Broncos v Sharks
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

The Broncos find themselves neck and neck with their northern cousins the Cowboys in a fierce battle for the all-important fourth spot on the NRL ladder and can ill-afford to treat this clash with the Sharks as a ‘breather’.

Brisbane threw pretty much everything they had at the Storm in the first half in Melbourne last week but were easily contained and then gapped on the scoreboard as the home side unleashed their superior skills with three unanswered second-half tries. Meanwhile North Queensland’s come-from-behind victory over the Titans saw them leapfrog Brisbane into fourth position, level on 28 competition points but ahead on points differential (72 to 50). With just six rounds remaining and a crucial head-to-head clash looming with the Cowboys in a fortnight, wins by big margins are the order of the day – starting on Friday against a Sharks side humbled when kept scoreless by the Knights at their Shire home.

A huge negative for the Sharks is that their superstar forward and captain Paul Gallen remains sidelined with the calf injury he picked up in the loss to the Dragons in Round 19.

The Broncos’ loss last week was just their second from their past seven games, although they mostly faced just moderate opposition during the period. Over the final six weeks they play four sides currently in the top eight, so every game is crucial in their bid to give Darren Lockyer a home semi-final farewell.

Meanwhile the Sharks’ top-eight hopes teeter on the brink of collapse. The loss to the Knights leaves them two wins adrift of eighth place but they have every chance to push for inclusion with upcoming games against the Titans, Bulldogs and Roosters.  An upset victory here would see the bookies trim their finals quote considerably.

In Broncos’ team changes Scott Anderson will start at prop for Mitchell Dodds who sustained a neck injury last week, with David Hala and Dunamis Lui the new faces on an extended bench.

Meanwhile Sharks’ coach Shane Flanagan welcomes back Matthew Wright from injury; in a selection twist he’s shifted Wright from the wing to the centres with Ben Pomeroy relegated to the interchange. Taulima Tautai moves into the second row with Jeremy Smith reverting to lock and co-captaining the side with John Morris in Gallen’s absence. Johnny Mannah and Tyson Frizell round out the extended bench.

It’s a big ask for the Sharks this week – they’ve only won two of 12 matches at Suncorp Stadium (including a win over the Titans) and the Broncos have taken the past four games between the sides by a combined 82 points.

Watch Out Broncos: Sharks’ fullback Nathan Gardner’s enthusiasm and unpredictability make him a danger man. Gardner ranks fifth in the competition for line-breaks (with 12) and he will pose problems chiming in out wide, especially given 19 of the 47 tries the Broncos have conceded have come from line busts. 

Taulima Tautai is starting to show glimpses of the talent that had him earmarked as a player to watch at the Eels three years ago. Filling in at lock last week after mostly playing from the bench in 2011 Tautai made a career-best 10 tackle-breaks and 114 metres. He continues his rejuvenation in the second row this week, where he’ll relish a physical encounter with Sam Thaiday.

The Broncos need to limit Anthony Tupou’s late passes. Tupou has roared back to his offloading best in the past few months and he now ranks third for promoting second-phase play with 45. Last week against the Knights he managed a game-high six.

Danger Sign: If the Sharks’ forwards throw themselves into their work and force some turnovers in the opening 15 minutes you’ll know they’re switched on and ready for a physical encounter.

Watch Out Sharks: Corey Parker has been a bit of an unsung hero for the Broncos this year, sitting high in the rankings of several key stats categories. He ranks second for average runs behind Paul Gallen (18), fourth for offloads (41) and fifth for total hit-ups (270). The Sharks’ forwards should save some petrol in their tanks for when Parker ramps up his involvement. 

The Sharks need to hustle in the support of their back three whenever Peter Wallace or Darren Lockyer launches a clearing kick. The Broncos have four players ranked in the top 10 of the competition for making outstanding kick chases – Jack Reed, Wallace, Alex Glenn and Jharal Yow Yeh – so unless they get back in numbers they could find themselves bogged down close to their try line midway through sets.

Most importantly though they need to find a way to make up for the loss of Gallen’s phenomenal input (most hit-ups to date with 317 or 21 a game, and averaging 179 metres). It won’t be easy – some might say it’s impossible.

Danger Sign: With the Broncos averaging NRL-high home crowds of almost 31,000 the Sharks will be playing before an audience nearly two and a half times bigger than they’re used to at Toyota Stadium. They can’t afford to be overawed by the occasion or else there’s a danger they’ll lose focus of their game plan.

The Broncos will look to strike just before halftime – the Sharks have conceded the equal-most tries (six) by any side in the five minutes before heading to the sheds.

Plays To Watch: Justin Hodges’ right-foot sidestep down the right fringe; Jharal Yow Yeh testing out John Williams; Peter Wallace and Darren Lockyer offering short, flat passes to supports; Nathan Gardner’s zippy insertions; John Morris scheming from dummy-half; Luke Douglas’ no-holds-barred charges (18 hit-ups, 136 metres last week).

Where It Will Be Won: Close to the try line. Forty-three of the Broncos’ 59 tries have come inside the opposition 20-metre zone, while the Sharks’ ratio reads 44 from 56 – with 35 scored from just 10 metres out.

The Sharks need to maintain a good defensive structure whenever Wallace and Lockyer are able to call the shots with tackles up their sleeves close to the try line – to date the Sharks have conceded the third-most tries from passes (18) while the Broncos’ halves have combined for 28 try assists (most by any halves combination).

The Broncos are the most dangerous side at deploying quick shifts from one side of the field to the other and can hurt oppositions in a twinkling. They’ve scored 26 tries on the left edge and 29 on the right – but they seldom target the centre of the field, having scored near the posts just four times to date.

Meanwhile the Sharks are consistent across the field, scoring 12 tries in the left corner, 12 on the left fringe, 12 near the posts, 11 on the right fringe and nine in the right corner. This makes them tough to work out and unless the Broncos maintain their focus the Sharks can surprise them. 

The History: Played 45; Broncos 29, Sharks 16. The Broncos have won six of the past eight, including the past four. They won 34-16 win at Toyota Stadium in Round 13. They hold an imposing 10-1 record in match-ups between the two at Suncorp Stadium.

Conclusion: Incredibly, despite their contrasting positions on the ladder, not a great deal separates these teams in attack and defence. The Broncos are tallying 3.3 tries to the Sharks’ 3.1, while the home side is neck and neck with the Sharks for missed tackles (31.3 to 31.9).

If it’s close, Corey Parker will need to do better than his current 75 per cent goal-kicking rate, the fourth-poorest among recognised kickers in the comp.

The Broncos gave it everything last week and asked plenty of questions of the competition pacesetters, who had all the answers. A lot depends on how the Sharks cope without Gallen but going on their disjointed, scoreless effort last week it would seem they face a daunting task. Sorry Shire fans, we’d even go so far as to say it’s insurmountable.

Our tip is Brisbane by eight points. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Stats: NRL Stats