Sharks v Rabbitohs preview

Cronulla Sharks v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Toyota Stadium
Saturday, 7.30pm

Can the shaky Sharks overcome the re-born Rabbitohs? This clash – with huge ramifications for both sides – could well be one both teams reflect on with regret at the end of the season. A loss or poor performance from either – with Cronulla looking to shore up a finals berth and South Sydney seeking to cement their position in the top four – could prove catastrophic to their finals momentum and their 2012 premiership chances.

The home team have let their great early season form slip, with four losses from their past five matches. Increasingly worrying for Sharks coach Shane Flanagan would be his team’s lack of direction with the ball in hand – particularly evident in their loss to the Knights last Monday night. Apart from their demolition of the woeful Warriors a fortnight ago, the last time Cronulla scored more than 20 points in 80 minutes was in Round 17! (The Sharks have also scored the fewest tries of any team in the top eight with just 66 overall, a statistic that ranks them 14th in the comp.)

Meanwhile the visiting Rabbitohs may have been last-start losers against the Sea Eagles but prior to that they had won their past six matches, scoring 30 or more points four times in that streak. A victory here – against a Cronulla side more than willing to turn the match into a grinding slugfest – would give their premiership challenge real credentials. (South Sydney haven’t beaten a team that held a spot in the top eight since Round 9!)

In a blow, the Sharks are without ball-playing back-rower Wade Graham, who re-injured his sternum in the match against Newcastle last Monday. His place is taken by second-rower Anthony Tupou, who missed the Knights match. Coach Flanagan has otherwise stuck solid with the team that suffered a 22-point loss in Newcastle, with Dragons-bound forward Tyson Frizell added to a five-man bench.

The Rabbitohs, meanwhile, welcome back Queensland and Australian backline superstar Greg Inglis. ‘GI’ returns to the South Sydney line-up fresh from a three-match suspension, with his inclusion shifting Nathan Merritt to the wing. Hooker Issac Luke has been promoted to the starting side in place of Nathan Peats, who has been shifted to a six-man bench that also features Roy Asotasi and Justin Hunt.

Watch Out Sharks: Hit the ‘snooze’ button and the Rabbitohs will cut you to pieces. South Sydney have proven to be the most potent all-round attacking threat in the NRL in 2012. Not only does the team lead the competition for total line-breaks with 114 (two ahead of their nearest rivals the Cowboys), individually the Rabbitohs are also the most creative and thoughtful of ballplayers – they are the only team in the NRL with a ‘triple double’ of line-break assists: South Sydney create opportunities for their team-mates in a heap of ways, including offloads (26), passes (29) and from dummy-half (11). No other team has recorded double figures in line-break assists in three categories, emphasising their huge threat across the park.

Danger Sign: ‘GI’ is back in the nick of time… unfortunately for the home side. Inglis tore apart the Sharks back in Round 9, becoming just the fourth Rabbitohs fullback in history to score a hat-trick of tries. The barnstorming star proved the difference in the tit-for-tat clash; and in an ominous sign for the Sharks, he also remains undefeated in six games against Cronulla. Look for Inglis to inject himself into the attack across the park, particularly on left-side raids where the Sharks are vulnerable – they’ve conceded a whopping 36 tries there already in 2012!

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Sharks – and coach Flanagan in particular – will still be seething after last week’s poor showing against the Knights. Put bluntly Cronulla were borderline pathetic… and that’s not something observers have been able to say about them this season. Prior to the Newcastle debacle Cronulla had lost by more than 20 points on just one occasion – a 36-4 thumping at the hands of the Raiders in Round 20. A week later the Sharks, even without the fluidity in attack they are still searching for, bounced back and lost to the Panthers by the narrowest of margins in a real dogfight. Only a brave punter would predict the Sharks can’t – and won’t – rebound in similar fashion against the Rabbitohs this week, especially in front of their expectant home fans with so much to play for.

Danger Sign: There’s no greater time for the Sharks to stand up and be counted as genuine threats than in the same week they’ve been ridiculed by the game’s ‘experts’. A win here all but cements a top-eight position and eases the growing nerves in the Shire. There’s no doubt Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire will be aware his team’s opponents will be ‘up’ for this clash – so far this season, the Sharks haven’t lost a home match against a team currently in the top eight. They’ve beaten the Storm and Sea Eagles in the Shire… and will be desperate to rise to the challenge and add the Rabbitohs to that tally, too.

Todd Carney v Greg Inglis: Sure, there’s more to these two teams than just the playmaker and ball-runner – Tupou, Gallen, Gibbs, Smith, Merritt, Reynolds, Burgess, Luke and Taylor all spring to mind – but last meeting proved their team-mates often have to take a back seat. In Round 9 earlier this year, it was the Carney-Inglis show – a battle of tries scored, four-pointers set up and telling plays made.

There’s no doubt that on their day these are arguably two of the most influential players in the game. After some poor form from Carney and a three-week suspension for Inglis, both must be raring to go. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – and this is the match their sides need their superstars to shine brightest.

Where It Will Be Won: The creative talents of Carney, Inglis, Reynolds and Sutton will have a big bearing on this clash… but most of the legwork needs to be done by the forwards. The battle up front – featuring some of the biggest and most bruising ‘pigs’ in the game, including Sam Burgess, Jeremy Smith, Dave Taylor and Paul Gallen – should be absorbing.

A lot of each team’s game plan will centre on ‘damage control’ – limiting the progress of Gallen and Burgess in particular. Souths’ English import has been particularly effective recently; he ran for 106 metres, made 32 tackles, busted three tackles, popped two offloads and scored a try last week against the Sea Eagles. The Rabbitohs are particularly effective at laying a platform to attack from centre-field – they have even scored 24 of their 83 tries ‘up the guts’. If the Sharks can limit that momentum, they’re a big chance.

The History: Played 78; Sharks 40, Rabbitohs 35, drawn 3. The Sharks have a dominant advantage at Toyota Stadium, winning 26 of their 38 meetings. The Rabbitohs, however, have won five of their past eight clashes between the sides at all venues.

The Last Time They Met: Round 9’s Rabbitohs-Sharks clash at ANZ Stadium featured one of the most absorbing individual battles so far in 2012. There was little stopping Todd Carney and Greg Inglis in this clash – both were in an aggressive frame of mind and proved, at times, untouchable.

Inglis, however, finished with the points decision – his performance (10 runs for 107 metres, 12 tackle-breaks, three tries, three line-breaks and a try assist) led the Rabbitohs to a memorable 34-28 victory. 

The Sharks five-eighth was almost as destructive, scoring a try, busting seven tackles, carving through the defence three times and kicking four goals. 

Ultimately, Cronulla had only themselves to blame – a total of 12 errors (compared to Souths’ five) cruelled any chance of a comeback, despite the fact they cracked their opponent’s line six times to four.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer and Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner and Adam Reid; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: On paper the Rabbitohs have the upper hand, especially with the inclusion of Inglis… but games aren’t won on print-outs, especially at this time of year. If the Sharks rise to the challenge and are prepared to fight for every scrap of possession, value the football and pound the Rabbitohs into submission – like they did on home soil earlier this year against other heavily favoured opponents – they could well pull off an upset. However we just aren’t sold on their ability to present a rabbit-proof defensive line. The Rabbitohs by one point in a thriller. 

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats