DEPRESSED Cronulla fans should expect a change in attitude come Saturday night. After three consecutive losses and now being listed as equal favourites for the wooden spoon(!) alongside Penrith at $5, the big-spending Sharks have finally tinkered with their line-up – but unfortunately for fans it’s not based on form.
Last week’s loss to the Bulldogs had a big impact, with three Sharks cited and suspended (Misi Taulapapa, Kade Snowden and Paul Gallen) and Jack Afamasaga suffering a knee injury in his first hit-up for the club. In come the new troops – we’re talking Johnny Mannah and Matthew Wright, rookies as yet unproven at this level – and perhaps they can inject some enthusiasm missing after a few lacklustre performances.
The Raiders also have just one win to their name, a 23-18 last-start win against the Cowboys their only joy so far this season. New coach David Furner will be expecting his troops put in maximum effort for the full 80 minutes this week after easing off following an impressive first half against North Queensland in Round 4.
Watch out Sharks: Cronulla have scored just 48 points in four games this season – an average of just 12 points per game. They need to look for more attacking spark to break the defensive line more often and throw some caution to the wind – so far this season they sit on just eight line breaks (last in the competition).The Raiders, on the other hand, are known for their expansive, hot-potato style of play and have made 14 line breaks in 2009.
Of main concern for the Sharks are Joel Monaghan (two line breaks, one line-break assist and one try), Terry Campese (two line breaks, five line-break assists and seven try assists) and Marc Herbert (two line breaks). The Sharks will also need to put pressure on Campese and Herbert on the fifth tackle, with the Raiders’ 73.3 per cent kick accuracy sure to keep the locals on the back foot if it continues.
Cronulla, in stark contrast, find open space with kicks just 42.1 per cent of the time. It’s a worrying sign for coach Ricky Stuart.
Watch out Raiders: The likely return of star five-eighth and new captain (in the absence of Gallen) Trent Barrett is great news for Cronulla fans. Barrett went down with a serious neck injury against his old club, the Dragons, in Round 3 and it was feared he’d be out for the season. Now he’s back and his new team need him badly.
In his two-and-a-bit games played in 2009 ‘Baz’ has recorded two tries and one line-break assist. The Raiders will also need to keep a close eye on damaging back-row ballplayer Anthony Tupou (three line-breaks and two tries). Barrett’s combination with halfback Brett Seymour (two try assists) will be crucial to the Sharks’ chances of rectifying their season – and their hopes in this match.
Cronulla will be targeting young centre Jarrod Croker in defence – he’s missed 11 tackles for an effective tackle percentage of 76.9. But the Sharks have a liability themselves – fellow rookie Blake Ferguson has failed to make 16 tackles for an effective tackle percentage of 78.9.
Where it will be won: The battle between the props will have a massive impact on the outcome of this match. For the Sharks, Bryan Norrie and Luke Douglas are their go-to men in the absence of key personnel including Gallen, injured veteran forward Ben Ross and prop Afamasaga. For Norrie (129 metres in four matches with limited game time) it’s a chance to cement a spot in the Sharks’ line-up and show he’s up for the challenge.
Resilient partner Douglas has been a rock for his team over the past few years, playing more than 50 consecutive matches, and this is his first chance to lead the pack. But he’ll need to increase his workload and give his team more than his average of 88 metres per match with the loss of Gallen, who averages 118 metres a match.
New Raider David Shillington (515 metres in four matches) has been an unsung hero for his team and kept them on the front foot all season, no matter what the final result. Coupled with the experienced Scott Logan (91 metres in one match) and they make a formidable partnership. If their strong vein of form continues expect the visitors to win this clash.
The History: Played 51; Sharks 28, Raiders 23. Last year the high-flying Sharks won both meetings, with 36-10 and 36-24 victories. But even a week is a long time in the modern game...
Conclusion: Expect this match to be slugged out in the forwards. Both teams have inexperienced backs and whoever wins the battle up front should get the points. With a more experienced and dynamic back row, and playing in front of a vocal if not frustrated home crowd, expect the Sharks to prevail in a close one. But don’t bet your house on it.
Match officials: Referees: Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials: Mohamad Fajajo and Peter Kirby; Video Ref: Russell Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live from 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.