the Panthers in Week 1, they would take on the loser of the Sharks-Eels match. I don’t think Stuart would be afraid to take on either of these sides. Likewise if his side finishes fifth, they would take on the Sharks and win and then most likely be playing the loser of the Panthers-Eels. That too would be dependant on other results, namely the Roosters beating the Rabbitohs this weekend.
It is all down to a lot of what-ifs and Ricky Stuart is acutely aware. Whatever happens, there are some tough games around the corner they will have to win, that will become sudden death at some point. This is a unique season, and without his side being able to control their destiny fully at this point, Stuart is just looking to give the Raiders the best possible chance heading into the finals. At this point the best way to do that is to give his team a break.
Many said that without Josh Hodgson the Raiders were no chance of a premiership, but here they are in relatively competitive form at the back end of the season. They have beaten the Storm and Roosters this season, although they have also lost to them since. The match against the Roosters a few weeks ago was the most significant they have had in a month. The 18-6 scoreline was a reflection of where each is at and in many ways encouraging for the Raiders. There were scrappy tries scored that night, as is quite often the case when it comes to the big games. The Raiders fought hard and would have come away learning something from it.
In the meantime they have done what they have had to. They are on three wins in a row, seemingly moving into top gear only when they need to. They have been down in each of those but hit back and got the job done.
This is a team ready for the finals and could yet be underestimated. They aren’t afraid to take it to the big boys and are going to go into the finals series as well-rested as any other side.
After going so close in 2019, could the Raiders come from the cloud to snatch it this year?