Round 2: Raiders v Knights preview
Raiders look for consistency against rejuvenated Knights
Blowing the Titans off the park in the early stages of their opening round fixture, the Canberra Raiders were left to rue a series of squandered opportunities that culminated in a shock final minute defeat last Sunday. Gaining the initial ascendancy courtesy of a mammoth forward pack, coach Ricky Stuart will be intent on driving home the need to maintain a high standard of performance across the duration or else the prospect of a 0/2 start to the year will be a very real possibility. In the only change from last week, former Knight Joseph Tapine is out resulting in a forward reshuffle that elevates Luke Bateman into the starting 13, while English international Elliot Whitehead reverts back to the edge. As a result, Warriors recruit Charlie Gubb is set to make his club debut off the bench alongside Aidan Sezer, who will make his 50th appearance for the Raiders on Sunday night. Holding a strong record over the Knights during Ricky Stuart's tenure as coach, the Green Machine will be hoping to overcome a disappointing trend which has seen the side defeated in their first home match of the season in three of the past four years.
Demonstrating how far they've come under Nathan Brown's guidance, the Newcastle Knights produced a stirring extra time victory over Manly to record their first Round 1 win since 2015. Gaining quality service from all of their nine new recruits, the Hunter side will be eager to continue their promising start to 2018 by recording their first win in the ACT since Wayne Bennett's tenure as coach. Retaining the same 17-man squad, the Knights will be hopeful co-captain Jamie Buhrer is able to take his place on the bench after sustaining heavy contact against his former club. Should Buhrer be ruled out of the clash, Jacob Safiti appears to be the logical candidate to join brother Daniel on the bench, however a potential dark horse move could see Ken Sio come into the backline in order to allow Sione Mata'utia the flexibility to shift into the forwards. While recent fixtures between the two sides have largely been tightly fought contests, the Knights have struggled overall to emerge from Canberra with two competition points, however in a sign Novocastrians will be hopeful of repeating, the club recorded their highest ever score (70) against the Raiders in Round 2, 2006 at Canberra Stadium.
Who to watch: Producing some of the highest running metres of his career to date against the Titans, Canberra prop Shannon Boyd will relish the opportunity to take on the Knights with no thoughts of self-preservation. Renown for his blockbusting charges, the former Kangaroos enforcer will be hoping for a much-improved season in order to press his case for a New South Wales debut. With Blues coach Brad Fittler declaring all positions are up for grabs, the 25-year-old faces stiff competition from the likes of Woods, Klemmer, Fifita, McLean and Campbell-Gillard, but as he showed during the Raiders inspired finish to 2016, at his best he possesses the ability to make his presence felt. Taking on a Newcastle pack significantly bolstered from the last time the sides clashed, Boyd will take on a huge responsibility in determining how the end result plays out through his on-field contribution.
Producing one of the finest performances of his career on debut for Newcastle, Herman Ese'ese demonstrated that while the likes of Jacob Lillyman and Chris Heighington will improve the club in the immediate short-term, in Ese'ese, the Knights have a forward capable of delivering long-term success. Representing Samoa at the 2017 World Cup, Ese'ese has shown remarkable development in a relatively short span of time to go from Canterbury discard to commanding a starting role ahead of premiership winning players. Making the most of his opportunity in the number eight jersey by delivering his second highest running metres total in first grade, the 23-year-old will be of paramount importance in providing a platform for the side to build momentum and hopefully emerge from Canberra with a 100% record to start the season.
My tip: Having squandered a seemingly unlosable position against the Titans last Sunday, the Raiders will look to use the size of their big men to outmuscle a Knights outfit unable to draw upon the euphoric energy of their home crowd. Raiders by 10.