Raiders v Sharks preview

Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Having experienced vastly contrasting fortunes over the opening seven rounds of the season, Canberra and Cronulla head into this week’s clash with similarly contrasting questions to answer.

For the Sharks, this is an opportunity to extend their winning streak to six games and cement their place in the top four as they continue to put the horrors of recent seasons behind them. The arrival of Todd Carney has sparked Cronulla’s attack this season, enabling them to capitalise on the tough and uncompromising style of their huge forward pack.

Rapidly gaining confidence, they have taken inspiration from the monstrous work ethic of captain Paul Gallen who has averaged an unbelievable 218 metres per game so far in 2012 and will again test the Raiders’ resolve this Sunday.

In fact, there has barely been a hint of bad news coming out of the Shire so far this season – even coach Shane Flanagan has finally been rewarded with the security of a new two-year deal – and it will be a club brimming with confidence that Canberra must overcome if they are to get their season back on track.

It has been a year of highs and lows for the Raiders so far but with captain Terry Campese last week ruled out for the year with another serious knee injury their campaign hangs in the balance.

Canberra struggled for cohesion in 2011 without Campese and it is difficult to see them challenging the top sides again this year in his absence: since 2009 they have won just seven of 24 games without him. A 30-6 loss to Brisbane last start, having led 6-0 early, wouldn’t have done a lot for their confidence either.

Still, they are always a tough proposition on home soil. Key for the Raiders will be how their own hulking pack fares against Gallen and co.

Despite a crippling injury toll that has decimated both forwards and backs, they still boast a current Test prop in David Shillington, a NSW Origin rep in Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and a regular Kiwi in Bronson Harrison.

Whether they have the self-belief, however, is a different question altogether.

Campese’s absence has opened the door for young half Sam Williams to return to the fold and he will have fond memories of his NRL debut against the Sharks in Round 1 last year when he orchestrated a 40-12 thrashing and became just the third player in NRL history to produce three try assists on debut.

Ironically, his opposite number, Jeff Robson, has never tasted success against Canberra since facing them for the first time with Manly back in 2004. Should he break his duck on Sunday it will be the first occasion the Sharks have gone through April undefeated since 1981!

Canberra welcome back defensive machine Shaun Fensom from a biceps tear suffered in Round 3, while young hooker Matt McIlwrick makes his NRL debut off the bench in place of Travis Waddell. Star fullback Josh Dugan will miss at least one more week with his shoulder injury.

Isaac De Gois makes his return from a knee injury for Cronulla, with John Morris returning to the bench.

Watch Out Raiders: The Paul Gallen factor will be telling. Cronulla’s captain has notched some phenomenal stats this season – averaging 218 metres from 27 runs per game, 29 tackles and adding 27 offloads and 30 tackle-breaks. He will again be relentless.

Danger Sign: The Sharks have made more metres than any other side in 2012 with 10,496 metres gained through their runs. They lead the way for runs in general play with 54 runs per game for 3808 metres and have added a further 3742 metres from an average 53 hit-ups per game. The Raiders must muscle-up through the middle in order to stop Cronulla dominating field position.

Watch Out Sharks: Ben Pomeroy will have his hands full against in-form Raiders centre Jarrod Croker this weekend. Croker has been a standout for the Green Machine in 2012, scoring seven tries from as many games, averaging 107 metres and adding 32 tackle-breaks. He is particularly adept at getting on the outside of his man – as he showed against the Warriors in Round 6 – while his turn of pace makes him difficult to contain if given room to move.

Danger Sign: Cronulla’s defence in the middle of the field has been rock solid this season, conceding just two tries under the sticks, but it is on the edges that Canberra will test them this Sunday. The Raiders heavily favour spinning the ball wide with 10 tries scored on their left edge in 2012 and 11 on their right. Only twice have they crossed in centre field. Likewise, while the Sharks have been solid through the middle they have conceded nine tries on their left edge and seven on their right.

Josh McCrone v Todd Carney: This looms as a huge test for McCrone, who moves into the five-eighth role in the absence of Terry Campese. It could prove beneficial for the Raiders playmaker, who showed late last year that his running game is one of his great strengths. However, he faces the man most expect to fill the NSW No.6 jersey in 2012. Carney has produced four try assists, five line-break assists and 16 tackle-breaks so far this season.

Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle here will be epic. Canberra boasts the biggest forward pack in the Telstra Premiership with Tom Learyoyd-Lahrs and Dane Tilse leading the way, but the Sharks pack is tough and battle-hardened. Paul Gallen, Jeremy Smith, Ben Ross, Bryce Gibbs and Jayson Bukuya will provide a tough test for the home side.

The History: Played 56; Cronulla 30, Canberra 26. There has been little between these sides over the years; however the Raiders have proven tough to beat at home with a 13-7 record against the Sharks in clashes at Canberra Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: Cronulla scored a solid 26-12 victory at Toyota Stadium in Round 18 last season to make it four wins in a row and put a huge dent in the Raiders’ semi-final hopes.

Brimming with confidence after a rich vein of form, the Sharks started quickly and took the lead after just five minutes when a clever interchange of passes between Luke Douglas, Wade Graham and Colin Best saw Graham finish off a 50-metre movement.

Canberra hit back through Blake Ferguson against the run of play six minutes later as the former Sharks winger swooped on a dropped ball and raced away to score, but the lead didn’t last long with Best the first to a well-placed Graham grubber. Cronulla then raced to a 14-6 lead on 25 minutes when Jayson Bukuya picked up a loose ball from the Raiders to score between the posts.

A Jarrod Croker try closed the gap to two at the break but the second half was all Cronulla with Taulima Tautai storming his way over in the 59th minute and Ben Pomeroy crossing from a Chad Townsend kick.

Canberra completed just 25 of 39 sets (64 per cent) and missed 57 tackles to Cronulla’s 24.

Paul Gallen produced a typically busy performance with 185 metres from 24 runs while Shaun Fensom made 57 tackles and 118 metres for the visitors.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Dave Ryan; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: The Raiders are never easy to beat at home, but with injuries to so many of their key players they will have to lift to beat a confident Cronulla outfit. The Sharks look a well-drilled unit this year and with Todd Carney and Jeff Robson running the show have also rediscovered their attacking flair. We like Cronulla in this one, by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats