Two months ago this game would have been a foregone conclusion, as even the most passionate Sharks fans would have admitted (to themselves, secretly).
But a lot can change over the course of a season, and although things haven’t improved too much in the Shire, things at Manly have taken a worrying turn for the worse.
After sitting at the top of the ladder after their gutsy win over the Dragons in Round 9, the Sea Eagles have been shadows of their normal selves, winning only two of their past seven games to put themselves out of the top eight.
Their first-half performances in particular are a worry – having led at halftime in 11 of their opening 12 matches they have buckled to trail at the break in their past four.
Perhaps the only solace for the northern beaches men, however, is that the Sharks haven’t been doing too much better. Cronulla are 14th on the ladder, winning only five games all season and only one from their past four games.
But despite their lowly position, things aren’t over for the Sharks just yet, and this game will have big implications for their push for an unlikely finals appearance. They’re only three wins off the top eight with eight rounds remaining, so a win would keep their chances alive and could start some valuable momentum heading into the final games.
For Manly, too, there will be a lot to play for, as a loss would see Manly’s confidence hit a dramatic low and would put a serious dent in the Sea Eagles’ chances of claiming a home semi-final – not to mention the unimaginable wrath of Des Hasler that the players would incur.
This game will also serve up an interesting clash in the forwards, with many current and former representative players lining up against each other. All but Shane Rodney from Manly’s starting pack (plus Brent Kite on the bench) have played in State of Origin, while Kade Snowden (average 119 metres gained), Paul Gallen (170 metres), and Origin III 18th man Luke Douglas (109 metres) all have recent experience in representative camps.
Cronulla’s trio has been in superb form at club level and continue to be the three men who can make the difference to their side, but Manly’s pack has been underwhelming, to say the least.
It goes without saying that Snowden, Gallen and Douglas will be fired up in front of the home crowd, so how Manly’s pack respond to the challenge will play a big factor in the outcome. (Gallen will be looking to shake the stigma of being within sight of the record for the most runs without a line-break – he has 324 and is closing in on Martin Lang’s benchmark 475.)
It’s a milestone game for Sharks centre Ben Pomeroy who plays his 100th NRL match.
Watch out Sharks: Anthony Watmough is a fiercely proud competitor who would not be happy with the recent performances of his team and himself. For his standards, Watmough has been well below par and is not the type of person to stay in a form slump for long. He needs to up his stats – 112 metres gained, 52 tackle busts but just four line-breaks.
He’s due for a big game, and considering he’ll be going up against the likes of Gallen, Snowden, and Douglas, Saturday is the perfect chance to show the rugby league world what he can do against some of the best forwards around.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Just as Watmough doesn’t take a backward step, neither does Sharks captain Trent Barrett. Barrett gives his all in every game he plays and was the catalyst for Cronulla’s last win, kicking the winning field goal in extra time against the Cowboys.
Nobody will need to tell Barrett how important this game is for the club and its fans, and he’ll also be fully aware that he’ll be playing without regular halves partner Tim Smith, who has been dropped to the NSW Cup for this weekend.
His place has been taken by John Morris, and while Morris is a capable player, Barrett will know that he’ll need to step up another gear in the absence of a natural halfback on his inside.
Expect to see Barrett make his presence felt in the opening 10 minutes in attack and particularly in defence.
Where it will be won: The kicking. Manly and Cronulla are ranked 13th and 14th respectively for most line-breaks in the NRL, so it’s unlikely that either side will have much luck penetrating the defensive line in the middle half the field.
Both sides will need to bring their best kicking games and play the territory game, as both teams have shown their goal-line defence to be a little bit rusty.
Trent Barrett will have the pressure on his shoulders to find space at Manly’s back (he’s currently averaging a middle-of-the-road 46 per cent effectiveness here), while Trent Hodkinson and Kieran Foran have been poor during the past month or two, so the result of this game will ultimately come down to how much they can get back to their best. Both have representative experience this year, which didn’t come from nothing, so if the Sea Eagles are serious about winning, these two will have to make it happen.
The history: Played 77; Manly 53, Cronulla 22, drawn 2. At Toyota Stadium, Manly actually have won more games than the home side, winning 16 of the 30, while recent history would also point towards a Manly victory, with Manly winning all of the past four clashes, and seven from the past 10.
However, one of those Cronulla victories (Round 24, 2005) was a 68-6 victory over the Sea Eagles, so it hasn’t all been Manly’s way.
Conclusion: This game will come down to how much Manly can turn around their recent poor form. It’s a given that the Sharks will be ready to play and win, so the ball is in Manly’s court. This is the type of game where the first five minutes will tell you everything.
Go with your gut here, as it will ultimately come down to Cronulla pride versus a Manly team that, on paper, should be too strong to win – the key word being ‘should’.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Delayed 9.20pm.