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Sharks v Knights
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The traffic congestion around the middle of the NRL table will either ease a little or become even more log-jammed after this ‘Glory Bound Round’ clash between two anxious combatants teetering around the brink of the finals zone.

After copping a 32-10 caning from the Sea Eagles at home last week the Knights have dropped out of the top eight; they sit ninth, the lowest-ranked of three sides on 20 competition points due to their -23 points differential. Nipping at their heels in 10th place are the Sharks, who similarly were on the receiving end of a football lesson last week, taken down 38-8 by the Dragons. The Shire side lead a trio of teams on 18 competition points.

Clearly this game could define each team’s season. Taking other results into account, a Sharks win by more than 20 points in this game and a large Manly win over the Panthers could see Cronulla jump as high as eighth, while a loss could see them plummet to 12th and in a world of hurt. Meanwhile a Knights win would see them lift one place to eighth, while a loss would see them slip to 10th, with a negative points differential they may well rue when the final numbers are crunched after Round 26.

The Sharks will be hoping last week’s result was due more to a red-hot opponent than a drop-off in their form. They were never in the game and on the receiving end of an early 75:25 possession meltdown but when they did get into position to threaten they came up with two good tries.

Coach Shane Flanagan hasn’t hit the panic button. Matthew Wright’s neck injury sees former Cowboy John Williams included on the wing. Josh Cordoba has been named to start at prop, with Kade Snowden benched – although the pair were named this way last week before swapping duties prior to kick-off. In a blow, Jayson Bukuya is out for a month with an ankle injury; Anthony Tupou steps in to grab his spot in the second row, while Stuart Flanagan and Johnny Mannah round out an extended bench of 18.

After compiling a steady three-game winning streak the Knights have now lost two on the trot. It’s a bittersweet week for them – they welcome back attacking thrust and captain Kurt Gidley after a fortnight out with injury but have lost fullback Wes Naiqama indefinitely with a knee injury. Coach Rick Stone has named Gidley in the No.1, preferring to retain the halves combination of Ryan Stig and Jarrod Mullen.

Richie Fa’aoso has been named to start at prop (although he was named to start last week but ended up coming off the bench) alongside Antonio Kaufusi with Dan Tolar benched. Joel Edwards will start at lock (for Steve Southern) with Matt Hilder and Mark Taufua the new faces on the bench.   

The head-to-head record shows the Knights have their work cut out this week – they haven’t won three in a row against the Sharks since 1999. But second-rower Neville Costigan carries a good omen – he boasts eight wins over the Sharks from 11 games including five from six at Toyota Stadium.

Watch Out Sharks: The Dragons rank first in metres gained and last week Cronulla really struggled to contain them out wide. As a result the Red V were able to rack up 1606 metres in territory. This week the Sharks come up against the team ranked third in the NRL for total metres (1386) so they’ll need to have learned some lessons and tightened up their edge defence (they leaked a massive eight line-breaks last week). In particular the Sharks’ right-side defence needs to muscle up – they’ve let through 30 tries, the second most by any side behind the Rabbitohs’ 31.

The Knights lead the league for both average line-breaks (4.8) and tackle-breaks (40.9). Akuila Uate leads the way with 11 line-breaks and 98 tackle busts (ranked No.1 in the NRL).

And it has been a while since his name has been mentioned in despatches but former Test prop Antonio Kaufusi had a breakout game for the Knights up the centre last week, making 14 runs for 145 metres, with three tackle-breaks.

Danger Sign: If the Knights get deep in attack and Gidley chimes in on second-man plays down the left side the Sharks could be in all sorts of bother… again.

Watch Out Knights: Sharks’ fullback Nathan Gardner and five-eighth Wade Graham will be especially dangerous from scrums. Gardner has made 12 line-breaks (fifth most in the comp) and Graham 10 (second most by any No.6). They’ll relish the opportunity of exposing the at-times shaky defence of Knights’ halves Jarrod Mullen (four misses last week) and Ryan Stig.

Then there’s Paul Gallen. The Sharks’ skipper didn’t even make it to the three-quarter mark of last week’s game but still managed 15 runs and 136 metres.

The Knights have a battle on their hands to stop second-phase play – the Sharks are making the fourth-most offloads each week (14.2) while the Novocastrians are conceding the third most every game (13.3).

Danger Sign: A dearth of possession hampered their attacking efforts last week but if the Sharks’ key offloaders Anthony Tupou (39), Gallen (36) and centres Colin Best and Ben Pomeroy (49 between them, the most by any centre combination) get their team on a roll the points could flow.

Plays To Watch: Nathan Gardner’s whippet-like darts; former Dragons Neville Costigan and Jeremy Smith locking horns; Anthony Tupou’s offloads; Kurt Gidley running the ball and linking with Uate; Ryan Stig’s dummies; Chris Houston’s covering tackle saves (eight made, sixth most by any player).     

Where It Will Be Won: A good kicking game and showing urgency in trying to pin down the opposition deep in their half with a good chase.

Cronulla will need to show improvement in this part of their game – to date they are kicking to open space just 50 per cent of the time (the fourth poorest rate in the comp) and their chases are nothing special. While they have registered the fewest poor chases in the comp (eight), they rank 11th for good kick chases (with 198).

Meanwhile the Knights kick to space 58 per cent of the time, giving them the fifth best accuracy in the comp. Their poor chases are quite high (29, sixth most) but only two sides have made more than their 258 good chases.

The History: Played 37; Knights 21, Sharks 15, drawn 1. The Knights have won five of the past eight including a 24-20 win at Ausgrid Stadium in Round 6. The Sharks hold an 11-7 advantage at home in the Shire.

Conclusion: With so much at stake this should be a gripping, high-intensity game.

The Knights lose some penetration with Naiqama missing but Gidley will thrive on having some extra room at the back to wind up before unleashing his monster sidestep and swerve.

They key for both teams will be to try to stay on the front foot all evening – both sides are capable of quick points so getting behind by six or 10 on the scoreboard will mean nothing if complacency sets in.

This will all boil down to attitude and self-belief. Whoever can block out last week’s misery and focus on the present will get the cash.

We normally stick our necks out – but this game is too close to call.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats