Nick Janzen, NRL.com
Raiders v Sharks
What a difference a year makes. Some 360 days ago the Canberra Raiders were the hottest side in the competition and the Cronulla Sharks were starting to slide – and the Green Machine ultimately ended the Shire boys’ 2012 campaign.
Now, 12 months later, the Raiders are on the nose and the Sharks are dreaming of what might just unfold in the coming weeks.
It’s been a fair fall from grace for Canberra, who strung together six wins at the end of last season to not only qualify for the finals but make it through to the second week of the playoffs. This season the Raiders have struggled with consistency – and their finals flame has been extinguished in the middle of their most recent poor run of form, a five-match losing streak that’s threatening to be extended by the Sharks.
Add recent dramas regarding David Furner’s sacking, the AWOL Blake Ferguson and the infraction notice handed to Sandor Earl and it’s been a tough month for Canberra.
Cronulla, meanwhile, continue to perform brilliantly under the tremendous weight of the ASADA investigation – but the question remains: when, or is, the bubble going to burst? Their 2013 season has been one of great consistency – apart from a four-match losing streak from Rounds 4-7, they’ve not conceded back-to-back losses.
Along the way, they’ve won 13 matches and accounted for some of the competition’s heavyweights, too – including the likes of the Roosters (32-22 in Round 24) and Rabbitohs (14-12 in Round 11).
This match doesn’t have a huge bearing on the make-up of the top eight. The Sharks are guaranteed a ‘home’ Finals Week One match no matter the result here, while the Raiders, currently in 12th spot, would need to win by 200 to have any chance of qualifying!
The match’s lack of finals relevance has resulted in Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan resting back-rowers Wade Graham and Jayson Bukuya who are supposedly suffering a number of ‘niggling’ injuries. Captain Paul Gallen is also out, suspended for a match after a ‘crusher’ tackle in the Sharks’ loss to the Cowboys last Sunday.
As a result Chris Heighington comes off the interchange bench and into the starting team in place of the skipper, while Anthony Tupou also moves from the bench and into jersey No.12. Bryce Gibbs and Tyrone Peachey have been added to the 17-man squad. Todd Carney, after missing the loss to the Cowboys with hamstring soreness, has been named to return at five-eighth, with his fitness to be assessed later in the week.
There are a host of changes to the Raiders’ side, too. Holden Cup star Mitch Cornish is in line to make his NRL debut, but is awaiting approval from the NRL for a second-tier salary cap exemption.
Glen Buttriss will miss the last game of the year and will undergo shoulder surgery, with Josh McCrone remaining at hooker. Anthony Milford shifts from halfback to fullback and Reece Robinson to the wing, with Cornish partnering Terry Campese in the halves. Sami Sauiluma starts in the centres with Joel Thompson moved into the forward pack, with Joe Picker coming onto the bench to replace Jake Foster. Joel Edwards will move to lock and Paul Vaughan will start the game from the bench.
This match marks veteran utility and premiership winner Shaun Berrigan’s last NRL game before retirement.
Watch Out Raiders: The home side can’t rely on the threat of ‘capital punishment’ any longer – apart from against the Dragons, of course! Cronulla have won six of their past nine matches at Canberra Stadium… and the Raiders have conceded 132 points in their past three home matches!
Watch Out Sharks: There’s an element of ‘we’re looking at the finals’ from Cronulla’s camp. Having told Wade Graham and Jayson Bukuya to put the feet up for a week, the Sharks risk going down to the nation’s capital with the wrong attitude – they’re understrength and, as a result, potentially unfocused, too. A loss here will cripple their confidence and momentum – they need a win to give them belief entering the finals series.
Plays To Watch: Expect Cronulla to throw in a chip kick or too at some stage – Canberra defuse just 55 per cent of them, the lowest figure in the league. The Raiders should anticipate plenty of traffic directed the way of rookie playmaker Mitch Cornish, too – he’s missed 21 tackles in 11 games in the under-20s competition this year, and securing the likes of Andrew Fifita, Sam Tagataese and Luke Lewis will prove a much tougher challenge than anything he’s previously encountered.
The Raiders will be looking to inject fullback Anthony Milford into as many attacking plays as possible – he’s their most dangerous customer.
Key Match-Up: David Shillington v Andrew Fifita. Both representative front-rowers are capable of making a big impact – and if they do it’ll have a huge bearing on the result. Shillington averages a tick more than 110 metres per game while Fifita runs for almost 140 each match. Who’ll dominate proceedings and give his team’s playmakers the required creative space to win?
Where It Will Be Won: Simple mistakes are costly – and these two teams know it more than most. The Raiders are one of the worst sides in the NRL for errors (10.8 per match – second most in the competition) – and the Sharks aren’t much better, either! Cronulla have committed an average of 10.6 errors per game (lowly 14th in the NRL).
It’s not rocket science – the coaches will be demanding their teams hold onto the ball, complete their sets, kick to the corners and put pressure on their opposition. If the players follow through on the orders, they’ll be halfway to victory.
The History: Played 60; Sharks 32, Raiders 28. At Canberra Stadium though the Green Machine hold a decisive advantage – they’ve won 14 of the 22 clashes at the venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Chris James & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Reece Williams; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Henry Perenara.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Raiders v Sharks clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: With just a week to go to the start of the Sharks’ finals campaign – and just days to go until the Raiders’ off-season commences – we can’t see anything but a Cronulla win here. Even without Wade Graham, Jayson Bukuya and Paul Gallen, they should prove too strong against a team struggling both on and off the field. Sharks by 12 points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.