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Sharks v Raiders
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

Wow – are you getting excited Sharks fans? You should be, given your team’s current hot streak of three wins that has elevated them to the periphery of the finals zone.

With the Sharks pushing to 11th position on the ladder just one win from the top eight it’s time for their long-suffering supporters to dare to dream. This week they get the chance to keep the momentum rolling and also avenge a hurtful Round 1 thrashing at the hands of their southern cousins Canberra.

It’s a game they can’t afford to drop given the congested nature of the finals race and the fact they head to Kogarah next week to take on a full-strength Dragons side.

Still, their recent form has been encouraging: they hijacked the Bulldogs away, were too good for the Titans on the Gold Coast and then last week out-enthused the Rabbitohs with an ultra-impressive first half that saw them head to the sheds with a commanding 20-nil lead – their biggest in five years. Their first half was stunning – they notched five unanswered line-breaks, offloaded 12 times and made 19 tackle busts on the way to making more than twice as many metres as the bunnies (903 to 419).

Here they get back inspirational skipper Paul Gallen (fingers crossed) from Origin and also impact prop Kade Snowden after his late withdrawal last game but know this week’s opponents will be a tough test, given they’ve shown similar, massive improvement in recent weeks.

The Raiders may be sitting in 13th spot, two competition points behind the Sharks, but they are playing like a side worthy of a berth in the bottom half of the top eight. They’ve won four of their past six, including their past two, and were competitive in their defeats to the Cowboys and Broncos (the latter a 25-24 loss in golden point).

In Sharks team changes, Snowden’s return at prop pushes Johnny Mannah to an extended bench that numbers 20. Gallen’s return at lock pushes Jeremy Smith into the second row, with Anthony Tupou bumped to the pine.

Meanwhile the Raiders have been dealt a blow with prop Tom Leahroyd-Lahrs suffering a torn bicep muscle in the win over the Roosters. This comes hot on the heels of the injury to David Shillington’s pectoral and leaves the Raiders a little exposed up front. Dane Tilse has stepped up to start alongside Brett White in the front row, with Sam Mataora rejoining the squad (recovered from his hand fracture) and Josh Miller rounding out the interchange.

Should the Raiders win it would be the first time they’ve achieved back-to-back wins at Toyota Stadium since 1984; it would also give them three consecutive wins over the Sharks for the first time since 1992.

Watch Out Sharks: With Shillington and Learoyd-Lahrs injured it falls to Brett White and Dane Tilse to give the Raiders a solid platform from which halfback Sam Williams can add his creativity. White had a career-best game in the green jersey last week, powering to 22 runs and 177 metres – in fact, his opening 17-minute stint was so involved it mirrored his 2011 average of 11 runs and 92 metres!

Williams will be licking his lips at getting another chance to gaff the Sharks after his blistering performance in Round 1 – the No.7 became only the third player in NRL history to lend three try assists on debut.

The Sharks need to be extremely wary of plays involving lock Shaun Fensom, who leads the NRL for decoys (89). Williams will look to shift the ball behind Fensom and create opportunities.

Danger Sign: You’ll know if the Raiders have turned up to play by their application in the first 15 minutes. Last week they raced to an early 12-nil lead against the Roosters – and they did so with faultless handling, not making an error during this period for just the second time all season.

Watch Out Raiders: Anthony Tupou returned to his best form against the Rabbitohs, contributing six offloads and making 15 runs for 129 metres plus 28 tackles in a complete 80-minute performance. One of those offloads was a superb hit-and-spin to gift Matthew Wright an easy four-pointer. This week Tupou is set to join the action off the bench, meaning he could be an even greater threat to weary Raiders’ defenders.

Danger Sign: If the Sharks click early the Raiders could be in for a long afternoon. Over the past month the Shire side has rocketed to become a top-three performer in points scored (26), line-breaks (4.8) and fewest errors (9.8).

Plays To Watch: Gardner hot-footing it out wide; Best offering understated support down the left fringe; local junior Chad Townsend notching a record by tallying double figures for a fourth consecutive week; Huge collisions between Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden and Brett White and Dane Tilse; Sam Williams’ scheming, Josh Papalii’s punishing hit-ups and tackle busts (141 metres, six line-breaks last week).    

Where It Will Be Won: Out wide. Once the ball drifts wider than Snowden, Luke Douglas, Brett White and Dane Tilse, it will be left to the backs to deliver the prize.

The Raiders’ outside backs were on fire against the Roosters last week, with only Reece Robinson failing to notch triple figures. Enigmatic winger Blake Ferguson led the way with 210 metres (and a try) and was supported by centre Jarrod Croker (141 metres and two tries plus a game-high nine tackle-breaks), fullback Nathan Massey (124 metres) and centre Joel Thompson (107 metres and a try). Combined this quartet registered five of the Raiders’ eight line-breaks and exactly half the team’s 50 tackle busts.

But the Sharks’ backs dazzled last week too. Fullback Nathan Gardner, who has made 83 tackle busts to date (second most in the comp), carved out 184 metres (plus a try assist). Winger Nathan Stapleton added 153, while Matthew Wright (two tries, two line-breaks) and Ben Pomeroy each made 123 metres. Centre Colin Best scored a try and made a line-break, plus five tackle-breaks. It all helped them tally 1666 metres – the fifth-most territory any side has managed in a game all year.

It will be interesting to see which side of the field Canberra targets. The Raiders have had greater success heading right, scoring 23 tries compared to 15 on Croker’s left side. But the Sharks have a stronger left-edge defence, surrendering just 18 tries compared to 24 on their right side. Meanwhile the Raiders have leaked 23 tries on each side.

The History: Played 55; Sharks 29, Raiders 26. The Sharks have won five of the past eight games between the two, although the Raiders have won three of the past four – including the past two. The Green Machine smashed the Sharks 40-12 in Canberra in Round 1. The Sharks have an overwhelming record at home, winning 18 of 25 games.

Conclusion: This could be the most exciting game of the round, despite it being 11th versus 13th. It will all boil down to enthusiasm – and perhaps the home ground advantage and Paul Gallen’s urgings will be enough to get the Sharks the much-needed competition points. Sharks by two points in an absolute thriller.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats