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Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 4pm

One of these teams has surprised everyone by simply making the finals, while the other would be disappointed not to have finished higher after a strong start to the season. It seems every year a late-surging team takes everyone by surprise and not for the first time in recent memory the side this year is Canberra.

Last year the Tigers were outside the top eight after 18 rounds but surged home to finish fourth; and in 2009 the Eels made the grand final only after seven straight wins at the back end of the season saw them scrape into eighth place. But as recently as 2010 it was the Green Machine, who did not spend a minute inside the top eight until Round 25 but finished the year with eight wins from their last nine. They upset the second-finishing Panthers in Week One and in the end were desperately unlucky not to be one of the last four teams standing as they were pipped 26-24 by a Benji Marshall-inspired Tigers outfit in their home semi-final. (Sharpshooting centre Jarrod Croker may still get nightmares about that evening when he missed a relatively simple penalty goal on fulltime to send the match to golden point.)

This year they will again look to provide more than nuisance value to the top sides after spending almost the whole season – aside from the bit that counted – outside of finals reckoning, having charged to sixth on the back of five straight wins.

They’ll play host to a side that spent plenty of the season inside the top four but has suffered badly through injuries in the back half of the season and has now won just two of their past nine to slump to a disappointing seventh.

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has stuck with the same side that crumbled to the Cowboys last week despite a home final being on offer had they won. Mark Taufua and Sam Tagataese have been added to an extended bench, as has Wade Graham who should force his way into the 17 if ruled fit. Ben Pomeroy has been named ahead of his date with the judiciary but if he is rubbed out for last week’s hit on Johnathan Thurston expect his place in the centres to be taken by Ricky Leutele. Despite some speculation he may make his return from a five-month layoff, livewire fullback Nathan Gardner has not been named.

Despite their second-half point-scoring avalanche last week against a woeful Warriors outfit, Raiders coach David Furner has had no qualms about changing a winning team. Fullback Josh Dugan returns, pushing Reece Robinson back to the wing and Dimitri Pelo out of the side. Halfback Sam Williams also returns, forcing Shaun Berrigan back to a six-man bench that also includes Jarrad Kennedy.

Watch Out Raiders: Canberra Stadium holds no fears for the Cronulla outfit, whose big guns were firing on all cylinders in Round 8 when the Sharkies travelled down to the nation’s capital and left with an eight-tries-to-four win. Gallen, Carney and Jeff Robson scored or set up all eight tries and the Sharks will need those three on their games if they want to repeat the dose.

Carney and Robson in particular will want to prepare their short-kicking and passing games and utilise good hole-running forwards like Jeremy Smith, Andrew Fifita and Graham – because Canberra are the most suspect team in the competition when it comes to defence close to their own line. On 64 occasions the Green Machine has been punctured from within the 10-metre zone, significantly more than the next-worst side Parramatta (with 58).

Danger Sign: While the Raiders concede the third-fewest tries from kicks and relatively few from dummy-half, plus passes and offloads, they also concede the most tries from line-breaks. Combine that with Canberra’s flimsy defence on their own line and this tells you that plenty of those line-breaks are happening inside the red zone – opposition sides are simply running straight through Canberra defenders close to the line to score. When the likes of Gallen, Fifita and Smith line up a run wide of the ruck inside Canberra’s 10-metre zone they’ll be hoping to burst through the other side for a try.

Watch Out Sharks: The Raiders have averaged almost 30 points per game over their five-match winning streak and have emerged as one of the real attacking teams of the competition. Canberra finished with the fourth-most tries of any team in the regular season and the most tries scored from kicks (31). And while Cronulla have consistently been one of the better defensive teams this year (sixth best for tries conceded with 3.2 per game) their 24 tries conceded from kicks is the equal third most of any side. Coach Shane Flanagan will be pleased that their sliding defence is causing opposition sides to resort to aerial assaults, but his squad’s difficulty in defusing attacking kicks will be cause for concern. 

Danger Sign: Halves Williams and McCrone combined for five try assists in the Raiders’ 34-6 drubbing of minor premiers the Bulldogs in Round 25, and shared four more assists the week before against the Roosters. Expect them to follow a similar pattern here – grubbers and cross-field bombs whenever they get in range. Cronulla’s back three will need to make sure they’ve done their catching practice.

Paul Gallen v Shaun Fensom: Two of the NRL’s biggest motors will go head to head in the middle of the park. The amazing stats churned out by this pair make them two of the most potent members of any Dream Team coach’s squad, not to mention a massive asset to their real life footy teams.

It seems scarcely believable but after being the competition’s biggest metre-eater (minimum qualification three games) in 2010 with 176 metres per game, Gallen upped the ante last year to pump out an astounding and competition-leading 182 metres per game. This year, hampered by injury, Gallen has somehow produced a biology- and logic-defying 198.6 metres per game. Even more impressive given everyone in the top 13 other than fellow Blues forward James Tamou (seventh, 150 metres per game) is a fullback or winger.

Fensom is already in danger of falling into the “unfashionable workhorse” category that saw Raiders legend Alan Tongue snubbed on the representative scene – but his contribution to this Raiders outfit should not be understated. And it’s not just his club-high 42.6 tackles per game (fourth in NRL) – Fensom has also contributed nine line-breaks, three tries, 21 offloads and 47 tackle-breaks, while running for more than 100 metres per game.

Gallen is averaging easily the most runs per game in the NRL this year (23.7) and Fensom is easily his side’s top tackler, so expect these two to come together often in the middle.

Where It Will Be Won: The big boppers in the middle. Canberra has one of, if not the, biggest forward packs in the NRL – and the Sharks aren’t far behind. The Gallen-inspired Sharks make more metres than any side in the NRL other than the Cowboys, with 1428 metres per game, while the Raiders are down in eighth running for just 1367 metres per game.

With the Green Machine’s above-mentioned deficiencies close to their own line, if the Sharks’ engine room is able to keep the side parked inside Canberra’s red zone there is no doubt Carney and co. will be able to find a way through. Canberra’s big men will need to win the arm-wrestle in the middle to stop that from happening and give McCrone and Williams a chance to launch some bombs at Cronulla’s back three.

The other big factor here will be big-game experience. Both Cronulla’s halves have played in a grand final (Carney in 2010 with the Roosters and Robson in 2009 with the Eels) as well as forwards Anthony Tupou (Roosters, 2004), Smith (Storm, 2007 and Dragons, 2010), Bryce Gibbs (Tigers, 2005) and Ben Ross (Panthers, 2003). That’s not to mention the mountain of representative games Gallen has clocked up with New South Wales and Australia.

Of the current Raiders side only Berrigan, who played in Brisbane’s grand final-winning teams of 2000 and 2006, has featured in a season decider. Shillington is the only other member of the side with considerable representative experience.

There is simply no substitute for matches played and that quality could well give Cronulla the edge in this one.

The History: Played 58; Canberra 27, Cronulla 31. The Raiders have a slight 13-8 advantage when playing in Canberra, although the Sharks have won on four of their past six visits to the nation’s capital. It’s four wins apiece in the past eight meetings.

The Last Time They Met: It was an ambush at Shark Park back in Round 20 as the visitors ran away 36-4 winners. To be fair, the home side was without talismanic skipper Paul Gallen. Key playmaker Todd Carney probably shouldn’t have played either due to an abdominal strain and it was borne out in his performance: Carney turned in easily his worst game of the season, including three errors and seven missed tackles. 

Carney ran just three times for 18 metres and also failed to contribute a line-break or try assist. He missed the following week’s one-point loss to the Panthers before returning with a bang in the Round 22 trouncing of the Warriors.

Canberra scored early as halfback Sam Williams strolled through some flimsy defence before centre Jarrod Croker latched onto a McCrone cross-field kick to make it 12-0. Further poor defence allowed Josh Papalii and Blake Ferguson to score before Cronulla bench forward Mark Taufau reeled one back to make it 24-4 at the break.

Canberra fullback Josh Dugan was a late call-up in jersey No. 19 after a three-game layoff with an ankle injury. But he made his presence felt in the 65th minute when he surged out of the line to intercept a long pass from Carney as the Sharks were on the attack. His length-of-the-field try made it 30 points to the Green Machine, before a converted try to Croker completed Cronulla’s embarrassment and rounded out a personal 20-point haul for the centre.

Every member of the Canberra backline gained more than 100 metres although the clear leader, thanks to his runaway try, was Dugan (256 metres). Shillington (173 metres) also did plenty of the hard yards in the middle. For the Sharks, Jason Bukuya (one error, seven missed-tackles) and John Williams (two errors, five missed tackles) also had days to forget.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Sean Hampstead & Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: A tough one to call. No doubt the Raiders are the form team but the Sharks are back at close to full strength and as mentioned have a heap more big-game experience, which could be crucial.

The Raiders will start favourites but if the Sharkies can get their mojo back they may prove too tough here. Cronulla by six. 

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 3.30pm. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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