South Sydney Rabbitohs v Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
The last time Cronulla won six games in a row, South Sydney owner Russell Crowe’s movie A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 2002 Academy Awards – 10 years on Crowe will be hopeful the creative genius of new coach Michael Maguire can find a way to halt the Sharks’ incredible resurgence and deliver a win that would trampoline the red and green into the top eight.
Souths bounced back from a nine-tries-to-three pounding at the hands of the Warriors in Round 7 to defeat the Cowboys 20-16 last Saturday. Their third win in their past four games was achieved on the back of a blitzkrieg first 40 minutes, with three tries rocketing them to a 20-nil lead in even time. They then weathered a spirited Cowboys comeback.
The voctory left them in ninth place on the ladder, the second-lowest ranked of six sides on eight competition points. With the Origin period looming they need to bag as many wins as they can to stay in the finals hunt.
Meanwhile Cronulla’s remarkable form continued with a decisive 44-22 victory over the Raiders in Canberra. The win saw them cement third place on the ladder, two wins adrift of the Storm and one win from the second-placed Broncos, and on the brink of a seven-game winning streak. (They need five more to match their record 11 in succession in 2002.)
Souths have just the one change to their squad for Monday night, with Shaune Corrigan added to form a five-man interchange.
Likewise, Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has added Mark Taufua to form a five-man interchange to an otherwise unchanged 17.
It’s a milestone week for Souths centre Matt King who plays his 100th NRL game.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Souths’ defence needs to get up in the face of the Sharks’ attackers and ask questions of the ball-runner or they risk being bludgeoned by a relentless opposition. The Sharks are among the best sides at building pressure, ranking behind only the Broncos and Storm for most sets completed (230 or nearly 29 a game). Last week they managed 33 completions (87 per cent) and kept the Raiders on the back foot all night, forcing a 2012 record seven line-dropouts.
No team has been able to silence Paul Gallen this year; in fact, every week the rampaging lock increases his lead on all-comers when it comes to territory gained. Gallen leads the NRL with 216 metres a week and he also tops the offloads list with 30. But perhaps his biggest asset is his relentless involvement – his 213 hit-ups are a staggering 60 more than Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello. That’s almost eight more a game! Incredibly the next best forward is in-form James Tamou with 132 hit-ups. Restricting ‘Gal’ to even 15 hit-ups and 140 metres would be a huge achievement.
Danger Sign: Souths’ 14 tries conceded on their left edge are the fourth most in the comp. They let Cowboys winger Ashley Graham sneak through for two tries from close range last week; Todd Carney and Ben Pomeroy are sure to test out their brittle fringe defence again.
Watch Out Sharks: Michael Crocker’s aggression will be pivotal to the home side getting on top early. Crocker knows he can’t let Paul Gallen get into a groove or the Rabbitohs will be back-pedalling all night. He leads the way defensively for the red and green with 33 tackles a match and you can bet he’ll be looking to put on at least one hit on Gallen every Cronulla set of six. It will be a highlight of the game.
The Sharks are a favourite foe for confidence-player Nathan Merritt, who made his 2012 debut last week: the speedy winger has scored nine tries in 10 games against the Shire side since 2006, for a 60 per cent win rate.
Greg Inglis needs to be contained before he winds up – the No.1 is currently averaging the most metres gained by any Souths fullback in statistics history (161.3). Also, he ranks second for tackle-breaks (45) and has made a line-break every game.
Danger Sign: Don’t be surprised if Adam Reynolds, John Sutton and even Dave Taylor resort to grubber kicks as their first method of attack when they get in striking range – the Sharks have conceded 10 tries to kicks (second most) and are defusing grubbers at just 58 per cent effectiveness (second worst).
Dave Taylor v Jason Bukuya: You’ll feel the ground shake even in your living room when these Goliaths come together! Taylor leads all second-rowers for tackle busts (27) with emerging star Bukuya close behind (23). Taylor has made five line-breaks, Bukuya three; Taylor has five tries (most by a forward), while Bukuya’s four tries are the most by any Cronulla back-rower through eight rounds since Sean Ryan’s five in 1995 – he’s on track to eclipse the club record held by Kurt Sorensen (11 in 1982). They also have rare creative talents for such big men – Taylor has 11 offloads for the year and Bukuya has a try assist and line-break assist to go with his 95 metres a match. Bukuya is a 77-minute player, while Taylor gives his all in 66-minute spurts. Perhaps the key to this clash is how much damage the Sharks can make when Taylor is given a breather on the sidelines.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Both sides aren’t having problems posting 20 points a game so it will all boil down to keeping the try line intact. And there’s not much between the sides in defence either – the Sharks 25 missed tackles a week are the fourth fewest in the NRL and the bunnies are close behind with just 25 misses a game.
The History: Played 77; Sharks 40, Rabbitohs 34, drawn 3. Souths have won five of the past eight clashes and hold a 3-1 advantage at Homebush.
The Last Time They Met: The Sharks crushed the Rabbitohs 26-4 at Toyota Stadium in Round 17 last year, with both sides missing their State of Origin stars.
Cronulla raced to a 20-nil lead at the halftime break courtesy of four tries (to Luke Douglas, Colin Best, Chad Townsend and Matthew Wright) and five unanswered line-breaks.
Souths threw caution to the wind in the second half and may have had more success bridging the deficit had they completed their sets in possession better than their 65 per cent success rate in the second 40. They outpointed their opposition in line-breaks (five to four) but a massive nine errors plagued their executions.
The Sharks were best served by fullback Nathan Gardner (184 metres and six tackle busts) and prop Douglas (139 metres, eight tackle busts). Souths’ best was fullback Rhys Wesser who carved out 203 metres of territory.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Dave Abood; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.
The Way We See It: To string together a couple of wins is nothing to get too carried away with. But six? The Sharks appear the real deal in 2012 – they lead the league in metres gained (1494) offloads (14.8) and tackle-breaks (38.4) per game. Based on those formidable stats it would take a brave man to jump off their bandwagon, even away from home. Cronulla by seven points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats