Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Broncos v Sharks
The last thing Broncos coach Anthony Griffin needs right now is to lose his State of Origin stars to the Queensland side. With last Friday night’s 32-0 loss to Melbourne relegating Brisbane to 13th on the ladder, they need all hands on deck as they look to salvage the remnants of a rapidly sinking season over the next two months.
But reality can be brutal and it is with a significantly weakened side that the Broncos must rely upon to steady the ship when Cronulla make the trek north this Friday. That means no Sam Thaiday, no Justin Hodges, no Corey Parker and no Matt Gillett.
There was a time the so-called “Baby Broncos” made a habit of doing their club proud – who could forget their stunning upset win over Wests Tigers in 2002 while fielding six rookies and two 17-year-olds – but those days appear to be long gone.
Instead, they were thrashed 56-18 by the Warriors when they last faced this predicament in Round 12 and will need to find answers quickly if they are to make amends for that embarrassment.
The responsibility for doing so rests with the little genuine experience they have left right now – namely halves Peter Wallace and Scott Prince and New Zealand internationals Alex Glenn and Josh Hoffman.
Wallace and Prince had looked to be getting their combination working following a 32-12 win over Wests Tigers three weeks ago and that thrilling 18-16 loss to the Warriors in New Zealand, but Brisbane’s failure to score a single point against the Storm won’t have helped the confidence.
Still, they can take some solace from the fact that Cronulla are also missing three key players due to Origin while a series of injuries have decimated their backline.
With Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita all on duty for NSW, the Sharks will also be sweating on the fitness of fullback Michael Gordon and winger Beau Ryan who were both late withdrawals from the clash with Wests Tigers last Sunday.
Cronulla find themselves in fifth spot on the NRL ladder with a top-four berth beckoning; however they will be well aware that their past two road trips have been far from inspiring: in Round 13 they were thrashed 38-6 by Melbourne at AAMI Park and in Round 16 fell 24-4 away to North Queensland. That level of performance will undoubtedly need to improve if they are to challenge the big guns at the business end of the season.
It’s a shame this clash sees both sides robbed of so much star quality but as always, opportunity now beckons for those handed a chance by their respective coaches this weekend.
Time will tell who grasps it.
While they are missing their Origin stars, Brisbane welcomes back representative prop Ben Hannant, veteran back-rower David Stagg and young winger Jordan Kahu from injury, with all three rushed straight back into the starting line-up. Former Rooster Tama Lasi is poised to make his debut for the club after heading north just a fortnight ago. He is part of an extended 20-man bench that includes Jarrod Wallace, Nick Slyney and Scott Anderson as the extra men.
The Sharks welcome back fullback Michael Gordon with Stewart Mills moving into the centres. Injury has seen Anthony Tupou ruled out with Ben Ross, Mark Taufua and Ben Pomeroy all included on a five-man interchange.
Watch Out Broncos: The return of Michael Gordon is a huge boost for Cronulla. The former Panther has been in superb form when fit this season and was mentioned as a possible replacement for Jarryd Hayne in the NSW side before just being edged by Josh Dugan. Gordon has averaged 158 metres for the Sharks in 2013 with seven line-breaks and 37 tackle-breaks to his name.
Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla’s right-edge defence will need to be at its best against a Broncos outfit that is easily at its most dangerous when attacking that side of the field. Brisbane fullback Corey Norman and winger Josh Hoffman are the dangers here. Norman loves chiming into the backline on the left with Hoffman his No.1 target man.
So far this season Norman boasts 11 line-break assists and 12 try assists – more than halves Scott Prince and Peter Wallace combined. And as finishers go, it’s hard to go past Hoffman who boasts an amazing knack for getting the ball down. He has scored 13 tries, made 12 line-breaks and 72 tackle-breaks – second only to Greg Inglis (79).
Plays To Watch: The Todd Carney face-ball one off the ruck is a favourite play of the Cronulla five-eighth – particularly when attacking close to the line. It’s a simple but effective play. Carney receives the ball from the dummy-half and throws a flat cut-out ball in front of his first receiver to the man running a flat line on the outside.
Carney uses this same play on both sides of the ruck.
Against Canberra in Round 10 he created a try for Jonathan Wright on the left and did the same on the right-hand side for Jayson Bukuya to score against Wests Tigers last weekend.
Key Match-Up: Scott Prince v Todd Carney. With so many of their top players missing, who will step up to fill the void? Let’s start with the respective five-eighths – both highly experienced and capable of turning a match on its head on their day. Prince has endured a tough few weeks but his side needs him now more than ever to lead the way while Carney has been building after a slow start to the season and will be looking to show why he played Origin for NSW 12 months ago.
Where It Will Be Won: The battle of the halves will be the key. With Scott Prince and Peter Wallace boasting 443 NRL games between them, Brisbane will look to them to lead the way this Friday night. Todd Carney and Jeff Robson don’t boast anywhere near that level of experience but both have been in fine form this season and will take on extra responsibility in the absence of their three Origin stars.
The History: Played 47; Broncos 30, Sharks 17. The Broncos have won five of the past six games between these two sides.
Match Officials: Referees – Mat Cecchin & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Ricky McFarlane; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Neil Wharton.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Broncos v Sharks clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm (NSW & Qld).
The Way We See It: This looks like another tough outing for the Broncos, who will be relying on the home ground advantage to give them a much-needed edge. Having said that, it wasn’t much help against the Warriors before State of Origin I and they will need to improve immensely if they are to turn that performance around. The Sharks look better placed to cover for the loss of their Origin stars and should be good enough to take the points here. Sharks by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats