Season 2009 is possibly already over for both the Canberra Raiders and the Cronulla Sharks – but while there is life there is hope.
The heart monitor is close to flat line for the 15th-placed Sharks but even the 11th-placed Raiders are four points adrift of the top eight – and they have already had both of their byes.
Both sides need to get on a significant winning run if they are to salvage something from the year and the reality is this is a game they must win as it is against a fellow struggling side.
The Sharks have put two wins together in a row after a very poor start to the year, but with matches against the Broncos and Cowboys coming up in the coming weeks they have significant challenges blocking an unlikely charge.
Should they lose here, any momentum gained from the past two weeks will be lost and the fairytale thoughts will be snuffed out.
The home-side Raiders are fresh from the bye and have also put together back-to-back wins to come into this match.
This game represents one of three home matches they have in the next month; they’ll need to win at least three of the next four to maintain hope of pushing up into the top eight.
Terry Campese rejoins the side at five-eighth after his Origin debut, which sees young Josh McCrone miss out, while Alan Tongue returns to the starting side pushing Trevor Thurling to the bench.
For the Sharks, former skipper Paul Gallen comes back into the side with Anthony Tupou going from lock to second row and Grant Millington reverting to the bench.
Ben Pomeroy has also been added to the bench which currently has six occupants.
Watch out Raiders: The Sharks are likely to focus most of their attack to the left side of the field. If that fails they’ll revert to the kick, knowing the Raiders are the fourth-worst side at conceding tries from the boot.
Canberra have let in 14 tries to kicks so far this season and the Sharks have scored 10, so it makes sense they’ll try to take advantage.
Before they go to the boot though they’ll be sending plenty of attack to the left, where they have scored 16 tries so far this year compared to just eight on the right and just five up the middle.
Canberra have conceded more tries on the left than any other area also, so Ricky Stuart has no reason to stop his side hammering what works.
Watch out Sharks: The Raiders boast the most accurate long-kicking game in the NRL and if they can continue to find space with their kicks they’ll put the Cronulla side under all sorts of pressure.
The Sharks already gain less territory across the ground and through the boot per match and their own kick accuracy is ranked 14th.
The Raiders find space on 65 per cent of occasions to give their chasers a chance to dominate the first tackle, while the Sharks are finding space just 45 per cent of the time.
Where it will be won: All-round discipline. The side that stays out of the referees’ sights, who holds on to the ball and who completes their sets will take this match.
This gives the Raiders an edge, despite their recent poor form against the Sharks. They have conceded just 57 penalties this season – the fewest in the NRL – and although the Sharks are equal second in the statistic with 71 penalties, it is an edge nonetheless (especially given they are playing at home).
In terms of errors, once again it’s the Canberra boys on top. With just 122 errors committed they are ranked no.1 (although the two byes help) compared to the Sharks who have the most in the NRL with 177 errors.
Cronulla need to treasure the football and wait for legitimate chances to attack while ensuring they work hard in defence against a Raiders side who has found their attacking mojo.
The History: Played 52; Raiders 24, Sharks 28. The Raiders broke a four-game run by the Sharks earlier this season when they prevailed 34-14 at Toyota Park, but the Sharks have still won six of the past eight matches between the clubs. Canberra has an 11-6 advantage at Canberra Stadium but they haven’t beaten Cronulla there since 2004, losing four in a row.
Conclusion: Both sides come into the game with some momentum so the safest way to lean is with the home side despite the fact the Raiders haven’t beaten the Sharks in Canberra for longer than a federal government term in office.
The Canberra boys usually enjoy playing in the daytime, as they can chance their arm a little and chances are they’ll run the Sharks ragged.
But the Shire boys have shown some steel in the past fortnight so they can’t be totally discounted.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Mohamad Fajajo & Peter Kirby; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.