The preliminary finals are here, and the Canberra Raiders will take on the Melbourne Storm on Friday night at Suncorp Stadium, with the winner to move on to the 2020 NRL Grand Final.
Finishing fifth on the ladder at the end of the regular season, the Raiders took the hard road to reach the prelim. They faced Sharks in round one of the finals, defeating them 32 - 20, before defeating the Roosters 22 - 18 last week, putting an end to the premiers’ hopes of a three-peat.
The Grand Final rematch lived up to its name, with stellar performances across the park that kept fans on the edge of their seats for the full 80 minutes. Josh Papalii got the Raiders on the front foot with a try within the first five minutes that ultimately set the tone for the match.
Storm v Raiders - Preliminary final
George Williams and Joseph Tapine also crossed for the Raiders in the first half, but the Roosters fought back through James Tedesco and Joseph Manu, after several disallowed tries from both teams.
The scores were locked in at 16 – 12 with the Roosters threatening to take the lead until Jack Wighton pounced on a loose ball in the in-goal to extend their lead. Tedesco kept the Roosters hopes alive with a late try on the 74th minute, but the Raiders were just too good.
The victory over the Roosters was more than just a win for the Raiders. The energy and the emotion in every hit, in every moment, highlighted how much it meant to every member of the squad.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was huge for the Raiders in defence, pulling off a number of try-saving tackles in sheer desperation and brilliance that they will need to maintain for their remaining games.
While the Raiders were battling the Roosters, Storm had the week off after taking out the Parramatta Eels 36 - 24 in week one. If their rest wasn’t enough, Storm also earned the home ground advantage this weekend, after finishing second on the ladder at the end of the regular season.
Despite not being at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Queensland has proved to be a fortress for the Storm, having won their last 19 matches in the Sunshine State. With the Raiders supporters who travelled to Sydney for the Roosters game last week not able to enter Queensland, the venue definitely favours the home team.
Friday’s clash will be the third time in five years that these two teams have met in the finals. In 2016, the Raiders travelled to Melbourne for the preliminary final that ended in a narrow 14 – 12 victory to the Storm.
The game was neck and neck until Jack Wighton was sent to the bin and Cheyse Blair immediately scored to put Melbourne in front. The Raiders fought back but the penalty goals proved the difference in the end, and Melbourne went on to Final.
In 2019, the Raiders hit back and defeated the Storm 12 – 10 in round one of the finals. It was a tough 80-minute clash, with an early try to Bailey Simonsson just three minutes in, and a Jarrod Croker conversion making up the only points in the first half.
Suliasi Vunivalu was the lone try scorer for Melbourne, crossing the line right after half time, followed by three penalty goals within 10 minutes put Melbourne in front. The sides battled it out for the next 30 minutes until John Bateman crossed for the Raiders with four minutes to go to steal the game.
The Raiders defence was close to perfect that night and they’ll no doubt be reflecting on that game to come up with another winning performance this weekend.
Ricky Stuart has named Tom Starling and Sia Soliola to start this week, in an unchanged pack from 1 – 17. Matthew Timoko, Michael Oldfield, Ryan Sutton and Sam Williams have been named in the extended squad.
With John Bateman heading back to Wigan at the end of this season and Nick Cotric headed to the Bulldogs, the Raiders squad will continue to dig deep for a full 80 minutes to keep Bateman and Cotric in green for as long as possible.
Cameron Munster has been named in the starting squad for Melbourne, despite a niggling knee injury that he copped in week one of the finals. Craig Bellamy’s decision to put Munster in when he may not be fully fit is a tell-tale sign of what Bellamy knows the Raiders can do. Tom Eisenhuth comes back on to the bench while Dale Finucane has been named at 18th man.
Despite the discussions being kept to a minimum, the Storm players will be keen to play on next week and keep Cameron Smith’s career going as long as possible, with speculation surrounding his retirement at the close of the season.
Melbourne will also farewell Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Paul Momirovski to join new clubs in the NRL, and Suliasi Vunivalu is set to leave for the Super Rugby at the end of the season. Josh Addo-Carr is still contracted to Melbourne but the club have agreed to release him if a suitable player swap can be facilitated with one of the Sydney teams, so with all of the potential and definite departures at the end of the season, the Melbourne Storm will no doubt want to finish at the top.
Fullback for Storm is number 1 Ryan PapenhuyzenFullback for Raiders is number 1 Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
Winger for Storm is number 2 Suliasi VunivaluWinger for Raiders is number 2 Nick Cotric
Centre for Storm is number 3 Brenko LeeCentre for Raiders is number 3 Jarrod Croker
Centre for Storm is number 4 Justin OlamCentre for Raiders is number 4 Jordan Rapana
Winger for Storm is number 5 Josh Addo-CarrWinger for Raiders is number 5 Semi Valemei
Five-Eighth for Storm is number 6 Cameron MunsterFive-Eighth for Raiders is number 6 Jack Wighton
Halfback for Storm is number 7 Jahrome HughesHalfback for Raiders is number 7 George Williams
Prop for Storm is number 8 Jesse BromwichProp for Raiders is number 8 Josh Papalii
Hooker for Storm is number 9 Cameron SmithHooker for Raiders is number 14 Siliva Havili
Prop for Storm is number 10 Christian WelchProp for Raiders is number 16 Hudson Young
2nd Row for Storm is number 11 Felise Kaufusi2nd Row for Raiders is number 11 John Bateman
2nd Row for Storm is number 12 Kenneath Bromwich2nd Row for Raiders is number 12 Elliott Whitehead
Lock for Storm is number 13 Nelson Asofa-SolomonaLock for Raiders is number 13 Joseph Tapine
Interchange for Storm is number 14 Brandon SmithInterchange for Raiders is number 9 Tom Starling
Interchange for Storm is number 15 Tino FaasuamaleauiInterchange for Raiders is number 10 Iosia Soliola
Interchange for Storm is number 17 Nicho HynesInterchange for Raiders is number 15 Dunamis Lui
Interchange for Storm is number 18 Dale FinucaneInterchange for Raiders is number 17 Corey Harawira-Naera
- Referee: Ashley Klein
- Touch Judge: Chris Butler
- Touch Judge: Peter Gough
- Senior Review Official: Jared Maxwell
The last match between these teams saw the Raiders go down to the Storm 20 – 14 at GIO Stadium in July. That game was the last time Josh Hodgson and Bailey Simonsson lined up for the Raiders, each suffering season-ending injuries, but not before Simonsson was controversially sin-binned. The scores were locked in at six all, before the Raiders winger was sent for 10, leaving space for Josh Addo-Carr to slip through and take the lead for Melbourne. A couple of late tries to the Raiders closed in on their lead, but Cameron Smiths boot proved to be the difference on the night, kicking a penalty goal and converting three from three and kicking a penalty goal, to Jarrod Crokers’ one from three.
Behind the Limelight: Semi Valemei
The Raiders were written off from that game, with people suggesting the loss of Hodgson would be the end to their season, yet they’ve come this far, and they’re not done yet. Since Hodgson went down in that seemingly defining moment, the Raiders have won 11 of their 13 games, losing only to the Panthers and the Roosters. The club has proved that they have the depth and the talent to go the distance, winning five in a row in the lead up to the prelim.
NRL Classic: Storm v Raiders - Qualifying Final, 2019
Tom Starling v Cameron Smith
The exciting young gun against the experienced, all class hooker.
Tom Starling has gone from strength to strength since becoming a regular in the squad after Hodgson went down. The young hooker has shared the role with another all-class player in Siliva Havili, but Starling has been named to start this week in what will be his toughest challenge yet.
Starling has earned himself four tries this season, is exciting to watch and has settled into the position of hooker quite comfortably. His defensive effort in every game, when he doesn’t always play 80 minutes is huge, with 481 tackles in 715 minutes of game time, compared to his opponent on 614 tackles in 1300 minutes.
All eyes will be on arguably one of the best players in the game, in what could be his last, if the Raiders come out on top. Smith is still in good form after 428 NRL appearances, the only player to ever clock over 400 games. The skipper would know he has the chance to make it 430 if he steers his team to victory on Friday. The 37-year-old is a one-club man, since his debut in with Storm in 2002, and is the games highest point scorer on 2,762 surpassing Hazem El Masri in 2019. What a chance Tom Starling will get to line up against one of the NRL greats, in what could be his last ever game.
Josh Papalii v Jesse Bromwich
The battle is won in the middle and Josh Papalii one of the best middle-forwards in the game. Sitting on five tries and 41 tackle breaks for the 2020 season, the representative prop has reached a whole new level in recent times, and nobody loves a big game more than the big guy himself. Papalii’s last three tries were against none other than the Roosters and the Storm, scoring the opening try last week and the Raiders first try against the Storm in July.
His early try against the Roosters was the just beginning of the Papalii show last week, clocking in a massive 189 running metres, seven tackle-breaks and one line break. Amongst all that, he made 29 tackles and missed just one; his first in seven games, and his 11th for the year.
Papalii lines up against Jesse Bromwich, the Melbourne veteran who has been quiet this year, with just one try so far compared to five in 2019. Bromwich will be looking for his 30th career try in his 10 years in the NRL. With a tackle efficiency of 94.5%, the well-rested forward will no doubt be ready for the hard-hitting, tackle busting Papalii.
Joseph Tapine v Nelson Asofa-Solomona
If Papalii wasn’t enough through the middle, just add Joseph Tapine to the mix, and those two names alone could make up a forward to be fearful of. Tapine also crossed for the Raiders in their win against the Roosters last week, and clocked over 170 running metres, well above the young forwards average. Tapine is getting harder to tackle by the week, with nine tackle breaks each in the last two games and 52 for the season so far, but where he’s really excelled this season is his post contact metres, totalling just over 1000 for 2020, more than double than most of his past seasons, and he’s not done yet.
Tapine is faced with one of the biggest opponents in the game, literally. Standing at 200cm tall, Nelson Asofa-Solomona will no doubt have a good crack at keeping Tapine under wraps. The big man himself is big a massive season, with 65 tackle breaks and four tries under his belt. Boasting 22 offloads so far in 2020, Tapine will need to be on his game to keep Asofa-Solomona quiet.
Head to Head:
Melbourne have the edge in the head to head record, winning 32 of their 46 games overall, but they’ve won one each this season and the more convincing came from the Raiders in May. Storm is yet to line up against the current Raiders squad, and in a do or die final with so many huge impending departures, every player will be fired up and ready for a massive preliminary final.