The dark horse of the NRL finals, a contender, or a pretender? Canberra coach David Furner has heard it all.
But ahead of Sunday’s do-or-die semi-final against Cronulla, Furner has instructed his charges to ignore all the labels, stick to their game plan and another simple, but vital, edict: start hard and start fast.
A solid opening is something that’s largely been missing from Canberra’s otherwise impressive five-match winning streak, during which they’ve accrued just the one lone halftime lead.
That was in their season-best victory over Canterbury.
Against the Sharks, who come into the game off two straight losses, Furner says it’s imperative the Raiders kick off well in order to progress beyond the semis for the first time since 2008.
“Dark horse, or making up the numbers, or (Steven) Bradburys or something like that – that’s what we’ve been told,” Furner said on Saturday.
“But we’re not worried about what we’ve been tagged.
“It’s about our players starting fast and nice and aggressive.”
The Raiders also allowed Wests Tigers to get to a handy lead in the last semi-final they played in 2010 – which they lost – and captain David Shillington doesn’t want history repeating.
He said it’s been an area of “hit-and-miss” over the past six weeks.
“Games versus Penrith and the Roosters for example, we had some pretty slow starts and really burned our energy and just scrapped by with the win, but we can’t afford to do that in a finals series,” Shillington said.
“We need a complete 80 minute performance and a fast start is part of that.”
While the Raiders won their last clash with the Sharks at Toyota Stadium in July (minus Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith), it was a Todd Carney-inspired Cronulla that took the honours 44-22 at Canberra Stadium earlier in the season.
Targeting Carney and matching the might of Cronulla’s big forward pack will be key to victory, Shillington said.
“I read in the paper this week that Paul Gallen was firing up his pack and that’s obviously a worrying thing for us,” he said.
“But I know we’ll be fired up too.
“If we go set to set with them, we’ll outlast them.”
Fullback Josh Dugan is set to make a timely return against the Sharks, a week since rolling an ankle at training and missing out on the Raiders’ last regular season match against New Zealand last weekend.
Furner is also confident Sam Williams will be right to resume his spot in the halves with partner Josh McCrone, after straining a shoulder muscle a fortnight ago.
A final decision will be made after seeing how he pulls up from Saturday’s session.
Cronulla, $2.40 outsiders for the match, arrive in the nation’s capital on Saturday afternoon, without the suspended Ben Pomeroy but including fullback Nathan Gardner, who has only notched 40 minutes playing time since a knee reconstruction.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan would only say that he was considering giving Gardner a run.