The Warriors, in the past two weeks, have blown 18-point leads against the Knights and Sea Eagles to lose by five and two points respectively. Currently sitting in 12th position on 20 points, they require a victory in this Close The Gap clash to keep in touch with the eighth-to-eleventh-placed teams on 22 points.
The Sharks, meanwhile, need to arrest a worrying slide down the competition table after an impressive first half of the season. In the past four weeks they’ve secured just one competition point (a golden-point draw against the Roosters in Round 18), slipping from third to seventh position on the ladder. A victory here keeps Cronulla in the frame for the top four.
The Warriors are without the services of injured centre Konrad Hurrell and captain Simon Mannering. The blockbusting back misses this match with a foot injury, as does the skipper, who also sat out last week’s heart-breaking loss to the Sea Eagles. Ben Henry is shifted to the centres, where he has played most matches this season, with Elijah Taylor slotting into the second row and NYC premiership winner Sebastine Ikahihifo making his run-on debut after playing his first NRL match last week. Highly rated and versatile junior Warrior Carlos Tuimavave joins a bench that also includes Steve Rapira, returning from a hamstring injury, and regulars Sione Lousi and Jacob Lillyman.
The Sharks welcome back inspirational forward and captain Paul Gallen – who was named but didn’t play against the Panthers – and five-eighth Todd Carney. Both are not certain starters but travel to Auckland likely to suit up. Cronulla have named a 19-man squad for the trip across the ditch, with Jon Green and Sam Tagataese travelling as cover. Bryce Gibbs and Ben Pomeroy remain on their injured list.
Watch Out Warriors: The Sharks mightn’t be in the best touch at the moment, but worrying for the home fans is the fact the Warriors have lost six of their past nine games, all of which have been by single figures. Against a team like Cronulla – known for their ability to grind out hard-fought victories rather than blow teams off the park – that spells danger.
Danger Sign: With some of their big names returning to the field the Sharks are no doubt going to be a more dangerous outfit… but in recent weeks, without the star power of their first-choice line-up, it’s been their fringe players who have really stood up. Last week former Tiger Andrew Fifita was a standout; Fifita recorded 22 runs for 181 metres against Penrith – the most managed by any Sharks interchange player in eight years and the best figures recorded during his 57 career matches. If the stars return and lesser-known players also produce strong showings, the Warriors could be in for a long afternoon.
Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla have lost seven of their past eight games at Mt Smart Stadium – a statistic coach Shane Flanagan will desperately hope is improved come Sunday evening. Also, this year Cronulla have conceded an average of 4.47 extra points away from Toyota Stadium – 20.67 points at away venues compared with just 16.2 points in the Shire.
Danger Sign: The Warriors always perform better at home, as their 5-4 Mt Smart record (compared with their 3-7 away record) in 2012 shows. The Warriors really ride the wave of support at home and prove a greater threat in front of their fans – they also bust the defensive line 5.5 times per match in New Zealand compared to just 3.1 times on the road. If the Warriors crack the Sharkies’ defensive code, the home side will have too much attacking potency for the visitors to match.
Nathan Friend v Isaac De Gois: It all starts – and ends – with the teams’ two determined No.9s. Former Titan Friend is a defensive warhorse who has good ability to crack the line from dummy-half. This season, however, he’s averaged just five runs and 36.4 metres per match – an output he can no doubt improve. De Gois’ record is remarkably similar – he runs just 5.2 times per match for an average of 33 metres.
Whoever provides better service to his big men – and gives himself a better opportunity to take advantage of momentum from dummy-half – will gain the upper hand for his team.
Where It Will Be Won: The final 40 minutes of this clash will be where it’s all won and lost – both teams can string together good periods but have failed to play for the full 80 minutes in recent weeks. Against the Knights and Sea Eagles, the Warriors squandered huge early leads to suffer shocking losses. Cronulla also choked on a seemingly unassailable lead against the Panthers… with just 60 seconds remaining! Concentration for the full 80 minutes will make or break each team in this clash.
The History: Played 28; Warriors 14, Sharks 14. At Mt Smart, however, the Warriors hold a decisive advantage, winning eight of the 12 matches.
Last Time They Met: The Warriors had a sizeable lead against the Sharks in Round 15 earlier this year, before allowing their opposition back into the clash and losing 20-19 in the dying moments. It’s been the story of their season to date.
In front of 9,271 fans at Toyota Stadium, the visitors dominated most of the match, leading 19-8 with just 10 minutes remaining.
Somehow the home side found a get-out-of-jail-free card, stunning their legion of dedicated fans with some scintillating, determined play in the closing stages.
It was a couple of plays from NSW five-eighth Todd Carney that shifted the momentum in this game – a 40/20 kick and a try assist for a Jeff Robson try late in the second half the defining moments. Carney’s goal-kicking (three from three, compared with James Maloney’s three from four) ultimately proved the difference.
The Sharks – without Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham – somehow overcame the Warriors’ huge advantage in field position to record the win. The visitors ran for a total of 1362 metres – almost 200 metres more than the home side.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer and Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis and Shane Rehm; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
The Way We See It: This could be the best match of the round – two sides desperate to return to the winners’ list and keep their finals hopes alive after disappointing performances over the past few rounds. The home side, however, have more to play for with Friend’s 150th match… and are likely to be slightly more desperate given their lower position on the ladder. We expect last year’s runners-up to continue the wounded Sharks’ wretched run in the past month on the back of a power-running game and their livewire, intelligent halves combination of Maloney and Shaun Johnson. Warriors by seven… but don’t put your house on it!
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 12 noon.