Finals Week 3: Raiders v Rabbitohs preview
Green machine dare to realise grand final dream
Sitting on the precipice of qualifying for their first premiership decider in 25 years, the Canberra Raiders will be out to continue a remarkable season by accounting for the South Sydney Rabbitohs at GIO Stadium on Friday evening.
Hosting the first preliminary final held in the nation's capital following changes to the NRL's venue policy earlier this season, the Canberra Raiders will be refreshed having earned a week off after stunning the Storm 12-10 a fortnight ago.
Featuring in their ninth preliminary final since entering the premiership in 1982, the Raiders have progressed through to the grand final on five occasions - including a 32-16 victory over South Sydney in the corresponding fixture 30 years ago.
Winning five of eight matches contested against the Rabbitohs during Ricky Stuart's coaching tenure, ten members remain from the most recent Canberra team to qualify for a preliminary final three years ago.
Elliott Whitehead will play his 100th game for the club after making the move to Australia in 2016.
Progressing through to the final four after outlasting the Sea Eagles 34-26 in a contentious semi final last Friday, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be hoping to cap off a night of milestones with a memorable win in the ACT.
With George Burgess (150 NRL appearances), Damien Cook (100 NRL appearances) and Dane Gagai (50 appearances for South Sydney) all celebrating personal achievements, coach Wayne Bennett will be hoping his side can improve upon an underwhelming preliminary final record that has yielded one win from five attempts over the past three decades.
Winning six of ten visits to Canberra since being readmitted to the premiership - including four out of five meetings this decade - the Rabbitohs will be prepared for a defensive onslaught as they strive to become the first team to secure a place in the grand final.
Retaining the same team that defeated Manly seven days earlier, utility back Corey Allan remains a chance of coming into the final 17 should James Roberts succumb to a thumb injury.
Last Finals Meeting: Semi Finals 2012 - Rabbitohs 38 Raiders 16
Who to watch: Providing the Raiders with a fierce edge not seen since the club's halcyon days, English import John Bateman has been a revelation in his first year down under. Signed from Wigan with big wraps and experience on the international stage, the 25-year-old forward has surpassed all expectations to lead the green machine to within 80 minutes of their first decider in a quarter of a century. Boasting a tireless work rate and the attacking nous to turn half a chance into points, look for Bateman to make his mark on Friday evening with a performance capable of leaving his rivals green with envy.
Establishing himself as a starting player under Wayne Bennett this season, South Sydney forward Liam Knight will be determined to have the last laugh over his former club on Friday night. Returning to Sydney after catching the eye of the seven time premiership-winning coach during his time in the nation's capital, the 24-year-old reformed forward has enjoyed a breakout campaign averaging over 100 metres and 24 tackles per game. Touted as a future representative player, look for Knight to show little self-preservation in an effort to put the Rabbitohs within 80 minutes of claiming their 22nd title.
My tip: While the Rabbitohs have shown themselves capable of scoring points, the defensive fortitude and patience of the Raiders should provide the home side with the edge needed to come away with an historic victory. Raiders by 12.