Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent
Broncos v Sharks
Some pretty scathing words came out of the mouth of Sharks captain Paul Gallen over the weekend and they weren’t directed at an opposition player or somebody wearing maroon – they were in relation to Cronulla coach Peter Sharp.
“I don’t think players have been putting in 100 per cent because they are under the impression that 'Sharpy' isn’t putting in 100 per cent," Gallen revealed during a radio interview.
Gallen went on further to compare Sharp, on a one-year deal replacing the suspended Shane Flanagan, as a substitute teacher in a classroom where the students know they can play up and get away with more mischief.
Although the Sharks players aren’t going around campus carving graffiti on classroom desks, skipping lessons and getting away with other schoolyard shenanigans, when you sit bottom of the ladder having not scored a single point in three consecutive matches it's no surprise that Gallen spoke up about the current state of affairs in the Shire.
The Sharks haven't tasted victory in nearly two months with their last win coming against the Panthers in Round 8. Avoiding the wooden spoon is the only thing the Sharks have left to play for and if they bring the right attitude to Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, they'll be a tricky proposition for the Broncos to overcome.
North of the border, the Broncos are cruising along nicely despite a 19-10 loss to the Warriors in Auckland that halted a four-match winning sequence. Brisbane fans shouldn’t read too much into that loss across the ditch as they were coming off a bye and were without Origin stars Corey Parker and Justin Hodges, Sam Thaiday played fewer minutes than usual, Matt Gillett came off the field after 12 minutes and Andrew McCullough was absent due to a knee injury.
Brisbane will be eager to snare another two competition points against Cronulla as they head into their final bye of the season next weekend. They face the daunting prospect of playing the Panthers (away), Warriors (home), Storm (home) and Manly (away) in the month following Origin III so returning to winning ways in a familiar Friday night setting at Suncorp Stadium is a must.
In team news, the Broncos will be without Gillett, Parker and McCullough for Friday's match, but they'll have Justin Hodges back on deck to compensate. Dale Copley will return to the wing with Lachlan Maranta missing out. Corey Oates will start in the forward pack and Jarrod Wallace comes onto the bench.
The Broncos will wear their 1997-98 premiership heritage jersey for the match against the Sharks in recognition of their 26-8 victory in the 1997 Super League Grand Final.
For the Sharks, Origin stars Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis will start, along with halfback Jeff Robson. Fa’amanu Brown will come off the bench to play dummy-half, while Jonathan Wright and Jacob Gagan have been added to the backline at the expense of Blake Ayshford and Nathan Gardner. Michael Gordon shifts from the wing to his preferred role at fullback.
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Watch Out Broncos: It'd be fair to say that Blues skipper Paul Gallen should be watching his back for "two-headed" Maroons supporters baying for his blood at Suncorp Stadium. The Cronulla captain's influence on his side cannot be underestimated and you'd expect that Gallen will play his heart out and leave nothing in the tank as he does during every match he plays.
Injury and representative duties have restricted Gallen to only six appearances for the Sharks this season, but they've been quality performances. So far the 32-year-old has averaged 31 tackles and 145 metres, plus three try assists, 15 offloads and only one error. The Sharks always seem to lift when he is available so Brisbane will need to stem his influence and restrict the number of offloads and metres he produces.
Watch Out Sharks: Despite letting in a couple of soft tries against the Warriors, Brisbane's defence has been one of their highlights of their season. The Broncos are ranked fifth for points conceded in 2014 to date, letting in only 16.2 points per game. Their miserly defence has also assisted in maintaining a healthy for-and-against, sitting on plus-79 that ranks them third in the competition. Before defeat to the Warriors last weekend, the Broncos were only conceding nine points per game during their recent four-match winning run.
If the Broncos maintain a strong defensive line, it's hard to see where Cronulla's points will come from. The Sharks rank last in the competition for tries scored, goals kicked, total points scored and try assists. Their average score is 11.9 points per game while they concede an average of 24.3 points.
Plays To Watch: Reuniting for the first time since Round 13, the Broncos' right edge combination of Justin Hodges and Dale Copley has scored six tries in their past three matches together. All of these tries have been scored by Copley, who has 11 for the season, while Hodges hasn't crossed the stripe this year, but has seven try assists to his name.
The Sharks' left edge of Ricky Leutele and Jacob Gagan will be under constant examination by Copley and especially Hodges, who will no doubt try his trademark runs out of dummy-half along with attempting to get on the outside of his opposite number in order to dish an offload out to Copley on the wing.
Where It Will Be Won: It's blatantly obvious that if the Sharks stand any chance of winning they must start scoring points again. Cronulla (155) have scored almost half of Brisbane's points (306) so far this season and much has been made of their three-match scoreless streak. Excluding those three recent matches, the Sharks were averaging 15.5 points per game. If their attack can click together and they keep a tight defensive line, they have the ability to frustrate the Broncos which could play into their hands. It's a big ask though to keep the likes of Hodges, Hunt and Barba in check as well as scoring points themselves. The Sharkies could be in for a long night.
The History: Played 50; Broncos 31, Sharks 18, draw 1. Surprisingly, the Sharks have the wood over Brisbane in recent times winning the past two clashes with both games played at Suncorp Stadium. However both of those matches were during the Origin period. Prior to those matches the Sharks dropped five-straight matches against the Broncos by a combined total score of 174-62.
What Are The Odds: An incredible 95 per cent of money on the Broncos at Sportsbet.com.au, seeing them come in from $1.35 to $1.20. Sharks have drifted from $3.50 to $4.60 as a result. There's three times as much of a hold on the Sharks in handicap betting with them receiving 12.5 points.
Match Officials: Referee: Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee: Adam Gee; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Adam Reid; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell and Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: If the Broncos had the likes of Parker, Gillett and McCullough available, you'd have to back them by a comfortable margin. They'll lose 525 games of NRL experience without that trio, although they do have handy replacements in Todd Lowrie, Corey Oates and David Stagg. The Sharks haven't scored a single point in almost 270 minutes of football and it's hard to see where their points will come from. They will be determined to reverse this trend and remain competitive throughout the 80 minutes. However, with the Suncorp Stadium faithful behind them, the Broncos should win this match off the back of their defence. Broncos by 10.