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5:40pm Sat September 14, 2019
Finals Week 1 - AAMI Park - Crowd: 20136

Finals Week 1: Storm v Raiders preview

Battle-Hardened Raiders square off against the Kings of September in high stakes Finals Qualifier. 

The Canberra Raiders will run out onto AAMI Park early Saturday evening knowing they are more than capable of repeating the heroics that saw them upset the Storm only a month ago. 

Trailing by 18 points after just half an hour of play in their Round 22 classic, the Green Machine clicked into gear to become the only team to come back from such a deficit and knock over the Storm on their home turf. 

That was the mild August night that turned many of the Raiders doubters into believers that they could in fact give this premiership a serious shake, but it should also serve as a warning shot to Ricky Stuart's men. 

The slow start on that occasion marked the second time this year the Raiders have been slow out of the blocks against the Storm after conceding three quick tries in their Round 2 encounter to trail 14-0 at the break. They were unable to peg back the deficit on that occasion and it's unlikely the Storm would allow such a scenario to play out again in this one.

Coach Stuart will welcome back a host of stars to field a near full strength line-up. 

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jordan Rapana, Iosia Soliola and John Bateman return after sitting out last week to rest niggling injuries. Bailey Simonsson, Dunamis Lui and Corey Horsburgh all drop back to the bench as a result with Emre Guler, JJ Collins and Siliva Havili the men to make way. 

The other big changes see the Raiders both lose and get a player back from suspension. 

Rookie forward Hudson Young was handed an eight week suspension for his second eye gouging incident this year and centre Joey Leilua returns from a two week ban which pushes Nick Cotric back onto the wing. 

In a further boost, Joseph Tapine has been named to lock the scrum after sitting out the last few weeks with a rib cartilage injury. 

Melbourne Coach Craig Bellamy also opted to rest a few of his players last week with Josh Addo-Carr, Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith all named to return for Saturday's blockbuster in place of Sandor Earl, Brodie Croft and Harry Grant.

The omission of Croft is confirmation Bellamy has settled on Jahrome Hughes as the man to don the number seven in the quest for the Storm's fourth premiership. After playing most of the regular season at fullback, it's a move that ultimately allows dynamic young rookie Ryan Papenhuyzen to add another dimension to Melbourne's attack - A scary proposition given they were already ranked the number one attacking team this year.

The Storm juggernaut will be looking to continue their strong record in September with the men in purple triumphing in eight out of their last ten finals games. The two losses during that period came in the 2016 and 2018 Grand Finals.

Last meeting: Round 22 2019 - Storm 18 Raiders 22

We've already spoken about the Raiders stunning comeback that night, but it's also worth noting the Raiders lost both Jack Wighton and Tapine to the sin bin for separate incidents in the first half making their efforts even more impressive.

Raiders Captain Jarrod Croker scored a double which backed up his two-try performance in their earlier encounter against the Storm this year.

And while we're talking tries - Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu has bagged six meat pies in his last four games against the Raiders including a first half hat-trick earlier this year.

Who to watch: When it comes to big match experience in September, Cameron Smith is naturally the first name that springs to mind. The Storm skipper has laced his boots for a finals fixture on 36 previous occasions and will be a pearl of wisdom for the very few players in this Melbourne team who are yet to experience the lift in intensity that the finals bring. There's little you can say about this footballing genius that hasn't been said on countless occasions already. Quite simply, he is the master of controlling the tempo of a game and the man you'll be looking for when the game is on the line.

Arguably the biggest rap on a career which has seen him represent his country on 17 occasions is that Josh Hodgson in recent times is starting to draw comparisons to the man we just spoke about. Like Smith, the Great Britain international is gifted at being able to play the game at his own speed and controlling the tempo. Always crafty out of dummy half, he's formed a lethal combination with Josh Papalii around the middle of the ruck this season which saw the Raiders enforcer cross for the match-winner the last time these two teams met.

When the match is hanging in the balance heading into the final minutes on Saturday evening, it'll likely be one of these number nine's that comes up with the influential play to decide the result.

The favourite: Despite their most recent match, the Storm hold strong favouritism. 

My tip: After a month of football that saw them taste both wins and losses in equal measure, the Raiders faced off against the Roosters, Storm, Sea Eagles and Sharks to make them the most finals-ready team going into this finals series. They did suffer a shock last round loss at the hands of the Warriors, perhaps a letdown after a gruelling month of footy, perhaps a touch complacent with an eye on this match-up. Either way, they will field a vastly different line-up here.

Everyone remembers the Prelim Final of 2016 when the Raiders went within an Edrick Lee dropped ball of upsetting the Storm on that night, but that was a fairly different Canberra team. Back then, they went on a run in the second half of the year with an attacking flair gave them the ability to outscore most teams. This year's team is a little different. They have been consistent all year and have a much stronger base with their defence now the key to their success.

Of course, the Melbourne Storm aren't considered finals specialists for no reason and they certainly won't beat themselves here, but I'm expecting the Raiders to give this Premiership a serious tilt. Raiders by 4.

Outcome: The winner of this contest will host a Preliminary Final in Week 3, while the loser will move to Week 2 where they'll host the loser of the Eels v Broncos Elimination Final.