Roosters v Sharks
Sydney Football Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

It’s by no means the match of the round – both teams are out of finals calculations – but there’s plenty for the Roosters and Sharks to play for. The Roosters will be keen to put the Todd Carney dramas further behind them with another victory, while Cronulla are desperate to end a five-match losing streak that killed their playoff dream.

Last week the Roosters surprised even their most one-eyed fans with a shock 20-12 victory over spluttering premiers St George Illawarra to end a drama-filled week, the rank outsiders gleefully exploiting the Dragons’ defensive woes and lack of commitment to make it two wins in three weeks after pipping Canterbury a fortnight earlier. Coach Brian Smith and captain Braith Anasta could not have been more happy with the effort their team produced – short of the stood-down Carney and fearless forwards Nate Myles and Frank-Paul Nuuausala, the weakened Roosters went toe to toe with the premiers in the 2010 grand final rematch... and this time they prevailed. The Sharks, on the other hand, continued their slide down the table with another lacklustre performance, this time against the Bulldogs who kept their finals flame flickering with a stubborn 19-12 victory at Toyota Stadium. The Sharks had their fair share of chances but errors and poor options with ball in hand, their major problems in 2011, caused their undoing.

Both the Sharks and Roosters sit on a miserable 18 competition points 23 rounds into the competition, but Cronulla’s superior for-and-against record (25 better than the Roosters) has them sitting just above the Bondi boys.

Whoever wins this clash will likely sit in 12th spot on the ladder come the end of the round – this match is a genuine battle for finishing positions with just three rounds remaining.
Roosters’ coach Smith has stuck with the team that caused the upset of the year against the Dragons at WIN Stadium, making only one forced change. Kiwi centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall returns to the Roosters’ NRL side, coming into the line-up for the injured Kane Linnett who battled on bravely against the Dragons despite suffering a medial ligament injury to his knee. Smith, however, admitted there was still doubt to the fitness of Kenny-Dowall (groin) as well as Sam Perrett and BJ Leilua. Nuuausala, Myles and Carney have not been named. Back-rower Tom Symonds has been added to the bench to complete an 18-man line-up.

Injuries and poor form have prompted Sharks’ coach Shane Flanagan to make a series of changes. Dropped to NSW Cup are winger Ricky Leutele and centre Ben Pomeroy, while back-rower Jayson Bukuya's run of bad luck continued when he was ruled out with a season-ending ankle injury. In their place comes winger Isaac Gordon who returns from injury, along with centre Matt Wright who spent last weekend in the Sharks’ NSW Cup squad. In-form Sam Tagataese comes into the starting side in place of Bukuya, with forwards Johnny Mannah and Tyson Frizell added to the interchange bench.

This match could feature some dynamic exchanges in the backline, particularly featuring long-limbed Kenny-Dowall and Cronulla’s dynamic fullback Nathan Gardner. Both have a genuine dislike of being tackled and love finding the tryline. At the SFS last year, Gardner, in only his fourth first grade appearance, scored one of the season’s best tries, a zig-zagging, diagonal, length-of-the-field effort which left half-a-dozen Roosters defenders clutching at thin air.

Kenny-Dowall’s likely return could see him join an elite band of Roosters try-scoring legends. Kenny-Dowall (nine tries) is poised to become only the fifth player in club history to score 10 or more tries in four consecutive seasons. Leading scorers Anthony Minichiello (2001-2005), Bill Mullins (1971-1974), Ryan Cross (2003-2006) and Matt Sing (1996-2000) are part of that elite club.

It’s a milestone week for Roosters’ prop Jason Ryles who plays his 200th NRL game and also Sharks’ captain Paul Gallen who with his second offload of the night will become the first player in NRL history to post 500 offloads.

Watch Out Roosters: Former Rooster Anthony Tupou is as good as any playmaking forward on his day – and there’s every chance he’ll lift against his former club and after rumours emerged he was being “shopped around” by the Sharks. So far this season Tupou’s been instrumental in Cronulla’s attack. The Roosters will need to be wary of his offloading ability (he’s registered five try assists – three by offload and two by passes) and his willingness to set up attacking moves (he’s recorded seven line-break assists so far this season). Tupou is just one of three Sharks to have played every game in 2011. The Roosters are warned to keep his arms under wraps – he’s already recorded 54 offloads. How important will they be on Saturday night? 
As well as Tupou and Garnder, the Roosters are best to keep a close eye on new Shark Sam Tagataese. The wide-running prop or second-rower has already recorded six line-breaks in his short time at the Shire (after a mid-season switch from the Titans), including a rampaging effort last week against the Bulldogs that resulted in a try and kept the game alive.

Danger Sign: If the Sharks’ outside backs can contain the strike power of Kenny-Dowall, Perrett and Minichiello, Cronulla is well on their way to victory. The Sharks’ forward pack is one of the best in the competition, featuring tireless NSW captain Paul Gallen, New Zealand representative Jeremy Smith, the enigmatic Tupou and workhorse props Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas. If the game turns into a slugfest, expect the Sharks to come out on top.

Watch Out Sharks: Mitchell Pearce is the key man in the Roosters’ attack – his effectiveness determines how much ball his outside men will get... and how clean their possession will be. So far this season he’s registered 17 try assists (seven from kicks, one from an offload and nine from passes) and kicked for an average of 301 metres per match. He’s also recorded two line-breaks and 13 line-break assists – Cronulla defenders, both in front of him and to the left and right, had best be on their toes when “Junior Junior” gets the ball. The NSW No.7 has the attacking spark and the accurate kicking game to lead the Roosters to victory... if the Sharks’ defenders give him room to breathe.

The Roosters will be directing plenty of early ball to Kenny-Dowall, livewire winger Sam Perrett and skipper (and current five-eighth) Braith Anasta – how the Sharks control those three, as well as halfback Pearce, will go a long way to determining who wins this clash.

Danger Sign: The Roosters are on the attack and have marched downfield, within striking distance of the try line before the ball gets sent wide – freeze it there! If the Roosters are given space to carve a path into Cronulla territory, it’s potentially going to be an easy victory for the boys from Bondi Junction. In recent weeks the Sharks’ defence out wide has been woeful – it has been ever since the Dragons carved up Cronulla’s right-side defence in their 38-8 win at WIN Jubilee Oval. If the Roosters are allowed to waltz downfield before the ball is spun wide, the Sharks will be in a world of trouble... and chooks fans could be crowing very early in this match.

Plays To Watch: Braith Anasta alternating between up-the-guts charges and cross-field drifts in search of support; Anthony Minichiello’s relentless and ruthless kick-returns from deep inside his own territory; Mitchell Pearce’s diagonal show-and-go with support options on either shoulder; Nathan Gardner’s jack-in-the-box scurries from dummy-half; Paul Gallen’s energetic and never-say-die efforts with and without the ball, possibly for the entire 80 minutes; Anthony Tupou’s at-the-line offload attempts and round-the-body draw-and-pass efforts.

Where It Will Be Won: With little to play for other than the battle for 12th spot, this clash is all about commitment. Which team will come to the match prepared to play for the full 80? Will the Roosters, on the back of their amazing against-the-odds effort against the Dragons, continue their impressive form without three of their biggest stars, or will Cronulla, after a terrible month of football, finally find a winning way?

The forwards are the key – the Sharks boast an impressive bunch up front and if the Roosters can match them their electric outside backs should do the rest. The Cronulla pack have no problem marching upfield during a match – they average 1351 metres per match, equal to or better than most teams in the competition – but the Roosters struggle to make metres, making 1262 metres per match (only the Raiders, with 1261 metres, average less). The Roosters need their forward pack to stand up and lay a platform for the playmakers to party. The figures show the Sharks could easily get a roll on as almost all their regular forward pack averages more than 100 metres per match – Gallen (188 metres), Kade Snowden (118 metres) and Luke Douglas (103 metres). The Roosters, on the other hand, struggle to make yards up the guts – none of Jason Ryles (93 metres), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (82 metres), Boyd Cordner (75 metres) and Aidan Guerra (72 metres) average more than triple figures per match.

The History: Played 81; Roosters 53, Cronulla 27, drawn 1. The Sharks have won the past three meetings between these two clubs, however in 18 matches at the SFS the Roosters have won 11 compared to the Sharks’ seven. Cronulla won 18-4 at Toyota Stadium in Round 10. The last time the Roosters beat the Sharks was in Round 16, 2009.

Conclusion: These two sides might sit neck-and-neck on the competition table, but they are polar opposites in terms of current form. Last start the under-strength Roosters pipped the premiers, while the Sharks bumbled their way to a deflating defeat to the Bulldogs on home turf. Expect the Roosters to prevail, if they can control the big Cronulla forward pack. But if the Sharks turn up ready to play – and chance their arm – this could just turn out to be one of the more entertaining clashes of Round 24.

Both sides have absolutely nothing to lose... and because of that this could make very interesting viewing.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Nick Beashel; Video Ref – Pat Reynolds.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (Viewer’s Choice), delayed 9.20pm Saturday.

* Stats: NRL Stats