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Brisbane Broncos v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

The timing of this crucial clash could not have come at a worse time for either the third-placed Broncos or fourth-placed Sharks who will be without their key contributors due to Origin duty – although the visitors may take a half-glass-full attitude onto Suncorp Stadium aware they’ll never get a cushier passage given the comparable savaging to the Brisbane player ranks.

The Broncos will be without Sam Thaiday, Petero Civoniceva, Corey Parker, Justin Hodges, Ben Hannant, Matt Gillett and Ben Te’o, who are in camp with the Maroons, while the Sharks take the stage minus NSW playmaker Todd Carney and workaholic captain Paul Gallen.

Brisbane gained redemption with a commanding 26-12 victory over South Sydney last Friday, having been whitewashed by the Cowboys in Townsville in Round 15. The Rabbitohs matched motors with the home side for an hour but had no answer to the overdrive the Broncos slipped into when crossing for three tries in the final 20 minutes. Brisbane gained 1719 running metres throughout (their best return since they trounced Newcastle 71-6 in 2007).

Meanwhile the Cronulla roster had the luxury of resting up their bumps and bruises when banking their second bye last week. That followed successive wins over the Warriors (in a 20-19 comeback thriller) and the Titans, arresting a worrying two-match slump to the Bulldogs and Eels.

The Sharks have shown in recent weeks that they will not back down from a fight, inflicting the Storm’s first defeat despite missing Paul Gallen and also calmly reasserting dominance against the Warriors despite trailing by 19-8 with 12 minutes to play.

Of course, the key is how much penetration they can achieve without Carney: the five-eighth is responsible for seven of their try assists and seven line-break assists to date.  

Broncos coach Anthony Griffin has called for a brace of reinforcements to get the job done this week. Gerard Beale’s shift to centre for Hodges sees Lachlan Maranta return on the wing in an otherwise intact backline. However, their forward pack is like nothing they’ve fielded in memory: Mitchell Dodds will start at prop for Civoniceva; Brendon Gibb comes in for Thaiday and Dunamis Lui locks the scrum in place of Parker. Aaron Whitchurch, Jarrod Wallace, Nick Slyney and Kurt Baptiste are the new faces on the bench helping to cover for Gillett and Thaiday. (Josh McGuire will start at prop just as he did last week when Hannant was sidelined.)

In Cronulla changes, Shane Flanagan has handed the keys to the backline to Chad Townsend in Carney’s absence, with Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita returning from injuries at lock and on the bench respectively.  

Should Brisbane score 20 or more points it will be the first time in seven years they’ve done so in eight successive home games.

Watch Out Broncos: Cronulla centres Colin Best and Ben Pomeroy will look to get their hands on the Steeden as much as possible and burst through the Broncos out wide. The pair have combined for 95 tackle busts, making them the most damaging centre pairing in the comp. Pomeroy could be the bigger threat – the Broncos have conceded 20 tries on their left edge compared to 14 on their right, with Pomeroy adding seven line-breaks and scoring seven tries down the right corridor so far.

Jeremy Smith is really thriving in his leadership role – the enforcer has made the third-most line-breaks by a second-rower (six) and added three try assists and four line-break assists. He will ask plenty of questions of the Broncos inside their 20-metre zone.

The Broncos need to limit the number of line-breaks the Sharks make as their conversion rate into tries is one of the best in the league. The Sharks have crossed for 22 tries off a line-break, a mark bettered only by Canterbury and Canberra.

If Brisbane think the Sharks will be out of their depth at Suncorp Stadium they’d better think again – Cronulla are scoring almost a third more points on the road in 2012 (21.3 per game) than they are at home.

Danger Sign: If Jeff Robson starts to find gaps for his forwards – and himself – in the Broncos’ substitute pack. An under-rated playmaker, Robson has five try assists to date and has crossed for four tries himself.

Watch Out Sharks: Attacking kicks from the Broncos will pose a huge threat on both sides of the park. Brisbane have crossed for 15 tries off the boot (fifth most) while the Sharks have had their problems defusing kicks, conceding 16 tries. Brisbane crossed for three tries against the Rabbitohs: from a grubber, a cross-field bomb and a chip kick. They’ll maintain that variety – especially given the Sharks are defusing all manner of kicks at just 68 per cent (second-worst rate).   

Brisbane love to hit the short left side more than most sides (111 so far, third most in the comp). Watch them to keep heading left despite the diminishing gap between the ruck and the sideline. They are confident stringing together short passes and will also look to grubber through one man out from the sideline inside the Sharks’ 10-metre zone. The Sharks are most vulnerable on that side of the field, conceding 23 tries to date.

The Sharks can’t afford to give the Broncos unnecessary possession – incredibly they’ve conceded a league-high 11 penalties when on the attack. They have to get their kick-chase, decoy runs and second-man plays right every time.

Broncos clearance kicks will need to be rounded up quickly, especially when Peter Wallace punts deep towards their right corner – Broncos centre Jack Reed is terrier-like in his pursuit of kicks, leading all-comers with 54 good chases.

Danger Sign: If the Broncos target the right edge in attack often. That’ll be because coach Anthony Griffin has replayed them plenty of vision of the last time these sides met, when Brisbane scored five tries down that side of the field. Although on paper it appears Cronulla have muscled up in 2012, only conceding 15 tries through the corridor so far, you can bet they’ll still be tested out given the paper mache-like resistance they offered back in Round 21 last year. On that occasion lock Wade Graham, who was filling the No.6, missed a whopping 12 tackles throughout.    

Alex Glenn v Jayson Bukuya: Two back-row enforcers who will step up and shoulder plenty of responsibility given the absences of Sam Thaiday and Paul Gallen. Glenn has been a handful for defences on the left edge of the field, making 47 tackle-breaks – second only to Bukuya for second-rowers. Also, he leads his position for tries scored (with eight). He’ll be the target of Peter Wallace short balls, and also floating cross-field kicks, when they get in range. Meanwhile Bukuya is one of the unsung success stories of 2012. The 100-kilogram Fijian powerhouse has managed 50 tackle busts plus five line-breaks and has scored four tries. His tandem combination with fill-in captain Jeremy Smith will keep the Sharks on the front foot. Bukuya’s one-on-one defence will be relied on too – he’s made 31 personal wrap-ups (eighth most in the comp).

Where It Will Be Won: Building pressure through quality field position. The Sharks lead all teams for territory, grinding out 1417 metres per match – just five metres more than the next-best Broncos. However, Brisbane’s defence and punishing kick-returns see them relinquish far fewer metres than their opponents – Brisbane concede the fewest metres (1264) while Cronulla concede the fourth-most metres (1364). That 100-metre difference could prove telling.

The History: Played 46; Broncos 30, Sharks 16. The Broncos have won six of the past eight clashes, including the past five straight. They boast a commanding 11-1 advantage at Suncorp Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: Brisbane defeated Cronulla 46-16 at Suncorp Stadium in a Friday night rout in Round 21 last year.

The Broncos ran riot in the opening stages, leading 16-nil after just 15 minutes. They crossed for six tries to take a 34-6 advantage to the break, with the Sharks – who were missing skipper Paul Gallen from their line-up with a calf injury – only getting on the scoreboard when Chad Townsend crossed on the stroke of halftime.

The visitors were first to score in the second half before Justin Hodges extended the Broncos’ advantage with his third try of the afternoon midway through the second 40. Late tries to Brisbane’s Peter Wallace and Cronulla’s Jeremy Smith rounded out the scoring.

Cronulla simply had no answer to a glut of Brisbane possession, with the home side enjoying 10 more sets of six tackles. Consequently they broke open the Sharks at will, registering a massive 11 line-breaks (to Cronulla’s three) and a whopping 598-metre running advantage.

It could have been a lot worse had the Sharks not respected the ball when they had it, completing their sets at 84 per cent.

Justin Hodges did most of the damage out wide for the Broncos, with three line busts and a staggering 13 tackle-breaks, while Sam Thaiday made a game-high 20 runs.

Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner tried hard to add thrust for his team (102 metres and six tackle-breaks).

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: It really all depends on how the substitutes step up with the stars missing. The Sharks’ pack still looks to have plenty of sting about it and they did get the job done against the Gold Coast without Carney and Gallen in Round 14. The nagging question for us is whether the makeshift Broncos unit can gel sufficiently with so many changes. For that reason alone we’ll tip Cronulla by four points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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