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The latest from the Rabbitohs camp

Paul Gallen on the Sharks' line-up

Rabbitohs v Sharks
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

This game might not shape up as the most exciting of the round but it certainly is of major importance for the combatants, particularly Cronulla, who are watching their season slip away with each new loss.

The Sharks have now lost five straight matches to find themselves alone at the bottom of the NRL ladder with just a solitary win over Penrith in Round 1, while the Rabbitohs with three wins to their name are faring better in sixth spot.

The dismal start for the Sharks signifies their worst start to a season since the 2003 Chris Anderson-filled drama year.

Despite sitting inside the top eight the Bunnies have been far from world-beaters… rather they have been a model of inconsistency.

After a tough win away against the Warriors the Rabbitohs have fallen to the Bulldogs and Manly, with their own errors mostly to blame.

They have shuffled their side slightly to include David Kidwell in the starting 13 at second row, with Shannan McPherson moving to a six-man bench which also has new faces Scott Geddes and Ben Lowe.

The Sharks looked like they might take care of North Queensland in Adelaide last weekend before being thumped by a Johnathan Thurston rugby league attacking skills clinic.

Thankfully they welcome back captain Paul Gallen at lock, which moves Reni Maitua back to the bench.

Watch out Rabbitohs: Paul Gallen returns from suspension as an angry, yet controlled individual. Gallen hates losing and has desires of being New South Wales skipper, something that will become more and more difficult if he can’t lead his own club side out of crisis.

He is currently averaging 118 metres gained a match, has one line break, a line-break assist, a try a try assists and 13 offloads.

In the past when Paul Gallen has called for the ball, Paul Gallen has been given the ball – but perhaps the Sharks might be wise to use him as a decoy every once in a while, just to keep the defence guessing.

Watch out Sharks: If the Sharks do not put more pressure on the Rabbitohs’ kicking game they will remain on the back foot for the entire contest.

The Bunnies’ kickers are finding space with their long kicks on 68.9 per cent of occasions, more than any other side in the NRL, giving their kick-chase plenty of time to bolt up-field and form a wall of defence around the kick-returners.

The Sharks’ back three aren’t known as the strongest or most dangerous players returning the ball from kicks, in fact they are one of only two sides in the competition yet to make a line break from a kick-return. If they are dominated, the start to each Cronulla set of six will be poor.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact the Sharks find space just 42.6 per cent of the time, second last in the NRL, and as such will be allowing the Rabbitohs to start their sets on the front foot.

Where it will be won: Handling. Completion rates are crucial to both sides if they are to build enough pressure to score points. Against the Sea Eagles the Rabbitohs were dismal, completing just 62 per cent of sets with 19 errors, their most in over four years.

The Sharks average more errors (14.5 a game) than any other side in the NRL, so holding onto the ball is even more crucial for them. With their well-publicised attacking problems (last in the NRL in tries scored and line breaks), holding on to as much possession as possible is critical.

They need more chances than most teams due to these deficiencies.

The side that wins the possession battle will take this contest by the scruff of the neck and no doubt come away with the two competition points.
The History: Played 73; Rabbitohs 30, Sharks 39, drawn 3. The Sharks won both matches between the two sides last season and while the ledger is square one apiece at ANZ Stadium the Rabbitohs have in fact lost their past four games against any opponent at the venue.

Conclusion: Cronulla haven’t shown any real attacking thrust this year; as such it’s hard to get excited about them.

The Rabbitohs are certainly beatable, having been inconsistent performers themselves, but if they can show some commitment in defence and the likes of Chris Sandow, Issac Luke, Craig Wing and John Sutton can come up with their best attack, then they could win – and win well.

The Sharks will again be out to grind out victory, which means the Rabbitohs have to be patient and not get frustrated if they fail to penetrate early. If they fail to respect the football they’ll give the Sharks a chance and when a team is desperate all they really need is someone to leave the door open.

Safety tip is the Rabbitohs – but the Sharks have to win again some time, right?

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & David Abood; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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