The Canberra Raiders will host another Queensland outfit this week when they cross swords with the North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday night with an eye on a return to the winners’ circle.
Here are five big talking points ahead of the Round 16 fixture.
The biggest talking point ahead of Saturday’s fixture is undoubtedly the absence of superstar playmaker Johnathan Thurston. Queensland and the Cowboys received devastating news in the aftermath of Origin II when it was confirmed that JT will miss the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury sustained in the Maroons’ 16-6 win.
The Panthers weren’t able to take full advantage of the loss of the two-time Dally M winner when they travelled north of the Tweed on the weekend and left with a 16-14 loss, but that is exactly what Ricky Stuart’s men will aim to do.
A big question mark will surround 21-year-old halfback Kyle Laybutt on Saturday, who has filled the gaping boots of JT in the Cowboys last two outings and who is expected to again fill the void in the nation’s capital. The Cowboys instead could also hand a debut to Te Maire Martin who seled a mid-season switch to North Queensland from Penrith just a few weeks ago.
Fresh in the minds of Raiders fans is the Green Machine’s golden-point away loss to Paul Green’s men in Round 1.
A Joey Leilua try at the death converted by Aidan Sezer drew scores level at 16-apiece, before a try to Gavin Cooper three minutes in to extra-time sealed the win for the hosts.
It would mark the first of a number of gut-wrenching tight losses to the men in green this season, so expect the Raiders to go hammer and tongs as they look to exact revenge at home.
Elliott Whitehead’s 200th Super League/NRL game
The Raiders will look to make Elliott Whitehead’s 200th NRL/Super League appearance one to cherish.
The English international has donned Raiders colours on 41 occasions, and amassed 158 Super League appearances during stints with the Bradford Bulls and Catalans Dragons between 2009 and 2015 before joining Canberra for the start of the 2016 season.
Whitehead is renowned for how much of a workhouse he is. He finished 2016 as the Raiders leading tackler and played the most minutes in the NRL last year, missing just two minutes due to concussion in Round 13.
Among a number of milestone games marked in winnings ways this season, the Raiders were able to stamp Jack Wighton’s 100th NRL outing with a win over the Warriors in Round 7, and managed to snag a win over Parramatta in Round 11 when Jarrod Croker reached the double ton. They will now look to stamp Whitehead’s 200th NRL/Super League appearance in similar style in a push to remain in contention with the top eight.
Keen a close eye on Raiders winger Jordan Rapana. The Kiwi international wasn’t able to find the white line against the Broncos despite making 173 running metres and a line-break, but he remains the NRL’s leading try-scorer after 15 rounds of competition.
Rapana (14) remains two tries clear of Melbourne’s Suliasi Vunivalu (12) and a trio of four-pointers ahead of fellow Melbourne speedster Josh Addo-Carr. This is despite the fact that Vunivali crossed for a try against the Roosters in Adelaide on the weekend and Addo-Carr for a double.
The GIO Stadium fortress will host its second triple-header of the season when the NYC, Mounties and NRL fixtures all come to Canberra for a jam-packed day of rugby league action on Saturday.
The Raiders will host the Cowboys in the NYC from 3:15pm, before the Mounties meet the Illawarra Cutters at 5:15pm. The Raiders v Cowboys blockbuster will then explode at the sound of the Viking Clap at 7:30pm.
It will be the first time Canberra has hosted a triple-header since the first Saturday of April. It was a brilliant day for Raiders fans stamped with wins to the Mounties as well as the Raiders in the NYC, and a 30-18 win over Parramatta in the NRL when a late try to Nick Cotric sealed the win for the Green Machine.