The Sharks continue to defy their detractors who are just waiting for them to stumble following years of over-promising and under-delivering, soundly beating the baby Broncos in Brisbane last week to leapfrog that opponent into third place on the premiership ladder. The 26-12 victory was all the more commendable given they were without NSW Origin duo Carney and skipper Paul Gallen, who coach Shane Flanagan hopes will be able to take their places backing up from Wednesday night’s torrid Origin decider.
Meanwhile the 14th-placed Roosters have been doing plenty of soul searching over the past fortnight since their embarrassing 52-14 home loss to the Sea Eagles in Round 15. The hammering was their fifth defeat in their past six games; having banked their second bye last week they are faced with having to win a minimum six of their remaining nine games to have any chance of progressing to the semi-finals.
Cronulla welcome back Carney in the No.6, with fill-in Chad Townsend headed back to the NSW Cup. Gallen slots straight back in at lock, with Wade Graham shifting to the second row to cover for Jeremy Smith who injured his knee last weekend. Anthony Tupou – who has been off the scene since Round 4 with a leg injury – and Andrew Fifita make welcome returns to the bench.
Meanwhile Roosters coach Brian Smith will be hoping the return of Shaun Kenny-Dowall, missing for seven weeks with a back injury, will add some spark to his three-quarters. He returns at centre, pushing Tautau Moga onto the wing to cover for the abrupt departure of Sam Perrett to the Bulldogs. Similarly, Anthony Mitchell’s exit to the Cowboys leaves Jake Friend as their first-choice hooker, with Tinirau Arona and Daniel Mortimer added to the interchange bench.
Watch Out Sharks: The Roosters’ 18 points scored each week are just one point shy of the Sharks but if Cronulla don’t contain the tricolours’ strong running game they’re certainly capable of mounting a huge score. The Roosters lead all-comers for tackle busts (36.3 per game) with their major threats coming from BJ Leilua (66), Anthony Minichiello (47), Mitchell Aubusson (37) and Shaun Kenny-Dowall (four per game).
Fullback Minichiello is a standout in a struggling team – he ranks second for total runs this season (262) and also supports (105).
Mitchell Pearce will look to excel dropping back a class to NRL level – he ranks fifth for line-break assists (12) and eighth for try assists (12).
Danger Sign: Whenever the Roosters punch down the short left-hand corridor, which they favour more than every other team except the Cowboys. The Roosters have tallied 113 short-right side raids so far and will look for a favourable result given the Sharks have conceded 25 tries on that edge of the field compared to just 15 through their left-edge defence.
Watch Out Roosters: Forget kicking the cat – Paul Gallen will vent his frustration at NSW’s narrow Origin series defeat on the Roosters in his 100th appearance at Sharkies HQ. Gallen ranks fourth in the league for hit-ups (246) and leads the way for offloads (35). Now Origin is out of the way you can bet he will set his sights on the lofty goal of getting the Sharks to just their third ever grand final. Gallen is poised to overtake Greg Pierce (210) for the sixth-most games played for the black, white and blue. He also requires just 15 more runs to clock up 4,000 career runs – giving him a conservative eight metres per run, that’s the equivalent of 32 kilometres of hit-ups! Truly phenomenal.
Nugget-like Wade Graham is making the most of his move to the forwards and is proving somewhat the enforcer of late. The former halfback is now a big-hit merchant and has made 30 or more tackles on five occasions this season. He’ll relish an aggressive contest with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Frank-Paul Nuuausala.
Danger Sign: Dropped balls and poor execution are really hurting the Roosters, who ranks second worst for errors (11.7 per game). If they turn over possession unnecessarily the Sharks will make them pay – they’re completing their sets at 79 per cent efficiency.
Attacking kicks are also a huge concern – the Roosters are defusing all kicks at just 66 per cent (second worst rate in the comp) and conceded five tries to Manly from kicks last start.
Todd Carney v Braith Anasta: You just know Carney will have a point to prove up against the club that released him from his contract at the end of last year. Since then he’s cemented a position in the NSW team and is a major reason why the Sharks are finals bound in 2012. A little quiet last Wednesday night the No. 6 will relish running the ball and picking up his accomplished centres Ben Pomeroy and Colin Best who off the back of Carney assists have powered to the most tackle-breaks by any three-quarters pairing (101) as well as a combined 15 tries. Expect Carney to add to his six try assists for the year. Meanwhile Anasta will savour a special milestone, which will be made all the sweeter should he get the better of his former team-mate. He’s certainly still got it, matching Carney in the try assists category (also six) while he is a bigger danger offloading (16 so far). Anasta remains one of only three players to have recorded at least 100 games and 200 points for two different clubs – incredible stuff in the modern era.
Where It Will Be Won: Playing to their strengths. Although the Sharks make the most metres every week they also rank among the worst teams for conceding territory. Meanwhile the Roosters are rock bottom for go-forward – but rank second best for yielding ground. Go figure! Whichever side maintains or improves on those traits will play with confidence.
Offloads will be a huge factor too, and the side that achieves the most through their second-phase play should emerge the victor. The Roosters are ranked second for offloads (12.9) and the Sharks third (12.3), so expect plenty of razzle dazzle.
The History: Played 82; Roosters 54, Sharks 27, drawn 1. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight games – although the Sharks have won three of the past four. The Roosters have won just five of their past 20 games on the road.
The Last Time They Met: The Roosters defeated the Sharks 36-25 at Allianz Stadium in Round 24 last year in a bizarre game that changed complexion dramatically in the second half.
The Sharks looked on target for victory when they led 22-12 at the break, with two tries to winger John Williams inside the final 10 minutes pivotal.
Roosters rake Jake Friend scored to bridge the gap to 22-18 shortly after the resumption before a Nathan Stapleton penalty goal edged the visitors to a converted try advantage. They looked good things for victory when Wade Graham banged over a field-goal with eight minutes remaining to secure a 25-18 lead – but then Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner came up with a brain snap that gaff-hooked his side and saw the Roosters close to within a point. Instead of grabbing a Mitchell Pearce grubber close to his try-line the custodian attempted to soccer-kick the ball dead; unfortunately the Steeden rebounded off the right upright back into the field of play, with Jake Friend scooping up the loose ball and crossing for his second try.
Full of enthusiasm, the Roosters continued to pepper the Sharks’ try-line, with Anthony Minichiello crossing for the match-winner off a last-ditch Shaun Kenny-Dowall offload with three minutes on the clock. Frank-Paul Nuuausala completed the sensational comeback with a too-easy barge-over try as the fulltime siren sounded.
Stats showed the Roosters deserved their win: they made 315 metres more than their opponents and made six line-breaks (to two). The Sharks paid the price for some wishy-washy defence, missing 51 tackles (including 30 in the second half).
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.
The Way We See It: The Roosters were woeful against the Sea Eagles last game but as long as they are still a mathematical chance of making the semi-finals they should turn up with the right attitude. Meanwhile the Sharks can’t afford to sit back and relax thinking things will take care of themselves with Gallen and Carney back in the team. This definitely has the whiff of an upset about it although if you are sailing along at the top of your footy tips ladders the smart move is to stay firm with the Sharks. Cronulla by four points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.