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Raiders hold onto hope as Knights look towards 2018
The term mathematical possibility is often regarded as a death knell for NRL teams, yet for the Canberra Raiders the chance to qualify for an unlikely finals appearance will drive the side towards amending the pain of last Sunday's loss to Penrith. With Manly and North Queensland staring down the prospect of heading into September without a win and the ninth placed Dragons needing to win their remaining fixtures to ensure their place in the top eight, the equation Ricky Stuart will be instilling in his players is surprisingly simple: win and hope for the best. Having shown tenacity to go within an inch of claiming the two points against the Panthers, the Raiders will fancy their chances against a Newcastle outfit coming off a gallant loss to Melbourne. Retaining the same squad that has performed strongly over the past three weeks, the home side will be hoping the occasion of five-eighth Blake Austin's 100th NRL games inspires an attacking masterclass reminiscent of the past two clashes at GIO Stadium between the two teams.
While an all but certain third consecutive wooden spoon should be cause for dismay, the Knights will be buoyant about their finish to 2017 having enjoyed the fruits of their labour under coach Nathan Brown. Putting up a determined fight against the premiership favourites, Newcastle head to Canberra intent on nailing the coffin on the Raiders distant top eight hopes, while also holding out for a similar miracle mathematical outcome to avoid another 16th placed finish. Proving a thorn in the side of Canberra in recent times, the Knights will be out to make amends for their last visit to the ACT, which saw them suffer a heartbreaking extra-time loss having established a 22-0 lead in even time last July. Losing primary attacking playmaker Brock Lamb for the final fortnight, Jack Cogger is set to come into the side for the first time this season, while fan favourite Nathan Ross has been named to make a remarkable recovery after suffering a suspected broken back a fortnight ago. In other notable changes for Newcastle, co-captain Sione Mata'utia will spend at least a week on the sidelines after sustaining another concussion, while rookie forward Luke Yates is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury. In their place, departing forwards Mickey Paea and Joe Wardle come onto the bench with New Zealand hopeful Danny Levi named to start at hooker.
Who to watch: He may not be held in the same esteem as some of his fellow teammates, but the value of Luke Bateman is just as important for the Raiders as they hold onto the faintest hope of an unlikely finals appearance. Alongside the likes of Clay Priest and Dave Taylor, the Raiders interchange forward has played a pivotal role in the sides late season surge, maintaining the platform laid by more fancied starting pack. Comparable to the no-nonsense style of unfashionable Canberra prop Josh Miller, Bateman has been consistent performer under Ricky Stuart and will be eager to ensure the visiting Novocastrians leave the ACT with more than just the pain of missing out on two competition points.
Coming in for his first appearance in the Knights NRL team this season, young half Jack Cogger will be out to repay the faith shown by coach Nathan Brown. Spending four months on the sidelines following surgery required to stabilise his pelvis in the first match of 2017, the 20-year-old half is set to partner Trent Hodkinson following the untimely knee injury sustained by Brock Lamb against Melbourne. Holding a winless record from his prior six appearances in first grade, Cogger has been in strong touch upon his return, while his willingness to take on the line should ensure the Knights remain competitive in the absence of their most potent attacking threats. On-contract for next season, Cogger may not be in the clubs immediate plans for next season, but should he stand up and deliver, the club will be more than confident in his ability when called upon in 2018.
My tip: The results may not have gone the Raiders way in 2017, but having instilled a culture of self-belief, Ricky Stuart will have his side armed with a motivator far stronger than anything their opponents can muster - hope. Raiders by 14.
1. Jack Wighton 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Blake Austin 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Junior Paulo 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Shannon Boyd 11. Josh Papalii 12. Joseph Tapine 13. Elliot Whitehead 14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Clay Priest 16. Dave Taylor 17. Luke Bateman
1. Nathan Ross 2. Ken Sio 3. Dane Gagai 19. Peter Mata'utia 5. Shaun Kenny-dowall 6. Jack Cogger 7. Trent Hodkinson 8. Daniel Saifiti 12. Jamie Buhrer 15. Mickey Paea 11. Lachlan Fitzgibbon 14. Joe Wardle 13. Mitchell Barnett 9. Danny Levi 10. Josh King 16. Sam Stone 17. Jacob Saifiti