Round 22 Preview Questions: Raiders overcome Sticky date with destiny? Roosters dark horses? Storm in strife?
All the burning questions for Round 22.
If you’ve got a talented young rugby league players who aspires to reach the top, get them into the No.7 jersey.
A lot of league fans scratch their head when they hear about halfbacks who are earning massive coin compared to wingers, back-rowers and now centres who are regulars in the representative ranks but don’t attract the big-dollar deals.
Jamal Fogarty deserves every cent of the lucrative three-year deal Canberra threw at him to prise him away from the Gold Coast.
Titans coach Justin Holbrook recently conceded it was a blunder by his club to release Fogarty from the final year of his deal for a better offer elsewhere.
They invested their future on the back of an inexperienced spine and are paying the price with their wooden spoon favouritism a month out from the end of the season.
Heading into Saturday’s GIO Stadium showdown with premiers Penrith, the ninth-placed Raiders can give their finals hopes a shot in the arm if they can upset the Panthers, who will go into the first of five games without their star halfback, suspended co-captain Nathan Cleary, who has joined his NSW playmaking partner Jarome Luai (knee) on the sidelines until the finals.
Not that they’d expect it but Penrith will get no sympathy from Canberra when it comes to dealing with halves disruptions.
Fogarty injured his knee in his only pre-season trial outing against Manly and was initially due to miss four months but was able to return in Round 12.
He slotted into a team that had knocked off Cronulla twice and upset Souths 32-12 but had also dropped vital competition points to the lowly Warriors and been well off the pace against Penrith, North Queensland and Melbourne.
Since Fogarty has returned the Raiders have gone on a 5-3 run to be on the edge of the top eight. If they can jag a win over the Panthers, a spot in the playoffs is a distinct possibility as they close the schedule with four teams below them on the ladder – the Knights, Dragons, Sea Eagles and Tigers.
Fogarty’s traiditional halfback play allows star five-eighth Jack Wighton to play wider of the ruck to take advantage of his strength, his running game.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart, who formed a similar but much more successful partnership with Laurie Daley three decades ago for the Green Machine, said Fogarty and Wighton were benefiting from their first sustained run of matches and training sessions together.
Wighton’s Origin duty and an untimely bout of COVID-19 delayed the budding halves duo’s chemistry but after losses in their first three games together, they have driven the Green Machine to a hat-trick of wins over the Storm, Warriors and Titans.
“It’s nice to get some continuity and consistent games together. It’s not just the games, it’s the practice. I think this is the third week in a row they’ve trained together and I don’t think they’ve had that the last four months,” Stuart said at his captain’s run media conference on Friday.
“You can see in the confidence of both halves, the confidence they have in each other’s game.
“That’s the advantage you get when you’ve got some consistency in your combinations, your spine, your middles, your OBs [outside backs], you get to know one another’s game, it’s a big help when you get to game day.”
He will have to do without one of the key members of his spine against Penrith with young gun fullback Xavier Savage ruled out with an ankle problem.
Canberra have coincidentally also gone 5-3 when Savage has started at fullback. Albert Hopoate, who was dropped for Kiwi winger Jordan Rapana’s return from suspension, has been recalled after the Raiders’ Savage blow.
Veteran lock Adam Elliott (hip) is a confirmed starter while prop Corey Horsburgh, who was named in the extended reserves, will make a comeback from a month-long bout of pneumonia in the NSW Cup ranks.
“We couldn’t quite get Xavier’s ankle right for this weekend as he’s been carrying it for a couple of weeks and he needed to have a week off,” Stuart said.
“It’s a very important part of the season for us and we need him back on the field at 100% fitness.”
“He’s been doing a wonderful job for us over the past couple of months and we need him to get his ankle right and get him back in next week when he’s fully fit.”
There has been plenty of tension in recent match-ups with Penrith, including an infamous incident last season when Panthers centre Stephen Crichton tried to bring Raiders forward Joe Tapine into their post-try celebration, which sparked a flare-up involving several players.
When they met in Round 7 and the Panthers trounced Canberra 36-6 at home, Crichton and Wighton – who were later to become Origin teammates – were involved in a melee after the final siren which referee Grant Atkins described as “garbage” as he took the unusual step of putting the entire incident on report.
The Raiders have previously described the premiers as arrogant but Stuart laughed at suggestions there was any added spice to this encounter apart from his team’s desire to lock up a valuable two competition points.
With the Roosters, Storm and Eels already winning this round, the Raiders’ hopes of snaring one of the last couple of spots in the final eight will take a huge dint if they can’t take advantage of the depleted Panthers.
Fijian forward Viliame Kikau is also out of the visiting line-up due to a hip complaint but Crichton is back, wearing headgear, after his ear was split badly by Sharks forward Dale Finucane a fortnight ago.
“When you’re involved in a high-performance game results are everything and that’s what we both want,” Stuart said. “That’s what happens when you’ve got good football teams up against each other and there’s a lot at stake.
“It makes it exciting, they’re the games you wish you could play. We’re finding some form at the right time of the season, it’s all about timing.”