Canterbury Bulldogs v Canberra Raiders
Belmore Sports Ground
Monday 7:00pm (AEST)
The Raiders welcome back their superstar halves pairing just in time to face the table-topping Bulldogs for what should be a cracking clash at the historic Belmore Oval on Monday night.
The addition of Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin couldn't have come at a better time for Canberra, who've lacked leadership and struggled to close out games in recent weeks.
But even with that huge injection of talent Canterbury loom as a formidable prospect for the Raiders one week after they flexed their muscles by defeating the Rabbitohs by 30 points.
Moreover will be especially fired up for this one, as they return to their spiritual home to play in front of what should be another passionate Belmore crowd.
This match shapes as a tantalising prospect for neutral observers for a number of reasons, including the match-up of two big forward packs and the battle of possibly the game's two form players in Josh Hodgson and Moses Mbye.
For Canberra, the return of their star six and seven from injury and the addition of Joey Leilua after serving suspension means Sam Williams and Brenko Lee return to NSW Cup, while Elliot Whitehead shifts back to his preferred second row position and Sia Soliola drops to the bench.
The Bulldogs are unchanged for Chase Stanley's 100th game and Tony Williams's 150th NRL games.
Watch out Bulldogs: The Raiders' red-hot spine has been repaired with Austin and Sezer's early recovery from injured. Without them, Josh Hodgson showed the NRL he's one of the game's best playmakers; now the challenge for him will be having the same impact while allowing his star halves to play their natural games. The Dogs will know if they give the Raiders pack an advantage through the middle, these three stars will have a field day out the back. Their best bet will be to dominate the forward battle, but that won't come easy, with the likes of Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd tearing through the middle.
Watch out Raiders: The Bulldogs are in red-hot form right across the park, and their backline showed last week how clinical and damaging they can be with time and space. With a heap of new defensive combinations the Canberra backs could have their hands full defending the likes of Josh Morris, Moses Mbye and Will Hopoate out wide. Meanwhile the Green Machine won't be having it easy in the middle either, with James Graham and Aiden Tolman two of the game's best workhorse props, allowing the big boppers around them to play their power games. The Raiders will have to be on the ball right across the park.
Key match-up: Shannon Boyd v James Graham. Two props of different styles will go head to head in the crucial opening stages in a match up that will be crucial to the outcome of the game. While Boyd only averages nine runs per game compared to Graham's 21.3, he more than makes up for it in the quality of his charges. More often than not Boyd will take three of four men to stop him. Meanwhile Graham's extreme value is shown in the way he creates space for his outside men, not just by bending the line back but through his great ball skills which always keep defensive lines guessing. Whichever man can perfect their own style of play in this game will go a long way to giving their side a winning opportunity.
The history: Played 62; Bulldogs 36, Raiders 26. The last time these two sides met Josh Reynolds hit a sharp-angled field goal in the final seconds to win a stunning NRL match for the Bulldogs.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant: Adam Gee. Touch Judges: Jason Walsh and Tim Roby.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 6:30pm (AEST)
The way we see it: The Raiders will be buoyed by the return of their star halves but their struggles to put away a few cellar dwellers in recent weeks show they have many areas to work on, most notably their desire and control late in games. Meanwhile the Bulldogs will have no such issues in front of what will be a turbo charged Belmore crowd on Monday night. The Raiders will push them but the Bulldogs will pull away after an enthralling forward battle. Bulldogs by 8.