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NRL Match Preview: Raiders v Sharks

Zachary Gates

Rd22NRLPreview

The returns of electric winger Jordan Rapana and kingpin second-row Josh Papalii are set to offer the Canberra Raiders are mega boost in their must-win clash with the Cronulla Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.

Rapana and Papalii will slot back in after serving one- and two-match suspensions respectively as the Raiders look to ensure their finals hopes continue to flicker.

Forward Clay Priest looks forward to the strike Papalii will bring back to the side.

“He’s a big part of the team,” Priest said.

“He does a lot of work on and off the field. So having him back will be a big plus.”

The 28-year-old also relishes the giant boost the return of Rapana is set to offer the side.

“He brings so much to the team,” he said.

“His enthusiasm in and around the ruck is remarkable.”

Tasked with having to win every one of their remaining six games in order to secure a finals berth, the Raiders soared to a dream start to their late finals charge in their clash with the Rabbitohs on Saturday afternoon.

They were highly disciplined in their completion of sets, the forwards were relentless in the middle of the park, and the kicking and passing games of halfback Aidan Sezer were again on-song as the Green Machine surged to its biggest win since its 42-16 Round 6 steamroll of the Gold Coast.

Victory over Souths sees the Raiders perched in 10th on the ladder and sitting two wins outside the top eight on 20 competition points ahead of a game against the reigning premiers in which they will have no option but to win.

The men in green are set to face a side eyeing its third win on the trot after victories over the Bunnies and Warriors.

Cronulla’s most recent win came through a 26-12 triumph over the Warriors across the ditch that bolstered its top-four aspirations.

Last Time

It was the Sharks who took the chocolates when the two sides last met, bagging a 42-16 win at GIO Stadium in Round 2 in a performance buoyed by a hat-trick to Blues forward Wade Graham.

Canberra fullback Jack Wighton crossed for a double in his first 2017 appearance, but the Raiders’ cause was not helped by the absence of captain Jarrod Croker.

The Raiders’ last trip to the Shire makes for happier reading, a Rapana double elevating his side to a 30-14 victory in Round 22 of last season as the Green Machine continued its scintillating end to its 2016 campaign.

Key Matchups

Aidan Sezer v Chad Townsend

If the Raiders are to pocket back-to-back do-or-die wins, the expert kicking and passing games of Sezer will again need to come to the fore. The former Titan was crucial to the side’s win over Souths, setting up Canberra’s second try of the night with a right-to-left punt for Joe Tapine to capitalise on, before firing a bulleting cut-out into the mitts of an unmarked Michael Oldfield on the wing. Expect Sezer’s playmaking ability to reach a higher level on Saturday given the return of Rapana, as the two have formed a dangerous combination since the Number 7 made the switch to the right-hand side of the park against the Red V.

It is a halfback with a similar arsenal of skills in Chad Townsend who will square off with Sezer. Townsend – who ranks fifth in the competition for most kicks in play this season – shoulders the majority of the Sharks’ kicking duties. How well he kicks to the corners in search of quality metres on Saturday, and on the Raiders’ try-line in setting up tries or forcing goal-line drop-outs, will carry added significance in light of the absence of New South Wales five-eighth James Maloney.

Joey Leilua v Jack Bird

Joey Leilua will have his work cut out for him when he faces off with soon-to-be Broncos livewire Jack Bird. The bulldozing tackle-breaking powers of the Raiders centre could break the game open, as could his ability to get on the outside of Bird with Rapana looming on his outside. As with Sezer, Leilua’s game promises to again see greener pastures given the return of the Kiwi international.

The pace and footwork of Bird are what Leilua will have to keep a lid on. Bird’s ball-running ability is so dangerous that he has not only haunted opposition defenders in the NRL, but at Origin level, too. Expect the 22-year-old to receive plenty of the Steeden.

Josh Papalii v Wade Graham

Raiders fans breathed a sigh of relief when the men in green salvaged a win in the first of six must-win games despite the absence of Papalii. The light-footed 114-kilogram boulder is now set to play a crucial hand in the Raiders’ fortunes against the Sharks. He will need to link well in attack on the left edge, churn through plenty of metres up the middle of the park, and prove his usual workhorse in defence if the Raiders are to return to the capital with a win. Expect the Queensland representative to come out all guns blazing given his two-match stint on the sidelines.

It is a top-class New South Wales forward in Graham who will engage in a mouth-watering middle-men battle with Papalii. Graham’s Blues were not able to pick the lock on Papalii’s Maroons in this year’s Origin series, but Cronulla’s ever-reliable back-rower will be out to gain the ascendancy on Papalii on the weekend. Graham is expected to make plenty of metres and shoulder plenty of impact in defence, but the fact he has played a lot of games at five-eighth in his career means Papalii will have to remain alert given Graham’s ability to play a playmaking role in the Raiders’ own 20m area.

Quote of the Week

“We’ve just got to play our game and not get too frustrated. They’re a bit of a nagging team. They try to get dirty. We’ve just got to control our game and do what we can.” - Joe Tapine

Head-to-Head

From the 36 times the Raiders and Sharks have met since the birth of the NRL in 1998, Cronulla has won 21 times to Canberra’s 15.

However, the Raiders have won the last three times the sides have met at Southern Cross Group Stadium.