Round 15: Wests Tigers v Raiders preview
Desperate times for top eight hopefuls
After opening the season with five wins and a golden point loss, big things were expected of the Wests Tigers in 2018. In the two months that have followed, the joint venture has struggled to maintain the inspired tenacity that allowed them to pull off a number of prominent early scalps; managing just two wins from their past eight appearances against less-than formidable opponents. Coming into Sunday afternoon's contest, the Tigers will be fully aware of the implications of emerging with two points heading into the representative bye. Capable of moving back into the top eight with a win, a loss could see the early season dark horses squander a promising opening to fade away, as has become a frustrating occurrence for supporters in recent seasons. Responding to last weekend's loss to Cronulla, coach Ivan Cleary has recalled Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Matt McIlwrick and Robbie Rochow as part of an effort to arrest the lacklustre form shown in recent weeks. In addition to the historical context surrounding clashes against the Raiders as a result of the immortal 1989 grand final, Sunday will serve as a milestone for two of the club's underrated purchases with Corey Thompson and Josh Aloiai bringing up 50 appearances in first grade.
With the exception of two bitterly disappointing showings against Manly and South Sydney, the Canberra Raiders have been extremely competitive in every match they have contested this season. Suffering their fourth loss decided by two points or less against the Panthers, the killer instinct needed to turn close defeats into wins has been a constant frustration for coach Ricky Stuart in the years following his side's brilliant 2016 campaign. Languishing outside the top eight with all their victories coming against the bottom five sides in the competition, the need to record a win over a finals aspirant should see Canberra play with plenty of confidence in Sydney's West, despite a dismal record of just two wins from nine clashes since the new millennium at the venue. With an early diagnosis suggesting he wouldn't take part in the entire 2018 season, hooker Josh Hodgson will play his first game since England's semi final win over Tonga after recovering from a torn ACL sustained during last year's World Cup. Unable to draw upon the services of prolific try-scorer Jordan Rapana, journeyman Michael Oldfield will be looking to make the most of his opportunity in first grade, while New Zealand international Joseph Tapine will return from suspension in the second row. While their opponents hold a narrow advantage in the overall win-loss leger, the Raiders have been rampant in the past three contests, winning by a combined score line of 158-22.
Last meeting: Round 3 2017 - Raiders 46 Wests Tigers 6
Who to watch: With Benji Marshall sidelined for an extended period due to a torn calf muscle sustained in last week's captains run, off-season purchase Josh Reynolds will have his first opportunity since the opening round to prepare for the role he was bought to the Tigers to fulfil. Named to start in the number six jersey, the former Canterbury fan favourite will be out to impress in front of the Campbelltown Stadium faithful, in what will be his first NRL appearance at the venue. Regarded as one of the best competitors in the game today, the 29-year-old may not have played a great deal of football in 2018 as a result of injury, but as he has shown throughout his career, when he is on the field things happen for the spirited playmaker.
As the most senior member of the Raiders playing group, the experience and intensity held by Iosia Soliola embodies the mentality coach Ricky Stuart has been looking to instil throughout his entire squad. Handed his first grade debut at age 18 back in 2005 while playing for the Roosters as a centre, the battle-hardened New Zealand and Samoan international has been a proven performer since returning to the NRL three years ago with his presence on the field reminiscent of Kiwi legend Ruben Wiki. Having personally felt the force of the New Zealand juggernaut in a finals match a decade ago, Soliola has the ability to be as influential among the developing Raiders line up, while showing that age is not a deterrent from getting the better of rival forwards.
The favourite: Holding a 77% success rate against Canberra at Campbelltown Stadium, the Tigers are expected to finish ahead on the scoreboard at fulltime.
My tip: If the Raiders are to make a charge towards the finals it is essential that they come away with two competition points on Sunday afternoon. At their best they are more than capable of scoring points, but the telling factor for the Green Machine will be managing the closing stages of the contest. Raiders by 4.