Round 18: Raiders v Cowboys preview
Battlers eye off strong final third to close out 2018
Snatching an undeserved victory against a Canterbury side unaccustomed to closing out matches in 2018, the Raiders will return to GIO Stadium on Saturday evening knowing a much-improved showing will be required to give themselves any chance of challenging opponents in pursuit of a finals finish. Describing his team's performance at Belmore as ‘pathetic' in a brutally honest post-match press conference, Canberra coach Ricky Stuart will be acutely aware of the importance of downing the Cowboys at home given six of their subsequent seven matches are against current top eight teams. Holding a dominant record against North Queensland in the nation's capital with 14 wins from 20 contests predating Super League, the Raiders will be wary of the threat posed by one the season's biggest disappointments having gone down to their opponents in Canberra on four of the past seven encounters. Boosted by the inclusion of Queensland forward Josh Papalii, Nick Cotric has been selected at fullback to replace Brad Abbey with prolific try scorer Jordan Rapana named after spending the past month on the sidelines; however in a blow to the side's forward rotation Shannon Boyd is out with a calf strain.
In a year that began with the promise of premiership glory the decline of the North Queensland Cowboys has been hard to fathom for supporters throughout the league. Touted to improve upon last season's grand final defeat following the recruitment of Jordan McLean, return from injury of co-captain Matt Scott and knowledge that 2018 would be the final season for future immortal Johnathan Thurston, the disparity between expectation and reality has left many baffled as to how a team renown for defying the odds could lose its winning edge so drastically. Managing a meagre 25% success rate over the first 16 rounds, embarrassing results have been rarely sighted with just three losses exceeding 13+ margins, however having cultivated a reputation as one of the finest outfits in closing out tight contests during Paul Green's tenure, a number of narrow losses that would have placed the Cowboys into finals contention have left the Townsville outfit to ponder what could have been in 2018. Holding a strong record against the Raiders with five wins from the eight matches contested since Paul Green and Ricky Stuart assumed control of the respective clubs, the 15th placed battlers will be boosted by the return of underrated forward John Asiata in his first appearance since Round 7, while Ethan Lowe is expected to come into the starting side should Queensland pair Gavin Cooper and Coen Hess fail to recover from Wednesday night's final Origin.
Who to watch: His appearance against the Bulldogs may have been brief, but with the game on the line Blake Austin proved his immense talent to keep the Raiders' season alive. Relegated to the bench following a poor defensive performance in the collapse to Brisbane a week earlier, the 27-year-old showed that despite some deficiencies in his game that can be capitalised upon by opponents, at his best there are few individuals in the league capable of single-handedly determining the outcome of a result. Unable to force himself back into the starting side despite his game-changing contribution at Belmore, the former Penrith and Wests Tigers utility will be eager to make the most of the remaining two months in Canberra after finalising his future elsewhere. Signing a multi-year deal with English Super League heavyweights Warrington as a means of solidifying his standing as a starting player, the clarity of securing his future should see Austin make a determined effort to finish his time with the Raiders on a high note by helping the Green Machine charge towards September.
In a team that has overly relied upon the success of previous campaigns with little regard for evolution, the emergence of Enari Tuala has been a refreshing injection of youth for the Cowboys. As the youngest member of the North Queensland squad by a significant margin, the 19-year-old Junior Kangaroo's representative has proven to be the biggest beneficiary of Paul Green's enforced restructuring by relegating dual premiership winner Justin O'Neill to reserve grade on the strength of his performances. Featuring in six matches so far this season after debuting in first grade during the side's injury crisis towards the end of 2017, the speedy centre has shown glimpses of immense promise in open space along with an attuned sense of intuition to support the ball. Opposing veteran campaigner Jarrod Croker in a personal duel that pits youth against experience, Tuala will relish the chance to press his case for a permanent position over the closing weeks of a season filled with regret for the Cowboys.
My tip: Sitting six points outside finals qualification and with six of their remaining seven matches against current top eight sides, the stakes on offer for the Raiders should see them prevail if they have genuine ambitions of featuring beyond the regular season. Raiders by 7.