Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Warriors v Sharks
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday, 5pm (3pm AEST)
It might be played across the ‘other’ side of the Tasman and in a different time zone, but there’s absolutely nothing irrelevant about this NRL clash. The high-flying Warriors and the courageous Cronulla meet this Saturday – and the outcome of the match will have a huge bearing on which teams qualify for this year’s finals series.
Currently in ninth position, the New Zealanders have been the talking point of the league in recent times – they’ve secured 18 of 20 possible competition points in the past two-and-a-half months and are seen by many to be this year’s premiership dark horse. But before the Warriors – the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL – start to believe the hype, they’ve got to qualify for the finals first… and this is another huge test.
The Sharks, meanwhile, continue to soldier on despite the unrelenting dramas that have surrounded the club that began before a ball was kicked in 2013. Alleged drug use, hirings and firings and headlines splashed across newspapers and websites around the country – just when things looked like getting better, they’ve become even worse. Credit, however, must be sent the Sharks squad’s way – they’ve managed to perform tremendously despite the myriad distractions and, just like the Warriors, find themselves near enough to qualify for the finals… if they prove good enough in the final six rounds. Cronulla are currently in sixth spot, but a loss here could see them slide out of the eight.
Last week, the Warriors’ playoff credentials gained further credibility following a nail-biting and highly entertaining win against the reigning premiers Melbourne at home in a match league legend Brad Fittler dubbed the greatest club game he’d ever seen. Just when the might of the Storm appeared poised to hit Mt Smart and silence the home team, Ngani Laumape, Shaun Johnson, Konrad Hurrell and Thomas Leuluai resisted the comeback and led their team to a memorable – and mighty important – 30-22 victory.
Meanwhile the Sharks put the Panthers to the sword, with Todd Carney and Michael Gordon running riot at Remondis Stadium to propel their team to an equally crucial 38-10 win against the Panthers.
The Warriors’ coaching staff have named an unchanged squad from the line-up that upset the Storm last Sunday in Auckland.
The Sharks, meanwhile, welcome back their workaholic skipper Paul Gallen, with Chris Heighington shifting to the bench and Tyrone Peachey travelling to New Zealand as cover in jersey No.18.
Watch Out Warriors: The last time the Sharks scored more than 35 points in a game, they backed it up with a thrilling one-point victory away from home against the Broncos. That’ll be in the back of their heads as they cross the ditch. The victory against Brisbane came without the likes of Gallen and fellow back-row star Luke Lewis, too.
Cronulla have real fighting qualities – they’ve won four games by five points or less – and if the game gets into an arm wrestle, they’ll back themselves to beat any team in the competition.
Watch Out Sharks: In an era when coaches and players are so reluctant to talk up their game, Warriors coach Matt Elliott has refreshingly spilled the beans about his team’s attacking potential following their 30-point scoring spree against the Storm.
“If we can play 80 minutes of really focused footy and stick to what we do we’ll score 30 points quite often,” Elliott gloated. “We’re a highly talented team and over the past eight weeks we’ve proven we can be a real handful to oppositions.”
And if the Sharks think they can go blow for blow with the Warriors and win in a high-scoring affair, they’re dreaming: the last time Cronulla won when they conceded 30 points or more was in Round 25, 2003… when they beat the Rabbitohs 54-34!
Plays To Watch: Any time Leuluai, Shaun Johnson or Todd Carney get their hands on the football should sound alarm bells in their opponent’s defensive line – they’re three of the game’s most enigmatic playmakers but they’re in fine form recently. When they do gain possession, they’re a triple threat – they can break the line with their running games, deliver a perfect pass for a line-break or kick for open men, too. Leuluai, in particular, is finally starting to show his true colours at the Warriors, as his stepping, weaving, ducking and swivelling effort for a try against the Storm proved.
Look for the Sharks to target the Warriors’ right-side defence which was shredded by the Storm at various stages last week – and they’ll be well advised to plan and pull off a trick shot from a set play, too. Melbourne scored one try and could have had another from scrums last week – men moving at depth and running swoop lines and a range of angles had the home side completely bamboozled.
Key Match-Up: Fine fullbacks in sublime form, Kevin Locke and Michael Gordon are hugely influential for their teams, as last week’s efforts highlighted. Locke proved greased lightning against Melbourne, making two decisive plays including a scintillating 55-metre solo voyage. He finished with 108 metres, four tackle-breaks, a line-break and a line-break assist as well as a try.
‘Flash’ Gordon, meanwhile, lived up to his name against his former club Penrith last week. Ever energetic and always searching for an opening, the Sharks’ No.1 grabbed a double (including a crucial kick-and-chase solo try), ran for 91 metres and made a line-break in another strong showing… but it is his poise and all-round game that his teammates appreciate most.
Where It Will Be Won: The battle of packs will make or break this one. The home side need to match the Sharks’ go-forward – with Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and the Warriors-bound Jayson Bukuya, they’re a hard-hitting and metre-eating forward pack. Cronulla average 1411 metres per match, well above the Warriors’ average of 1297. The home side’s forwards, led by Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino and Simon Mannering, will need to step up here.
The History: Played 30; Sharks 16, Warriors 14. The record at Mt Smart, though, is in the Warriors’ favour – they’ve won eight of the 13 clashes in Auckland since 1995. Cronulla are, however, poised for a record fourth consecutive victory against the New Zealanders… and the Warriors have lost their past nine Saturday fixtures!
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Justin Morgan.
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Televised: Live – Fox Sports 1 (3pm AEST).
The Way We See It: Both sides are desperate… and both will genuinely believe this match is theirs for the taking. We, however, can’t look past the home side after last week’s effort against Melbourne, despite the New Zealanders’ poor recent record against the Sharks. And, just maybe, all the drama and controversy might finally catch up with Cronulla. Warriors by seven points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats