Raiders v Panthers preview

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Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers Friday 6:00pm at GIO Stadium Canberra

Potentially depleted Panthers brace for desperate Raiders

Four points adrift of the competition's Top Eight, Friday night's clash with Penrith shapes as a critical two points for Ricky Stuart's men. After escaping with a tense 21-20 win over Manly a fortnight ago, the Raiders enjoyed the week off with Josh Papalii their only Origin representative. As a result, Stuart has been able to name a fairly settled side for Friday night's match and will be hoping that will prove the difference against an undermanned Penrith outfit. The inclusion of boom winger Nick Cotric is a massive boost for the Green Machine, with the 19-year-old missing out on a sky-blue jersey despite an unbelievable start to 2018. Given Penrith's resilient defence, the Canberra faithful will be relying on the likes of Cotric to spark their team in attack.

While few question marks linger over Stuart's seventeen men named on Tuesday, it is a completely different story for Anthony Griffin. Already without key personnel through injury (Josh Mansour, Dylan Edwards, Peter Wallace, Waqa Blake, Moses Leota, Sam McKendry), the Panthers could face further setbacks this weekend with Nathan Cleary, James Maloney, Tyrone Peachey and Reagan Campbell-Gillard all a chance of being rested following the Blues' 22-12 Game One victory on Wednesday night. Peachey appears the most likely of the four to suit up for Friday night's match after playing just eight minutes off the bench in the ten-point victory. Penrith fans, however, will be hoping one of Maloney and Cleary can recover in time for the clash given the inexperience of their likely makeshift spine of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Tyrone May, Jarome Luai and Sione Katoa. Their kicking game in particular would be crucial given that May and Luai lack the direction and composure of both of Penrith's regular halves. However, discounting Campbell-Gillard, the Panthers will still field an imposing forward pack which shapes as their greatest asset coming into Friday night's game. Penrith's big men played an enormous role in their 28-2 win over the Dragons a fortnight ago and will fancy their chances against Canberra.

Last meeting: Round 24 2017 - Raiders 22 Panthers 26

Tyrone May was the hero as the Panthers snatched a late 26-22 win over Canberra at GIO Stadium last year in Round 24.

Who to watch: For the home side, Shannon Boyd needs to step up against one of the competition's best forward packs. While Boyd may be departing for the Glitter Strip at the end of 2018, his focus must remain with the Raiders, who may be without Josh Papalii if Stuart decides to rest the Queenslander. Papalii is the only Canberra forward averaging over 100 metres this year (119) and will need a stronger team effort, led by Boyd, if the Raiders are to topple Penrith on Friday night.

Meanwhile, Penrith's James Fisher-Harris has been one of the most improved players of 2018. Previously an ill-disciplined fringe first grader, ‘The Fish' has enjoyed a rapid rise in form this season and has proven to be the Panthers' defensive stronghold. In fact, when these two teams met two years ago in a semi-final, back-to-back penalties conceded by Fisher-Harris saw the Raiders halt Penrith's late surge and claim a 22-12 win. The new Fisher-Harris, however, averages 30.4 tackles per game, the most for the Mountain Men outside of injured hooker Peter Wallace. There is little doubt that ‘The Fish' will look to put plenty of pressure on Canberra's halves pairing of Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, who are both strong runners of the football.

The favourite: The Raiders are slight favourites due to Penrith's personnel problems.

My tip: If either Cleary or Maloney plays Penrith will win. However, even without both, the Panthers are the strongest defensive side in the competition and held the Dragons try-less in their most recent victory. That win was built off their dominant forward pack and a similar performance from their big men should be enough to see them emerge victorious on Friday night. Panthers by 8.

1. Jack Wighton 2. Nick Cotric 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Blake Austin 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Dunamis Lui 9. Siliva Havili 10. Shannon Boyd 11. Iosia Soliola 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Josh Papalii 14. Ata Hingano 15. Luke Bateman 16. Charlie Gubb 17. Liam Knight

1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2. Christian Crichton 3. Tyrone Peachey 4. Dean Whare 5. Tyrone Phillips 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Trent Merrin 9. Sione Katoa 10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 11. Corey Harawera Naera 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 14. Wayde Egan 15. Kaide Ellis 16. Viliame Kikau 17. James Tamou

Referees: Henry Perenara, Chris Butler; Sideline Officials: Liam Kennedy, Kasey Badger; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Bryan Norrie;

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