Sharks hungry for feathers in cap
Everyone wants in on this big game at Remondis Stadium tonight. The Sharks want it so they can establish exactly where they stand a few weeks out from the finals, and the Roosters want it for the opportunity to sharpen their focus after a few weeks of in-and-out football.
The Roosters haven't stopped winning – they are on an eight-game success streak that has them in first place on 38 points and with a massive points for-and-against differential of plus-321 – but coach Trent Robinson says they have had a few issues that have been masked by wins.
"We don't feel like we've played for 80 minutes for a few weeks," Robinson said. "We feel we've been down sometimes in certain areas within games, and that at other times in those same games we've been really good in those areas."
Last weekend's 56-14 win over Wests Tigers was a classic case in point. The Roosters were way below their best in the first half, even though they led 14-6 at the break. They weren't patient, and they forced passes and made too many mistakes.
But after halftime the Roosters blew the Tigers away with a cracking attacking display.
"We went away from what we do in that first half," Robinson said. "Some of the things we tried can work, but it wasn't what we had done all year so it was a bit scattered there at different times. We addressed that in the second half and the result was there for all to see.
"We can't make the mistake of playing another 40 minutes like that first half from here on in. We're really looking forward to playing Cronulla because they've got a lot of big-game players, a lot of rep players and they put you under a lot of pressure, so you've got to be good for 80."
The Sharks are in sixth place on 28 points, and with a differential of minus-nine. They are behind the fifth-placed Bulldogs on differential only, and five points behind the fourth-placed Sea Eagles. They are pretty safe in the top eight, but not guaranteed of playing finals football yet.
Just one win in the last three rounds would do that, but Sharks fullback Michael Gordon says they are looking for much more than that. They want to go into the finals series with some real authority, and a win over the high-flying Roosters would be a great start.
"We're certainly not unhappy about playing the Roosters," Gordon said. "It's going to give us a really good guide as to where we're at. You've got to play and beat these good teams in the finals if you want to win the comp, so it's a good thing having a test against them a few weeks out.
"The Roosters seem like a team that's in a really good groove, and everyone seems to know their role. They stick to their structures really well and can put on points really quickly. We have to work on not letting them get that opportunity.
"You can't focus too much on just one or two of their players, because they've got strike players right across the park who can turn the game on its head at any time. It's one of those games where you're going to have to be pretty good from start to finish and compete hard on every play."
If the Roosters were to stay unbeaten from this point, it would mean a grand final victory was their 14th win in a row.
That is a long time to stay at such a high level, and from the outside it's easy for people to think it might not hurt them to lose a game somewhere in the last three rounds, to take the pressure off a bit and allow them to re-focus. That's the theory, anyway.
But that obviously isn't how coaches think, and Robinson explained why.
"We certainly don't think we need to lose a game," he said. "If you've got good self-awareness as a team, then you can understand that even when you win there are things to improve, and that's been an important objective for us all year.
"We haven't always been happy with our wins, and we've tried to get improvement the next week."
The Sharks were lucky to sneak home with a 22-18 win over the Dragons last weekend. They needed a bit of Andrew Fifita brilliance to get them over the line in the end, after making it very difficult for themselves by completing just 21 of 38 sets.
"When you complete at just over 50 per cent, most times you wouldn't come even close to winning," Gordon said. "It was a credit to the group that we could hang in there and hang in there – it was a test of character that we passed in that regard – but we obviously have to do much better this week.
"Andrew has come out of State of Origin a bigger and better player, and every game he's causing so much trouble for the defence. Hopefully, he can keep doing that against the Roosters and blokes like Todd Carney and myself can play off the back of that.
"We've got plenty of experience across the park – players who have played in plenty of big games – so I don't think we're going to be overawed by any occasions coming up. It's good to have those players, because their experience helps create confidence among the team.
"It's a boring old cliche, I know, but to beat the Roosters it's going to be about controlling the ball and making as few mistakes as possible, and then trying to limit them attacking the sideline."
The Roosters thrashed the Sharks 40-0 at Allianz Stadium in Round 19, but the Sharks were way below full strength. Ben Pomeroy, Jeff Robson, Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Beau Ryan, Wade Graham and Anthony Tupou were all out. All seven players are back on deck for this one.