Round 21 Preview

Welcome to the real world. No this is not the Matrix, rather round 21 of the NRL Telstra Premiership and the day of reckoning for the Canberra Raiders has finally arrived. Pretenders or contenders is the back page headline. Well, considering the Raiders have already beaten the Panthers, Bulldogs, Dragons, Warriors and came within an inch of beating the Brisbane Broncos, I'd like to ask what more do we have to do to get some respect around here? Even our losses have been by small margins. Canberra have only lost one game all season by more than 12 points.

All that aside, Canberra face the premiers who are very close to their best and people are waiting to see the Raiders fall. Even though victory is important, a competitive game is even more crucial for the Raiders to earn some respect. I am under no illusions as to how tough tonight's game will be but we aren't first for no reason.

We can win the game and to do that we must beat the Roosters at their own game and that is quick movement out of dummy half and keep the game in the middle for as much as possible. Giving the Roosters too much width with their explosive backs is a recipe for disaster. We have the forwards to dominate and I believe Brad Fittler is carrying a shoulder injury from last week's victory over the Panthers. This needs to be exploited. I also believe Michael Crocker will start the game at hooker, moving Craig Wing to half and Brett Finch to the bench.

As Simon Woolford said, it's not the end of the world if the Raiders lose but we all know how important it would be to win the game. Win tonight and the Raiders may not drop another game all year. Lose, well who knows what effect it might have.

First Saturday game sees the Warriors host the Storm and I think the Warriors may struggle without Stacey Jones while Melbourne have been hanging in there all season and a win here will virtually assure them a place in the top eight considering they have a bye up their sleeve. I think the Storm will inflict a loss on the Warriors, who are struggling to find any type of form this season. Melbourne by 12.

The Sharks have endured one of the most turbulent weeks in their history and history shows teams usually bounce back with a win in the following game. This does not bode well for the Broncos who are struggling without Lockyer and Tallis and a loss to the Sharks will see the Broncos slip out of the top four and lose some much-needed momentum heading into the finals. I think the Sharks will win and continue the trend of struggling sides bouncing back with a big scalp. Sharks by 8.

The Eels juggernaut continues to gather momentum and I'll have it known for the record I predicted the exact scenario happening now to the letter. But, for the Eels, beating the Tigers will be no easy task and although the Tigers are out of semi finals contention, they are fast maturing and are averaging close to 30 points a game and most of those are top eight sides. I think Parramatta's desperation might just get them home and with Nathan Hindmarsh taking the Eels on his shoulders towards the top eight, he will have a blinder. Eels by 6.

Another no brainer involving South Sydney and to put it simply, there just isn't anything positive to say about this team. Their match against the Bulldogs will be little more than a training run for the Dogs who will rack up 40 before the game is out. Bulldogs by 26. The Dogs may leapfrog the Broncos into the top four if results go their way so they will be switched on for the full eighty minutes.

Manly are last start winners while the Knights are attempting to pick themselves up off the floor after a comprehensive thumping at the hands of the Tigers. Although Johns, Buderus and Kennedy did not play last weekend, the Knights look brittle and their for and against is shocking. I think they will beat Manly but their defensive deficiencies may cost the Knights a place in the top eight so they need to rack up some big scores to square the ledger. Manly will be tough and riding high after their upset of the Broncos but to win at Newcastle against a full strength Knights side may just be a little beyond them. Knights by 18.

St George host the Panthers in the final match of the round and although the Panthers were soundly beaten by the Roosters, I still think there was a lot to take out of that loss and the main point was the Panthers competed for the full eighty minutes and at one stage had the Roosters looking over their shoulder to the extent that injured captain Brad Fittler had to return from a shoulder injury to get the Roosters across the line.

The Dragons are walking the finals tightrope and this match represents another nail in the coffin should the Dragons emerge unsuccessful. Lance Thompson has returned for this match and it may be enough but without Mark Gasnier in the backline they lack the strike power to dent the Panthers and while I think it will be close, the Dragons just don't look like getting across the line to me. Having said that, the Dragons save their best performances when their backs are against the wall and this is one of those times. Panthers by 2.

Some intriuging matchups this weekend but my weekend hinges on tonight's game and if my beloved Raiders emerge victorious, well, it won't be a pretty sight. You have been warned!