Roosters v Sharks
Saturday, 7.30 pm
"What has poor old Peter Sharp got himself into?" Your correspondent wrote this way back in Round 2 after Andrew Fifita had signed with the Bulldogs, half the Cronulla salary cap sat on the bench injured and the Sharks had made just one line break in 70 minutes in a first-round loss to the Titans.
Having endured a year from hell, in which most of that salary cap has remained sidelined at one point or another, the ASADA storm brewed ever imminent on the horizon and “Up Up Cronulla” had been heard on just two occasions in over three months, the Sharks scored their first points in more than 300 minutes of footy, rather enjoyed it, and went on to record the club’s biggest ever come-from-behind victory in downing the Broncos 24-22 for their first away win of 2014 last Friday.
And at the end of a week in which club captain Paul Gallen questioned the caretaker mentor's commitment to the cause, Sharp and his Sharkies could’ve been forgiven for seeing a distant light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel.
Turns out that light was an oncoming train, driven by Todd Carney and a social media storm, and just four days after one of the Sharks' best wins in almost half a century Sharp was very quickly untying himself from the tracks as the Carney saga well and truly rained all over the parade that follows your first points in well over a month.
The Sharks have been battered from pillar to post off the pitch, lost their interim coach as a result, and will be flat-out righting their sinking ship on it, taking on the premiers without their three most likely attacking weapons having shown Carney the door, and waved Gallen and Luke Lewis off to NSW Origin camp. Youngster Fa’amanu Brown gets first crack at Carney’s No.6 jumper, while Bryce Gibbs, Tupou Sopoaga, Junior Roqica and Tim Robinson all come on board.
The Chooks themselves are without four of their Origin stars; with Daniel Tupou, Boyd Cordner and Aidan Guerra also preparing for Game Three and Michael Jennings still recovering from the last brutal interstate clash, bringing Nene MacDonald, Kane Evans and Remí Casty into the side.
For their own part the Tri-Colours will be disappointed they let the Sea Eagles give them the slip last Friday in what many decent judges were declaring a dress rehearsal for the first weekend of October, and will hardly be lending a sympathetic ear to the Sharks' cause as they look to drag themselves back up into the top four.
Dumped NSW halves Mitch Pearce and James Maloney in particular will have a point to prove after coming up with some costly mistakes with the match at Brookie in the balance. Not as if the Sharks needed any more bad news, but Pearce has Origin-related redemption form against them, last year running rampant in the Chooks' 40-0 dusting in the wake of NSW’s loss in the 2013 series decider.
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Watch Out Roosters: The Sharks haven't had all that much to write home about this year, but the consistent showings from young centre Ricky Leutele have been a highlight out on their left edge. Averaging a tick over 100 metres a game and, just as importantly given Cronulla's right-side defensive frailties, only one missed tackle a game, Leutele has shaped up to some of the game's most dangerous attacking weapons and comfortably held his own thus far in 2014. His efforts keeping Justin Hodges under wraps last week in Brisbane did not go unnoticed by the pundits or in the commentary box, and rest assured Sonny Bill Williams won't have forgotten the punch Leutele packs with the ball in hand, having been on the receiving end of a right fend that left the superstar for dead back in Round 7 at Remondis Stadium.
Watch Out Sharks: The Sharks need no reminding how devastating Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's dancing feet can be, with his shimmy-shimmy, throw-in-a-360-for-fun, now- woosh effort leaving half of Cronulla's defence for dead and bumping the aforementioned Leutele effort to the highlights reel footnotes a couple of months back. And with the Kiwi international finding himself either atop or at the pointy end of the Roosters' piles for line breaks (13), tackle breaks (53) and average running metres (146 per game), but well down the pecking order when it comes to four-pointers (his six tries sit him behind Anthony Minichiello, Daniel Tupou and Shaun Kenny-Dowall), any space whatsoever on his flank will see RTS filling his boots.
Plays To Watch: Shaun Kenny-Dowall has made a habit of scoring four-pointers against the Sharks, with two, including the match winner, earlier this year and nine in ten matches against the Shire men. And in recent weeks SKD has also had plenty of success sniffing around those cross-field kicks from James Maloney and Mitch Pearce, the ones that fall about 10-15 metres in from the sideline – more often than not straight into the Kiwi centre's hands as we've seen against Melbourne, Newcastle and the Raiders in the past month.
With Todd Carney gone and half Jeff Robson’s strength being his organisational play rather than producing the unexpected, look for the Sharks to rely on their bustling forward pack to generate plenty of second-phase play in an effort to worry the famed Bondi Wall. With 175 offloads, the Sharks rank only behind the Titans in the NRL when it comes to keeping a play going, and if the likes of Anthony Tupou, who knocked a game-high five offloads against the Broncos can get his arms free he could trouble the Roosters' defence.
Where It Will Be Won: We can't say it any simpler: straight up the guts is where this one will be won and done, and without their one-man metre-eating machine Paul Gallen, the lesser lights in the Sharks' pack need to stand up and be counted. The Roosters have made almost a kilometre more hit-up metres than Cronulla (8387 versus 7418), and it's no surprise that they dragged their way back into last week's contest with Manly through a tried and true formula of running hard and lightning fast play-the-balls that even the competition leaders struggled to contain. For the Sharks to have any hope without their key attacking weaponry of Gallen, Lewis and Carney, they're going to have to go pound for pound with the Roosters big men and hope to out-muscle them, because quite simply they do not possess the firepower to go with them out wide.
The History: Played 92; Roosters 58, Sharks 32, drawn 2. The Sharks have lost more times to the Roosters than any other side in the competition bar Northern beaches rival Manly (94 games, for 65 losses), and have got the chocolates just once in the past three years against the Tri-Colours, though they did share the points in 2012 with a 14-all draw.
What Are The Odds: The Roosters are in from $1.13 to $1.08 at Sportsbet.com.au, with three times the money on them to beat the Sharks who’ve had a week of turmoil. Cronulla are proving more popular in handicap betting, getting 20.5. Sharks are a massive $7.25.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Morris & Henry Perenara; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports - Live, 7.30pm.
How We See It: There's only so much one club should have to take, but we can’t see anything but the Roosters piling it on to add just that little bit of insult to go along with the Sharks' numerous injuries. With halves Pearce and Maloney running the show behind their star-studded pack, the Chooks should have far too much for a Cronulla side with frankly much bigger things on its plate at present. Roosters by at least 12 points.