Warriors v Sharks
Mount Smart Stadium
Sunday 4pm (local)
The Sharks must have felt like they were watching a preview of their own worst nightmare when they witnessed the Warriors demolish the Canberra Raiders 54-18 last Sunday.
As the New Zealanders piled on the line breaks and tries at a venue where they hadn’t won for 16 years, the Sharkies would have been dreading this trip to Auckland, knowing the Warriors are even tougher on home soil.
It isn’t all bad news for Cronulla though.
The Warriors are without two of their most-dynamic attacking players in Shaun Johnson and Konrad Hurrell, who between them have 19 tries and 14 assists this season.
Ngani Laumape shifts to Hurrell’s centre spot, with rookie Tuimoala Lolohea named on the right wing.
Thomas Leuluai will start at halfback for a third-straight week, while Jayson Bukuya is back on the bench to face his former side.
This week the Sharks welcome back inspirational skipper Paul Gallen, but lose Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Jacob Gagan and Anthony Tupou to injury.
Junior Roqica, Matt Prior and Tim Robinson have been added to an extended bench, while former Junior Warrior Sosaia Feki will line up against his former idol Manu Vatuvei on the wing.
It has been a horror year for the Sharks in terms of keeping their best side on the park, and to date they have used more players than any other team in the competition.
After sticking with Parramatta for all but the final 10 minutes last week they came home with little from a 32-12 defeat, and time is fast running out for interim coach James Shepherd and his men.
It is a huge ask to go to Auckland and come away with the points, and the Warriors will be more than up for the challenge given they are back in the top eight with a favourable run home.
Finals football was a mere dream for the Kiwi club at the start of the year, but is now close to being a reality, despite their own dramas with injuries right now.
Watch Out Warriors: On all four occasions this season when the Kiwi club have won by more than 20 points they have followed it up with a loss in their next outing. Is it a coincidence or a sign of complacency which creeps into the Warriors’ game following a big victory? The answer will be clearer come Sunday night, but nevertheless the game represents a challenge for them after doing it so easy on the road last week.
Although they were comfortably beaten in the end, Cronulla proved a stubborn opponent against the Eels, staying in the contest for 70 minutes despite missing a whopping 40 tackles and making 12 errors. It might be ugly and unconvincing, but somehow the Sharks keep finding a way to remain in matches, and if you can’t absorb that pressure they have the potential to out-grind you to victory.
Watch Out Sharks: Twelve line breaks, 10 offloads and 54 points. Last week’s statistics from the Warriors should put the fear of god into the Sharkies, who haven’t been able to contain many teams in 2014, much less one with the attacking confidence and precision of the New Zealanders. Even if the home side are only half as good as they were last week they should have too much strike for the Sharks, who in 2014 have conceded the most run metres (30,461) of any side in the competition, as well as the second-most tries (87).
Manu Vatuvei found top form last week and is a scary prospect when he has confidence behind that 112kg frame. Against the Raiders Vatuvei ran for 157 metres, broke five tackles and scored three tries in 15 minutes. Not only is he deadly on the edges near the back end of tackle counts, but Vatuvei can punish you in the middle with a busting run and quick play the ball. The man they call “the beast” needs no second invite and will be relishing the chance to play against a defensively frail Sharks side.
Plays To Watch: Offloads caused all kinds of drama for Canberra last week, and once the ball is out the Warriors have the talent to punish teams with their second-phase play. With Ben Matulino and Feleti Mateo on the park you are never safe, regardless of how innocuous the hit-up appears. Expect the offloads to be plentiful and effective this Sunday.
Two young prospects clash on the wing this week, with Valentine Holmes taking on Lolohea. Both players are oblivious to the idea of failure at NRL level, so don’t be surprised to see them chance their arm and come up with plenty of exciting play out wide. The clash of the big men will be a beauty too, with Gallen and Andrew Fifita v Jacob Lillyman and Simon Mannering the main event.
Where It Will Be Won: For the Sharks it’s all about limiting the damage done in the first 20 minutes of the match, where this season during home games the Warriors have beaten their opposition into a state which they rarely recover from. If Cronulla can foot it with them, and more importantly not concede too many points, they are chance. But they can’t be anywhere near as reckless as they were on both sides of the ball last week.
The Warriors do their damage on the edges for the most part, but it only comes after they have softened teams up through the middle. With that in mind the battle of the forwards will decide this game. If the Sharkies can stand up to the punishment the Kiwis have in store for them, and get over the top through players like Fifita and Sam Tagataese, they will likely leave Auckland with two points and take a step closer to avoiding the spoon.
The History: Played 32; Sharks 18, Warriors 14. The Sharks have experienced an average last few years in the competition, but you wouldn’t know it by studying their recent record against the Warriors. The New Zealanders have lost five-straight to Cronulla, not winning since back in 2011. Earlier this season the Sharks were also responsible for the Warriors’ worst loss of the year; a 37-6 crushing at Remondis Stadium in Round 5.
What Are The Odds: The loss of Shaun Johnson and Konrad Hurrell hasn’t deterred Sportsbet punters from supporting the Warriors against the bottom of the table Sharks. The Warriors have been better backed than their opponents at the line even though they’re giving away 13.5 points. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Grant Atkins; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Anthony Eliott; Video Referees – Alan Shortall & Ben Galea.
The Way We See It: Any doubt that was hanging over the Warriors following a disappointing couple of weeks was blown away in the 54-18 crushing of the Raiders last Sunday, and heading home to Mount Smart Stadium this week only makes them stronger. Cronulla have been poor all season; they miss too many tackles, make too many errors and can’t score enough points to beat most sides in the NRL. The Warriors are a far superior side and have plenty to play for. Expect that to show on Sunday when they claim a comfortable victory and hold their spot in the top eight.