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Sharks v Warriors
Sunday, 2pm 
Sharks Stadium

Uncertainty – that’s the key word heading into this clash that features one team dealing with drug investigations and the other struggling to find consistency and reach anywhere close to their potential. Which teams actually show up on Sunday afternoon ready to play is anyone’s guess!

Last Monday, the pressure of almost a month of controversy got to the Sharks in their battle with the Rabbitohs. Sure, they didn’t roll over at any stage or throw in the towel, but they did look disorganised and, at various moments, distracted in their 14-12 loss to Souths. It was a fair way off their determined and emotion-charged victory against the Titans at Cronulla the week before, where the home fans helped their team rally and secure one of the club’s most famous victories.

The Warriors, meanwhile, have shown nothing in 2013 to suggest they’ll shed their title as the most inconsistent and unpredictable side in the competition – just when they’re expected to win, they’ll lose… and when they’re expected to lose, they’ll win! They’ve started the season poorly under new coach Matt Elliott’s reign, too, but don’t let that fool you – they’ve made a habit of appearing down and out, only to return to life with the most emphatic of victories. 

In Round 1 against the Eels, the Warriors were simply treated as a runway by the Hayne Plane and co, suffering a humiliating 40-10 loss at Parramatta Stadium. It wasn’t a whole lot better last week in the Eden Park loss to the Roosters, either – the 16-14 final scoreline doesn’t truly highlight the Warriors’ woes in attack and defence. 

Looking at team line-ups, back-rower Luke Lewis has been named for the Sharks despite limping from the field with an ankle injury early in the second half against the Rabbitohs. Fellow forward Sam Tagataese is the one addition to the squad on a five-man bench, with John Morris once again filling in for injured No.9 Isaac De Gois.

The Warriors, meanwhile, have named the same line-up that played the Roosters last week, with Ben Henry once again listed on a five-man bench. Henry subsequently dropped off the bench in Eden Park but is now fully recovered from the ankle injury which forced him from the field in last month’s trial against Penrith at Waikato Stadium. 

Still on the Warriors’ injured list are winger Manu Vatuvei (ankle), Jerome Ropati (knee), Sam Lousi (foot), Sione Lousi (knee), Russell Packer (bicep), Carlos Tuimavave (hand) and Nathan Friend (shoulder).

Watch Out Sharks: The Warriors are wounded, they’ve been woeful at times but they are far from washed up in 2013. They possess a line-up capable of causing significant damage, and there are plenty of reasons to suggest it’s a case of when, not if, the side gels and strings some solid periods of form together. 

That could all start now – especially when considering their team has the most effective offloads-conceded statistic of any team in the NRL (just 4.5 per match), potentially a big factor against a Sharks team with a strong desire to promote the footy.

Watch Out Warriors: The shackles are off, it seems, and the Sharks are prepared to throw caution to the wind and chance their arm at almost any given opportunity. Take last week against the Rabbitohs for example, when the Sharks threw 21 offloads (a category they’re leading in 2013 with an average of 16 per game). With the dark clouds of the drug investigation still hanging over their heads, it’s almost impossible for the Cronulla game plan to be picked to pieces by the Warriors – with all the ongoing drama, what the Sharks team dishes up remains a mystery until game day!

Plays To Watch: Legendary workhorse Paul Gallen (NRL-high seven offloads) getting himself involved – and sometimes in the way – on almost every second Cronulla play; Shaun Johnson’s hopeful hop, skip and a jump before the line a-la Benji Marshall; Michael Gordon’s breakneck-speed ball-running brilliance from the back (161 metres a match so far); Pita Godinet pirouetting from dummy-half close to the Sharks’ tryline – a move that has directly and indirectly resulted in multiple Warriors four-pointers in 2013; Andrew Fifita bull-dozing his way over the top of defenders (125 metres on average) and even closer to a NSW Origin jersey; Feleti Mateo (six offloads so far) impersonating Inspector Gadget and popping the seemingly impossible pass.

Key Match-Up: Todd Carney v Shaun Johnson. With less-celebrated, less-dangerous and more predictable halves partners, the attacking games of these two teams revolve around one man in their line-up. Cronulla’s No.6 Carney is the ace in the Sharks’ pack, and Johnson, the Warriors’ No.7, the man the visitors will turn to. 

Carney’s form has been solid so far – he’s already kicked two 40/20s (most in the NRL) – but if Cronulla are to feature in the finals more will be expected of him with the ball in hand (he’s yet to register a line-break or line-break assist in 2013). Johnson, meanwhile, has also been a touch on the quiet side, although he scored a great try last week against the Roosters. When’s he’s hot, he’s scorching… but can he recapture the sort of form that led his team to the 2011 Grand Final? 
Whichever one of these attacking dynamos takes the game by the throat will lead their team to victory.

Where It Will Be Won: For the Sharks, it’s all about their mental preparation and focus – they have the team and experience to go deep into the finals if they keep their heads during arguably the toughest time in the club’s history – and for the Warriors it’s about all that and more, too. 

Their approach has been off the money in recent weeks, and Matt Elliott and his team have no excuses, really. Sure, they’re a tad short of cavalry, but their on-field efforts thus far reflect a lack of effort and intensity. With a greater focus – and a willingness to improve on a league-low bunch of statistics like line-breaks conceded (6.5 per match) and metres gained (1143 per match) – they’re a decent chance of causing an upset here. Especially if the Sharks, understandably, enter this clash a tad distracted again.

The History: Played 30; Sharks 15, Warriors 14, drawn 1. At Sharks Stadium, though, the ledger is firmly in Cronulla’s favour, the home side winning nine of the 13 clashes played there.

Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Shayne Hayne & Luke Patten.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm. 

The Way We See It: Hypothetically, there could be reasons for the Sharks to lose their willingness to win over the next month or so, especially in this clash with much of the emotion of recent weeks fading away. The pressure though sits firmly on the shoulders of the Warriors – and that pressure is something they historically don’t enjoy. We’ll go with gut and opt for the Warriors by seven points… but, with a vocal home crowd at Sharks Stadium on Sunday, another courageous home-team victory is a distinct possibility.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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