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Sharks v Rabbitohs
Toyota Stadium
Sunday 2pm

It’s a massive week for both sides, with the Sharks aiming for a hat-trick of wins to trampoline to the brink of the top eight, while incredibly a Rabbitohs’ victory of significant margin could see them overtake the three sides immediately above them – the Panthers, Warriors and Wests Tigers – to grab eighth place on the ladder.

For that to happen the Panthers would need to lose to the Bulldogs on Saturday and Souths would need to beat the Sharks by 32 points to overhaul the Tigers’ +4 points differential. (The Warriors and Tigers rest up with the bye so don’t get improve their for-and-against). But as we continue to witness, anything goes in 2011!

The Sharks were ruthless in disposing of the hapless Titans 36-12 on the Gold Coast strip last week, registering back-to-back away wins after hammering the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium in Round 15. But although they return to their Shire base this week they lose last week’s two-try hero and inspirational skipper Paul Gallen to NSW Origin camp.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs splashed out in style on a rain-sodden nib Stadium in Perth last Friday night, defeating the joint table-topping Broncos 16-12 to record their second successive victory. They repelled a strong Brisbane finish with clearly their most committed defensive effort of the year, which should hearten both coach John Lang and all fans of the red and green.

Origin and suspension deprives them of their strongest contributors in centre Greg Inglis and second-rower Dave Taylor.

The game should feature some sparkling long-distance exchanges, with the head-to-head battle between fullbacks Nathan Gardner and Rhys Wesser sure to be pivotal to the outcome.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan welcomes back prop Kade Snowden from injury, which pushes Johnny Mannah to the bench. Anthony Tupou moves from the bench to partner Jason Bukuya in the second row, with Jeremy Smith dropping back to take Paul Gallen’s spot at lock.

Rabbitohs coach John Lang has recalled Shaune Corrigan to start at centre for Greg Inglis while Eddy Pettybourne moves from the bench to start in the second row for Dave Taylor. Luke Burgess completes the bench.

In the Rabbitohs’ favour this week is the fact they come up against the side they’ve enjoyed the most success against since re-entering the competition in 2002, winning 56 per cent of all encounters between the clubs.

Watch Out Sharks: After a shaky start to the season Rhys Wesser is playing in career-best form. The diminutive No.1 is in everything, as evidenced last week when he scored a great try supporting a Chris Sandow kick into the in-goal, busted the tackle attempts of nine Broncos defenders and ran 16 times.

Wesser will present a major threat at the back; he’s averaging 153 metres a game, ranking him fourth of all players, and his support play (48 so far) will make the Sharks pay if they’re not alert at all times. Plus he’s really shored up his previously suspect defensive play. To date Wesser has made 14 try saves (second most in the comp) and 12 tackle saves (third most).

Obviously the others to watch are the playmaking trio of Issac Luke, Chris Sandow and John Sutton. Back in their Round 8 defeat of the Sharks Sandow put in a blinder, his 19 points the most scored by a Rabbitoh wearing the No.7. Plus he boasts a 4-1 record against this week’s opposition.

Sutton will look to create opportunities on the left fringe and edge, where the Sharks’ right-side defenders have leaked 26 tries this year, the most by any team.

Danger Sign: If Issac Luke takes control like he did last week (109 receives) you’ll know he’s switched on and the Rabbitohs will be playing with plenty of direction. That will allow Sandow and Sutton to selectively inject their plays – with Sutton sure to take on the left edge and look to get a support through close to the line.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Nathan Gardner represents a devastating threat in broken play; his 77 tackle-breaks for the year rank him second among all fullbacks behind only Matt Bowen’s benchmark 86. The Rabbitohs can’t afford to hang off him and wait to see what he does or they’ll end up mesmerised and clutching at thin air. He’s particularly dangerous when chiming in inside the opposition 20-metre zone, where he can link with outside men or else put his foot down and go himself. And he’s the quintessential supporting fullback, as he showed last week when latching onto Colin Best’s inside ball to sprint away and score the first of two tries against the Titans. 

Winger Nathan Stapleton showed he possesses an excellent leap when soaring high for two tries against the Titans – prior to last week the Sharks had scored just six four-pointers from kicks, the third fewest by any side. But Stapleton’s double and another to Gardner off a grubber suggests they could try their luck again this week. In particular they’ll target Rabbitohs’ left winger James Roberts; his opposite Stapleton holds a six centimetre height advantage over the rookie.

Danger Sign: If Colin Best gets involved in good field position he can make things happen for the Sharks. The veteran centre has 21 offloads (second most by any centre) and five line-break assists for the year.

Plays To Watch: Sharks props Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden testing out the Rabbitohs’ defensive commitment up the guts; Nathan Gardner chiming in off a second-man play both left and right; speculative attacking kicks from Gardner and Chad Townsend; Jeremy Smith ripping in; Anthony Tupou’s offloads on the edges; Rhys Wesser’s support play; Chris Sandow chip-kicking and grubbering for himself; Nathan Merritt looking to get around opposite winger Matthew Wright; John Sutton’s flat line-break and try assists; Issac Luke scooping up the ball from the ruck and targeting tired Sharks forwards midway through both halves. 

Where It Will Be Won: It will all come down to commitment. Nothing splits these sides – the Rabbitohs concede 21.3 points per game compared to the Sharks’ 21.9 points; both teams concede 3.8 tries on average; while the Sharks concede 3.7 line-breaks, the Rabbitohs 4.3.

While the backlines are sure to dazzle at times it will fall to the forwards to lay the foundation. Unfortunately for the Sharks, Paul Gallen is one of just two forwards topping triple figures in territory each week – and he’s averaging 181 metres a game from 21 runs! So Kade Snowden (15 runs, 129 metres), Luke Douglas (11 runs, 97 metres) and others are really going to have to roll up their sleeves this week.

Souths were great defensively against the Broncos – but they need to sustain that effort if they’re going to convince the greater rugby league audience that they can make a serious impression in this year’s premiership. The Sharks are the fifth-best defensive unit, missing 31 tackles a game – while the Bunnies are the second worst, leaking 38 a match.

The History: Played 66; Sharks 39, Rabbitohs 34, drawn 1. The Rabbitohs have an excellent recent record, winning six of the past eight games including the past four. The Sharks hold bragging rights at Toyota Stadium, winning 25 of the 37 games played there, with one draw. The Sharks’ last win over the bunnies was a 28-14 decision at Toyota Stadium in 2008. 

Conclusion: It’s impossible to overlook the importance of Gallen’s absence. But then again, Souths’ record without Inglis and Taylor isn’t flash either.

There will be no wanting for motivation; should the Sharks lose it will pretty much bring down the curtain on their finals chances, while the Rabbitohs know a win will see them stay in touch with the bottom half of the top eight – with a tough away game against the Sea Eagles to follow next week.

We like the way the Sharks are going about their work at the moment. If they can get the competition points without Gallen it would be a huge morale booster – and a major blow to the bunnies’ confidence. If Jeremy Smith can provide solid leadership all afternoon they’ll be a chance. Smith has an excellent record against Souths, winning five games from seven appearances – plus the Sharks have won four of their five games this season with Smith on the field.

A vocal Toyota Stadium crowd on a sunny Sunday afternoon could be the catalyst for an upset here.    

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & David Abood; Video Ref – Rod Lawrence.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats