Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Sharks v Knights
When Cronulla and Newcastle look back on season 2013, this could be the game that made or slayed their seasons. As the race for the finals heats up, the match-up between the sixth-placed Sharks and the eighth-placed Knights is crucial.
Cronulla continue to perform well despite the ongoing ASADA dramas – and, sitting on 26 competition points, the squad still believe they’re in the hunt for a top-four finals position. A loss here, however, could put them in danger of slipping out of the top eight altogether in coming weeks, with Newcastle, Canberra, the Gold Coast and Warriors hot on their heels.
The Sharks have won 11 of their 19 matches this season, including recent triumphs against the Warriors in New Zealand last week (18-14) and the Panthers a fortnight ago (38-10). They have, however, won just three matches against the other teams currently sitting in the top eight.
The Knights, meanwhile, find themselves walking the finals tightrope – on 23 points they’re outright eighth but a loss would see them slip out of the finals cut-off if the Titans upset the Bulldogs or the Warriors surprise the Sea Eagles.
Newcastle’s squad is slowly beginning to rectify a wretched middle-season period where they won just one of seven matches. Since Round 16, however, they’ve lost just one game, avoiding adding to that tally by claiming a point in last week’s 18-all draw with the Broncos in Newcastle.
The Sharks have named the same 17 that defeated the Warriors for this week’s crucial clash. Influential back-rowers Luke Lewis and Anthony Tupou remain on the injured list, although insiders tell NRL.com Tupou, in particular, could be a late inclusion.
The Knights, meanwhile, welcome back Kade Snowden from suspension as well as James McManus from a back injury.
Beau Scott, however, hasn't been named as he continues to recover from a foot injury. Chris Houston replaces Scott in the second row while David Fa’alogo shifts back to the bench. Danny Buderus is set to play in his 250th game for the club, surpassing Andrew Johns, who played 249 games for Newcastle.
Watch Out Sharks: The Knights possess one of the most powerful and potent group of outside backs in the competition – combined, Darius Boyd, James McManus, Dane Gagai, Joseph Leilua and Akuila Uate have made a total of 39 line-breaks in 2013 – eight more than their opponents this week. If they aren’t watched closely and put to ground quickly, the Knights’ Nos.1-5 could easily tear the home side apart.
Watch Out Knights: Cronulla pose a triple threat with the ball in hand – fullback Michael Gordon (154.5 metres), prop Andrew Fifita (147.4) and back-rower Paul Gallen (176.7) all average in the top six in the competition for metres gained. It’s not simply a matter of stopping one player – the Knights need to control them all… and that’s one tough ask.
Plays To Watch: Look for runners off the shoulders of five-eighths Todd Carney and Jarrod Mullen. The attacking aces of either side, Carney (11 line-break assists and 18 try assists) and Mullen (six line-break assists and 16 try assists) hold the aces in their side’s pack – they’re the two players who’ll make or break their side’s scoring opportunities. Look for Gordon, Gallen, Wade Graham, Jayson Bukuya (Sharks), Boyd, Uate, Jeremy Smith and Chris Houston to be running angles for their stand-offs to access.
Key Match-Up: Goalkicking. There’s a distinct difference in the performance of the Sharks’ and the Knights’ kickers – and it could catch up with Newcastle here. Flanagan’s men, Todd Carney and Michael Gordon, average 91.94 per cent with the boot this year, while Bennett’s boys, Tyrone Roberts and, lately, Craig Gower, convert a total of just 77.38 per cent of their two-point opportunities. It cost the Knights dearly last week in their tie with Brisbane, kicking just one of four… and another poor showing could give them grief here, too.
Where It Will Be Won: The boot of both teams’ field-position kickers will play a crucial role – as it did in their meeting in Round 8. The Sharks got a one-point win – and statistics show a lot of that was to do with their superior metre-eating kicking game. With Carney and halfback Jeff Robson pulling the strings, the Sharks made 575 kicking metres, superior to the Knights’ figure of 448 obtained through Mullen and then-halfback Kurt Gidley. The message is clear – find space and, through field position, you’ll eventually find scoring opportunities.
The History: Played 41; Knights 24, Sharks 16, drawn 1. At Remondis Stadium Cronulla hold a slender advantage, victorious in 11 of their 20 clashes.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Luke Potter; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.
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 Sharks v Knights clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: This should be a cracking game – and one we expect will go down to the wire. On the back of their outstanding home record in 2013, we’re tipping the Sharks – they’ve won seven of nine at Remondis Stadium. Cronulla by six points in yet another thriller.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.