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Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Warriors
Toyota Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

This clash is one of a few vital meetings in Round 15 – matches that will make or break the fortunes of teams vying for the top eight or even top four. Expect both teams, in the middle of a nine-club positional tug-of-war that sees just three wins separate second to 10th, to bring finals-like desperation and intensity to the field in this clash.

Last week the Sharks arrested a worrying dip in form by recording a determined victory against the Gold Coast without Origin stars Paul Gallen and Todd Carney. Cronulla had lost three of their past four matches entering the match, but made amends in a courageous victory based on their forwards’ ability to roll over the advantage line. The Sharks now sit in sixth position (equal third, overlooking for-and-against differential) on 18 points following eight wins and a bye thus far in 2012.

The Warriors, meanwhile, are slowly rediscovering the level of play that propelled them to the grand final last year. Recent performances indicate the team still has the talent and ability to win matches under new coach Brian McClennan – a worry at the start of the season when the team had won just two of its opening six matches. Now, however, positive signs are emerging as the club rises up the table, particularly after last week’s clinical victory against the Panthers in Penrith.

Cronulla welcome back captain Gallen and five-eighth Carney after Origin duties, shifting both back-rower Wade Graham and fill-in playmaker Chad Townsend to the bench. Coach Shane Flanagan has included Graham and Townsend on his six-man list, which will be culled to four before kick-off.

The Warriors welcome back reliable back-rower Micheal Luck, who has been sidelined with a wrist injury. Tireless tackler Luck’s addition pushes Lewis Brown into the starting side to replace the injured No.9 Alehana Mara. The Wellington-born hooker, a replacement for Nathan Friend who’s also sidelined with injury, played just a handful of minutes after fracturing his fibula against the Panthers on Monday night.

Watch Out Sharks: The Warriors’ dynamic attacking is back. Even though the Aucklanders had lost their past two matches heading into the clash with the Panthers, Monday night’s showcase shows they’re arguably the competition’s most dangerous offensive outfit. Across the park, from 1-13, they possess point-scoring threats to opponents – with Locke, Vatuvei, Hurrell, Johnson, Maloney and Mateo, it’s a matter of when, not if.

Danger Sign: ‘Magic’ Johnson is back to his best… and after six weeks out his key attacking running option Kevin Locke is back, too. Johnson is arguably the game’s biggest all-round attacking threat – he possesses a stellar running game (eight line-breaks in 2012), passing game (five line-break assists and 13 try assists) and short-, high- and long-kicking games. With Locke back at No.1 Johnson’s options increase… and the Warriors are a whole lot tougher to handle. (Johnson, however, hasn’t yet played against the Sharks at NRL level yet, but he has met the Sharks at Toyota Stadium, when he dished-up five try assists in a 32-22 victory for the visitors.)

Watch Out Warriors: The Sharks are turning Toyota Stadium into the fortress it once was. So far this season, Cronulla have only suffered one loss at home, in Round 2 against the Knights. This weekend they celebrate their 500th match at the venue – they’ve won 298 of those, scoring 1734 tries in the process. The Sharks have won eight of the 12 matches played against the Warriors at Toyota Stadium.

Danger Sign: The Sharks are winning matches this season without their best players. In seasons past they’d have been pushovers without captain Gallen… but this season there’s added resolve in their line-up. They’ve already beaten the competition leaders sans their skipper, and last week they defeated the Titans without him and Carney, too. There’s a new group responsibility and ownership in the Shire – a belief in the team and a willingness to shoulder individual workloads that wasn’t evident in the past. The team mentality is backed by the club’s metres-gained stats – their league-leading 1435 metres per game (almost 150 metres more than the Warriors) a sign that when one man goes down there’s another more than willing to step into his shoes.

Jeremy Smith v Simon Mannering: These guys roll up their sleeves each week but rarely receive the accolades of their decorated team-mates. Smith has been a brilliant stand-in for the injured and Origin-tied Gallen, scoring three tries in his past four matches and leading his team to courageous victories over the Titans and Storm. Mannering, meanwhile, has been just as effective, failing to miss a match as skipper so far this season. His reliability and resilience – he also played 32 of a potential 33 top-level games in 2011 – is key to an incredibly young side that has lacked its most experienced players including Friend, Luck, Sam Rapira and Jerome Ropati.

Where It Will Be Won: It’s essentially all about the Sharks’ attack versus the Warriors’ defence – the weaknesses of both sides. So far this season, Cronulla’s defence has been admirable (they concede the fifth-fewest points in the comp with 17.5 per game), but their attack has been a little pedestrian. The Sharks score an average of just 18.6 points (ranked ninth) per game. On the other hand, the Warriors’ strength is their attacking game (they score the fourth-most points with 23.2 per game). Their weakness is their defence – they concede more points (23.4 per game – ranked 13th) than they score. Whichever team overcomes their weakness will win this clash.

The History: Played 27; Warriors 14, Sharks 13. At Toyota Stadium, the Sharks have the dominant record, winning eight of their 12 meetings.

The Last Time They Met: It might’ve been a ‘home’ game for the Sharks, but Cronulla officials were left to defend their decision to move their match against the Warriors to Owen Delany Park at Taupo in New Zealand in Round 4 last year. The Sharks entered the match with back-to-back wins but were swamped by the might of the Warriors, who took the match 26-18.

With the ‘away’ crowd firmly behind the Warriors, the new-look Aucklanders, following sweeping changes from coach Ivan Cleary, threw the ball around in entertaining fashion to cross for four tries. Glen ‘Fish’ Fisiiahi was particularly damaging on debut at fullback, scoring two tries on his way to three Dally M points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: This clash has all the hallmarks of an epic battle for premiership points – last year’s grand-finalists against this year’s surprise packets. The Warriors will have their work cut out for them though, following a short turnaround after their Monday night victory in Penrith. If Gallen and Carney get through Origin and NSW win, expect the confidence to reverberate through the Sharks and propel them to a victory. If they don’t make it back onto the park for this clash and/or the Blues are embarrassed, the Sharkies could prove vulnerable against a Warriors side returning to form. The slippery conditions, however, could have an influence on the Warriors’ second-phase play. We’ll back the home side in a classic. Sharks by two points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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