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Sharks v Warriors
Owen Deany Park, Taupo, NZ
Sunday 2pm (NZ Time)

Ah, the value of hindsight. One wonders if the head honchos at the Sharks are thinking twice about their decision to take this home game across the Tasman to Taupo now their boys have won two straight and find themselves in the top eight for the first time since the opening round of 2009!

You would imagine the desperate Warriors, who are yet to win a game, are very thankful about hopping on a bus for a few hours rather than facing another flight into hostile territory.

After beating the team that won the major and minor premiership last season the Sharks backed it up with a win over Penrith, the team that finished second on the ladder through the regular season last year. It moved them into eighth place and has shown they have what it takes to be a finals threat should they find some consistency.

As such, this is a huge test of their credentials. They face a side that is winless and without confidence… can they smother them, or will they falter?

Coach Shane Flanagan has retained side that dismantled the Panthers but has added Dean Collis and Taulima Tautai as extras.

For the Warriors, now in 15th place after three straight losses to the Eels, Wests Tigers and Dragons, this is crunch time. Coach Ivan Cleary has initiated significant change for this all-important clash, with only five players keeping their positions from last week. Fullback Lance Hohaia is out, with youngster Glen Fisiiahi (re-signed during the week through 2015) coming in at fullback. Winger Kevin Locke gets the punt to the bench and Bill Tupou comes in to start on the flank. Joel Moon, who was hooked early last week, makes way for Shaun Berrigan to play centre. Captain Simon Mannering will also play in the centres in place of the injured Jerome Ropati. Halfback Brett Seymour has also been chopped off the list, with James Maloney moving to halfback and Feleti Mateo coming in at five-eighth. Sam Rapira (re-signed this week as well) has been shifted to the bench, with Jacob Lillyman to start at prop. Aaron Heremaia will start at hooker. Ukuma Ta’al is the new starting second-rower. Elijah Taylor and Alehana Mara are the two new faces on a five-man bench.

Cleary hopes the wholesale changes can rouse some passion in his team – and they need it after being pretty flat last week.

Watch Out Sharks: The selection of Feleti Mateo at five-eighth is likely to be a ‘rocks’ or ‘diamonds’ scenario – but if it is diamonds then the former Eel and Tongan representative could rip the Sharks apart. So far this season Mateo has averaged 92 metres and has eight offloads but he is yet to notch a line-break, line-break assist, try or try assist as he took a back seat to the more established Warriors playmakers.

With a licence to thrill now at his disposal you can be sure he’ll be taking on the line on the edges and looking to pass both before and through the line.  

Danger Sign: Watch for Mateo’s one-handed carry. If he runs into the defence and then lifts the ball up and over with one hand so he can look to offload, it could be the sign he is on song.

Watch Out Warriors: Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner continues to be an attacking dynamo, something the Sharks have lacked in recent seasons. He is averaging 6.9 tackle-breaks a game in his short career (8.3 this season) – the most by any Sharks player on record. So far this year he averages 133 metres gained, has four line-breaks and two tries. The Warriors have to pay special attention to the custodian, particularly when he injects himself into the backline. He usually does so on the inside line looking for an inside pass to catch out defences that are slow at sliding. With his amazing acceleration there is no room for error defensively when marking him.

Danger Sign: It’s all about where Gardner is positioned. If the Warriors think he is just hanging out the back of plays, they’ll be mistaken. He is waiting for the perfect moment to come into the line and create the extra man. He sells it brilliantly.

Plays To Watch: Albert Kelly latching on to offloads from the likes of Gallen; Gallen and Mateo in an offload war; Ben Pomeroy running bolt upright but through defenders; Krisnan Inu looking for his first ever line-break against the Sharks; Fisiiahi bringing kick returns back with lightning pace.

Where It Will Be Won: This match will be all about attitude, confidence… and the start. The Warriors have been lacking in all three categories and if this continues they will continue on their downward spiral. They are yet to score a try in the opening quarter of a match this season and it has made life difficult.

As for confidence – well, the Sharks have plenty after two great wins but they had made a habit of losing for so long it will be interesting to see how they go if they fall behind early. This is where attitude comes in. Will they be able to handle things if they fall behind? And will the Warriors turn up in the right frame of mind?

They’ll need to forget about the scoreboard and worry about getting their house in order. If they can forge a lead against the Sharks they should be able to feed from it and move forward. But if they allow the Sharks to pass at will, like they did with the Dragons, Gallen and co. will have a field day. When confidence is high, passes tend to stick.

The History: Played 26; Sharks 13, Warriors 13. While the teams are evenly split in their history of encounters the Warriors have won three of the past four, including two wins last season.

The two sides have never played in Taupo but the Sharks haven’t beaten the Warriors in New Zealand since 2007. Somewhat surprisingly, neither team has ever really blown the other completely off the park. While there has been some biggish wins, the record win margin for the Sharks over Warriors is just 26… and the Warriors’ best over Cronulla is 30 – and they were 14 and 10 years ago respectively!

Since entering the league in 1995 the Warriors have never lost their opening four matches – but they have won just two of 12 matches played in New Zealand outside of Mt Smart Stadium.

Conclusion: The Sharks have the form but the Warriors surely have to click soon. With the match in New Zealand the Warriors get a massive boost and although the Sharks have been great for a fortnight, one gets the feeling the Warriors’ players will be fired up ‘deluxe’ for this one. Look for them to get off their duck.

Watch highlights from the last time these two teams met

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12pm (AEST)

* Statistics: NRL Stats.