Sharks v Raiders preview

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Canberra Raiders
Toyota Stadium
Sunday, 2pm

Desperation is the name of this game – the Sharks are desperate to halt a slide down the table that has seen them drop to fifth; the Raiders desperate for two points to keep their finals flame flickering.

Both teams enter this match in decent form despite disappointing results last week. The Sharks have battled courageously in recent weeks without the inclusions of, at various periods of time, stars Paul Gallen, Jeremy Smith and Todd Carney. Last week they were unlucky – Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has stronger views – against the Dragons in Wollongong. The week before they drew with the Roosters in a Monday Night Football cliffhanger. Before that, though, the Sharks won three on the trot and were positioned as high as third.

The Raiders, meanwhile, will be hoping last week’s capital punishment against the Titans in Canberra was a one-off. Against the Gold Coast, the Raiders were abysmal defensively, conceding eight tries on the way to a very flattering 38-26 loss (they scored three tries in the final five minutes). Jeered off the field, the 13th-placed Raiders are in danger of another season without finals football if they lose to Cronulla on Sunday. What’s surprising though is the fact Canberra had, in the two weeks prior, beaten the Dragons and Storm!

There are just minor changes to the line-ups for the clash. For the home side, Anthony Tupou has been promoted to the starting team after his performance off the bench against the Dragons, with Andrew Fifita shifting to the interchange. Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith have not been named but are being assessed by training staff during the week, and Tyson Frizell is added to the bench that has Jon Green as 18th man.

The Raiders have named an unchanged line-up, with Josh Papalii cleared of any serious knee damage after leaving the game early against the Titans. Scans cleared Papalii of any serious knee damage after he sustained a cork above his knee.

Jarrad Kennedy has been named as 18th man for the Raiders and will come into the team if Papalii doesn’t respond to treatment this week. Injured fullback Josh Dugan hasn’t been named but is understood to be undergoing a fitness test later in the week, with the possibility of participating in this clash.

Watch Out Sharks: The Raiders’ attack is mighty dangerous despite the fact they sit well outside the top eight. Canberra have already created 78 line-breaks and 65 tries in 2012, compared with the Sharks’ totals of 67 and 53 respectively. When they’re ‘on’, the Raiders are an incredibly tough team to handle.

Danger Sign: The attacking power Canberra possess is highlighted by the fact they’re equally dangerous no matter where they are located on the field. In fact, from 11-20 metres, 21-50 metres and beyond 50 metres from their opposition’s try-line, Canberra have scored 11 tries in each category.

They’re also just one of half-a-dozen teams to have scored four tries or more in a match 10 times or more so far in 2012. When the Raiders are hot – and with some of the most dynamic and damaging outside backs in the competition including Blake Ferguson, Edrick Lee and Dugan – they’re almost too hot to handle.

Watch Out Raiders: There’s little stopping the Sharks… or their go-forward, at least. Cronulla roll forward and march downfield better than any team in the competition, averaging a league-best 1429 metres per match. Their forward pack, featuring the greatest depth in the competition, is no-frills but uncompromising.

It’ll be up to the Raiders’ biggest and most experienced forwards, in particular Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and David Shillington, to stop the Sharks’ momentum and prevent their playmakers entering the ‘kill zone’. Canberra have conceded the most plays inside their own quarter of any team in the league (476)… and three of Cronulla's seven biggest scores over the past four years have come against Canberra!

Danger Sign: The Raiders’ right-hand side is a clear weakness Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan will be looking to exploit. Canberra have conceded 25 tries there… and Cronulla’s left centre Colin Best will no doubt be given instructions to search and destroy. Best has, incidentally, scored in each of his past two games against the Green Machine.    

Ben Ross and Bryce Gibbs v David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs: Most fans nowadays watch rugby league for the athleticism, the excitement and the attack… but this game will feature more than that. The battle of the aforementioned props – the biggest, toughest and most determined guys on the paddock – will have a massive impact on the outcome of this match. Ross (105.3 metres per match) and Gibbs (135.8 metres) versus Shillington (114.9 metres) and Learoyd-Lahrs (99.8 metres) should be spectacular.

But it’s not just their go-forward that makes these big boppers so valuable to their teams – it’s their other talents that make them especially vital. Gibbs’ defensive integrity, Ross’ lack of self-preservation and willingness to do the one percenters, Shillington’s leadership qualities and Learoyd-Lahrs’ energy and ball skills – they’ll all influence the outcome of this match.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. Quite simply, the Sharks have it in truckloads and the Raiders are still searching for the recipe. Despite a roster featuring offcuts, unwanted stars and those who’d otherwise be on the rugby league scrapheap, the Sharks are making a good fist of the 2012 season. They’re a fighting team, a tight-knit group who can’t yet blow teams away but do compete for the full 80 minutes better than most. The Raiders, on the other hand, are best described as ‘inconsistent’.

Remarkably, just two weeks ago they recorded their first back-to-back victories for 2012. Quite simply, it’s their attitude that’s limited their progress… and with a greater willingness to do the tough stuff rather than the pretty plays, Canberra could well be entrenched in the top eight. They have enough talent.

The History: Played 57; Sharks 31, Raiders 26. At Toyota Stadium the Sharks have a decided advantage, with the home side winning 19 of the 26 clashes to date. The Sharks have also won five of the past eight meetings of the two teams.

The Last Time They Met: It was all Cronulla in the corresponding clash last year at Toyota Stadium in Round 18. The Sharks led 14-12 at halftime and powered home to win the match 26-12. The home side dominated on the back of a 5-0 line-break total and had five try-scorers, including former Raider Colin Best, who touched down for his 100th career four-pointer in the match. The Raiders struggled to control the Sharks’ march downfield, with Cronulla motoring to 1458 metres gained in the match, almost 200 metres more than the visitors. Canberra also missed a whopping 57 tackles throughout.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne and Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh and Dave Munro; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: The home side should be too determined and focused on victory to let the inconsistent Raiders slip under their guard. The Sharks have been cemented in the top four for most of the year, and a good performance in this clash could slingshot them back towards the top of the table. The Raiders have a few good performances left in them for 2012, but perhaps not in this match. They have, however, won more matches on the road this season than at home (4-3), so it’s definitely a possibility! We’ll stick our necks out and tip Cronulla by 10.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats