Canberra embrace NRL underdog tag: Stuart

·3-min read

Melbourne head into Saturday's NRL elimination final against Canberra as deserved favourites, but Raiders coach Ricky Stuart has a simple answer to that: "I love it."

The Raiders have produced a stellar back half of the campaign to reach the post-season but will need to find another level to keep their season going, despite boasting an impressive record at Melbourne's AAMI Park.

They've won their last four matches in Melbourne, including a thrilling 20-16 win in round 18.

"We've been written off for so long ... there's a feeling of joy, and a feeling that we go again," Stuart told reporters.

"I never really worry if I'm favourite or the underdog, that doesn't come into the mentality after the first tackle.

"Every game is important when you're trying to make the final eight, it's a very tough job ... we've had some good luck now going into the back-end of the season and it's our turn to get some."

Melbourne are sweating on the fitness of halfback Jahrome Hughes, the playmaker named to play despite having missed their round 25 loss against Parramatta with a calf complaint.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy said he expects him to play after getting through the majority of training this week.

While there's a rivalry between the sides, there's nothing but respect between the coaches.

Stuart said they'd shared a beer after their round 18 clash, while Bellamy revealed they'd even chatted on Friday morning.

The Storm boss admitted his side had gone through some tough battles in recent weeks, including consecutive losses, and said only time would tell if it was the right preparation for the finals.

"In the last five weeks we've had a lot of away games against teams in the top eight so it's been a tough run," Bellamy told reporters.

"They've had a really different run to us, they've had some games where they've won really well.

"We've done more travelling than we would have liked so that long break helps.

"The games were certainly tough and tight affairs so I think that's good for our belief that we can go with the best sides."

There's no fitness issues for the Raiders, captain Elliott Whitehead and star half Jack Wighton both ready after resting through their side's easy win against the Wests Tigers.

But there'll be nothing easy about their Storm clash, the contest bringing together two stellar forward packs headlined by the front-row battle between Melbourne's Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Jesse Bromwich and Canberra's Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine.

"I don't think it's gonna be a great spectacle, it's gonna be a fair battle in the middle," Stuart said.

"I don't know of many games where it hasn't been won in the middle, that's where the platform is laid."

Both sides are looking to become the first since 1995 to win a premiership from outside the top four, when Canterbury won an ARL crown from sixth.

They've split their two most recent playoff battles, the Raiders winning a famous qualifying final in 2019 before the Storm avenged that loss the following year.