The ‘Baby Broncos’ make their return to the NRL as the Origin series cranks up, with the next lot of Brisbane youngsters ready to strut their stuff on the first grade stage while their more illustrious team-mates prepare for interstate football.
They travel to Sydney to take on a somewhat resurgent Cronulla outfit who have just started to hit some form but who will be without three of their best for the encounter also.
It becomes a true test of depth and a test of desire, attitude and just pure will as both sides look to do their best with the cards they have been dealt.
The home-side Sharks have now won three games on the trot to give their fans a sniff of a potential miracle despite constant off-field dramas.
But with Trent Barrett and Paul Gallen recalled to the Blues outfit and Anthony Tupou succumbing to a knee injury, the Sutherland Shire boys will be without plenty of experience – and mongrel.
With the above-mentioned trio the epicentre of just about everything the Sharks do, it will be a massive test for the rest of the squad to bring the match home.
Reece Williams moves from centre to lock to cover for Gallen, with Mitch Brown coming into the centres.
Blake Green comes into five-eighth to take over from Barrett, while Luke Douglas shifts from prop to second row and Johnny Mannah comes in at prop to replace Tupou.
Jacob Selmes and Grant Millington are the new faces on the bench for the crucial encounter.
Brisbane has had a rotten time of it lately, losing heavily in their past two matches against Melbourne and the Bulldogs as Origin and ‘swine flu’ conspired against them.
Things don’t get much easier being forced to play without Origin stars Karmichael Hunt, Israel Folau, Darren Lockyer, Peter Wallace, Sam Thaiday and the injured Justin Hodges.
Dale Copley will play fullback in place of Hunt, while Alex Glenn will take a place in the centres with Jharal Yow Yeh remaining on the wing in place of Hodges and Folau.
Andrew McCullough moves from hooker to five-eighth to replace Lockyer, with wonder-kid Ben Hunt selected to make his NRL debut in the halfback spot left vacant by Wallace.
Josh McGuire moves from prop to the second row to take the place of Thaiday, with Joel Clinton coming back in at prop.
The new faces on the bench this week are Palmer Wapau and Guy Williams.
Watch out Sharks: It’s time for Corey Parker, the Broncos’ stand-in skipper, to take charge of his side and lead by example.
Parker is a ‘solid’ player each week but rarely is he a standout. Come Monday night, he needs to be a standout – and considering he admitted pride has been hurt over the past fortnight, it appears he is ready to take matters into his own hands.
His running game needs to lift from his average of 75 metres gained a match, which has yielded just one line break and one try for the year. He also has more skill than the four line-break assists and two try assists posted next to his name suggest, and needs to prove it.
Expect Parker to get his hands on the football much more often here.
Watch out Broncos: While they have plenty of their own youngsters in this match the Broncos need to pay particular attention to one young Shark pup, fullback Nathan Stapleton. He has only played four games but has three wins and is averaging an amazing 176 metres per match.
Stapleton’s raw speed is helping the Sharks no end and he has six line breaks already (second only to Anthony Tupou in the Sharks’ squad), plus a try assist and two tries.
In a team struggling in attack, Stapleton gives the Cronulla side a great option to find or use as a legitimate decoy.
Where it will be won: Composure. With so much experience missing out of both sides this match will come down to whichever side stays composed in the crucial moments.
Ricky Stuart admitted his young players made some bad decisions at vital times against the Raiders and he is hoping they have learned from the experience. It is great to have youthful exuberance in a side sometimes, as they’ll back their instincts and have no fear, but you need to counter-balance that with composure – something easier said than done.
The Broncos have a very young side fronting up and while their skill isn’t in question, how will their decision-making fare in the heat of this battle? Will they throw a pass not needed to be thrown, or kick at an inopportune time? Will they go left when right is the option?
It is hard to coach composure and patience but the side that provides it will prevail.
The History: Played 40; Sharks 15, Broncos 25. The Broncos have won six of the past eight between the two clubs but the Cronulla boys have won the past two clashes at Toyota Stadium. Overall at the venue the Sharks hold a 10-7 advantage. In the past four games between the two sides at Toyota Park the combined points have been 28 or under.
Conclusion: Toss a coin… seriously. The Broncos are out of form and without numerous stars. The Sharks are in some form, but without the three players who basically allowed them to win.
Rugby league likes a good fairytale, but which is it: the Sharks winning amongst more turmoil and without their leaders to continue an improbable climb, or the Baby Broncos adding another scalp to their impressive list over the years to reverse a mini-slump?
Heads or Tails? You decide…
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Adam Devcich & Peter Kirby; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.