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Rabbitohs v Sharks
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

It’s impossible to overstate what a massive game this is for both of these teams. After starting the season brightly with two wins in three games the Sharks have come crashing back to earth, with four losses on the trot. And things aren’t going much better for the Rabbitohs, who like the Sharks have just two wins from their seven matches, and are currently experiencing a three-match losing streak.

Both outfits have the bye in Round 9, making this a potential four-point win and a chance to drag themselves away from a glut of five teams stuck on just four competition points.

Both teams were also thoroughly outplayed last week by opponents they would have backed themselves against – the Sharks at home to the Cowboys and the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium against the Bulldogs. So it all begins now for these clubs – the season hasn’t got away from them yet… but it quickly will if they don’t start stringing some wins together.

The task is made significantly tougher for the Sharks, who have crucially lost two of their in-form attacking players to injury. Fullback Nathan Gardner suffered an ankle injury early in the loss to the Cowboys, and will be replaced at the back by Isaac Gordon who plays his first game of 2011. Five-eighth Albert Kelly faces a long stint on the sidelines after breaking his leg in the same game. His absence means Tim Smith plays his first match of 2011, coming in at halfback with Wade Graham switching to pivot.

Colin Best comes back into the centres in place of Dean Collis, and Jason Bukuya takes the place of Taulima Tautai on the bench. It’s certainly a new-look Sharks outfit and how the reshuffle affects the team’s attacking structure remains to be seen.

The Rabbitohs have injury problems of their own, with star British import Sam Burgess set to miss at least six weeks with an ankle injury. As a result Ben Ross will start at prop and Jason Clark comes onto the bench. In better news for the Bunnies, young fullback James Roberts has been named to play the second game of his career after it was originally feared he had broken his arm in the loss to the Bulldogs.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: With the upheaval in the Cronulla backline it places even more pressure on their forward pack. It’s not clear how the new playmaking combination of Smith and Graham will gel, but what is clear is that the likes of Paul Gallen, Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas will roll up their sleeves and do everything they can to win the battle in the middle of the park.

Gallen’s 182.7 metres per game is easily the most of any player so far in 2011 but the club’s two starting props are also getting better with each game. Last week Kade Snowden (141 metres) and Luke Douglas (132 metres) got through plenty of work and are being talked about in terms of representative teams – another big game here from both could do wonders for both the team and their personal prospects.

These three, along with Jeremy Smith and Anthony Tupou, make up one of the best starting packs in the NRL and they will need to play like it if the Sharks are to shake themselves out of their current slump.

Danger Sign: It all comes back to Gallen. When the workaholic lock is hitting gaps at the fringes and popping offloads to support players or rolling out quick play-the-balls, you know the Sharks are hitting their groove.

Watch Out Sharks: The Cronulla backs had a few problems dealing with the Cowboys’ kicking game in the absence of Nathan Gardner last week and it leaves them with the worst success rate in the NRL at defusing kicks, with just 41 of 70 (or 59 per cent) safely negotiated. In particular, cross-field bombs have worried the Sharks, who have defused just three of 11.

The Rabbitohs are well placed to take advantage here – John Sutton is renowned for his high spiral bombs but it is Chris Sandow who has been really causing problems with his kicks this year. The halfback has found space with 28 of 41 long kicks, the third most behind Jamie Soward and Jarrod Mullen. This allows the chasers to swamp the man returning the ball and start the defensive set with the advantage.

Danger Sign: If the Bunnies put a few in the air early to test out the Sharks’ backs, especially the incoming Gordon, it means coach John Lang has identified this as a potential chink in the Sharks’ defence.

Plays To Watch: Inglis running wide, using his big fend to put his outside man in space; Tim Smith to use a mix of short kicks and long passes to test the Rabbitohs’ backs close to the line; 40/20 attempts from Chris Sandow; aggressive wide running and offloading from Paul Gallen and Dave Taylor.

Where It Will Be Won: The kicking game. As mentioned, the Sharks have struggled to defuse kicks so far this year, but South Sydney aren’t much better – they have the fourth-worst record, defusing just 62 per cent of kicks. Like the Sharks, they have safely negotiated just three of 11 cross-field bombs. Wade Graham has been no slouch with his long kicks, finding space with 21 of 38, and Tim Smith will be eager to test out the boot in his first match of the season.

Both sides have a new fullback, and James Roberts and Isaac Gordon can both expect an aerial raid on Friday night. Whichever team wins the battle in the air will go a long way towards earning the competition points.

The History: Played 75; Cronulla 39, South Sydney 33, drawn 3. Cronulla have the edge overall but the Bunnies have won five of the past seven, and the past three straight. These sides have only met three times at ANZ, where South Sydney have a 2-1 record over the Sharks. Five of the past eight clashes have been decided by six points or less, so this could be a tight one.

Cronulla’s five wins and nine losses at ANZ against all teams gives them a win rate of just 36 per cent – a worse record at the venue than any team other than the Cowboys.

And some quirky stats – Souths have won just a single Round 8 fixture since 1994, which came in 2008. But so far this season every team that has played the Bulldogs has gone on to win the following week – a good omen for the Rabbitohs, perhaps?

Conclusion: One thing is for certain (a draw aside) – one of these teams will end their losing streak on Friday night. With two key players out through injury, it looks like the Sharks have the tougher task to reverse their losing form.

But with the history of close encounters, don’t be afraid to take the Sharks if you think they can grind it out in a tight one.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 10.30pm (due to Royal Wedding coverage earlier in evening); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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