Date: August 20 2012
CANBERRA are bracing themselves for their most important game in two years as their incredible charge for the top eight heats up.
The Raiders host the red-hot Bulldogs on Friday night and not since their epic 2010 semi-final with the Wests Tigers has an NRL encounter at Canberra Stadium carried this weight of expectation.
Dubbed wooden spoon favourites at the midway point of the season, the Raiders have surprised the doubters to win six of their past eight games and rocket into finals contention.
Standing in their way is a ladder-leading Bulldogs outfit in the midst of an imposing 12-game winning streak.
And with the Raiders facing the out-of-sorts Warriors in Auckland in the final round, an upset of the Bulldogs would go a long way to returning coach David Furner's team to the finals for the first time since that famous run two years ago.
In 2010, the Raiders won eight of their final nine games to finish seventh on the ladder, before stunning the second-placed Panthers on the road in the first week of the finals.
The team's charge only ended when they fell 24-26 to the Tigers in front of a sold-out Canberra Stadium.
Hooker Glen Buttriss hopes to have that atmosphere replicated when the Bulldogs, featuring Dally M Medal favourite Ben Barba, come to town.
''That was an unreal feeling and hopefully we can get the same for the Bulldogs game this week,'' Buttriss said. ''That was the first time I've been there when Canberra's been packed out.''
The Raiders are level with the seventh-placed Broncos and Wests Tigers on 26 competition points and could mathematically qualify for the finals with one win from their final two games. But an inferior -39 points differential, and favourable draws for their main rivals for the last two spots in the top eight, means they realistically need to win both to feature in September. The Broncos and Tigers would be expected to claim at least one more victory.
The Broncos will play the Panthers at Suncorp Stadium in the final round after taking on the in-form Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval on Friday night.
The Wests Tigers will be favoured to overpower the Sydney Roosters in the penultimate round but face a tricky match against Melbourne in round 26.
That the Raiders are still in the hunt with a fortnight to go is amazing given they were languishing in 15th on the ladder after round 13.
Furner has taken steps to get the best out of his side: taking them away on a week-long camp before their match against Newcastle, having photos of players' loved ones plastered in the dressing room and bunkering down in a hotel in NSW before their past two home games.
The ploy worked yet again, the Raiders staying across the border before returning to beat the Roosters 24-20 on Saturday night.
Raiders halfback Sam Williams said while the victory won't be one for the highlights reel, it was satisfying to get a step closer for what would be, for him, a maiden finals campaign.
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