Raiders v Sharks preview
Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
GIO Stadium, Canberra
Two teams on the edge of the NRL's top eight and coming off impressive last-start victories go head to head in what should be an exciting game of Saturday afternoon footy.
The Raiders will be hoping to get the better of the Sharks for the second time this season, after winning these sides' Round 1 encounter 24-20 in Cronulla.
They'll have to do so without their in-form halfback Sam Williams, who suffered a torn pec in last week's victory over the Newcastle Knights and will miss five weeks.
In place of Williams, Ricky Stuart has named crafty hooker Kurt Baptiste in a surprise move, ahead of Mitch Cornish and Josh McCrone.
Joey Leilua returns on the bench for the Green Machine, and will be looking to finally make his mark for his new team after being forced to sit out last weekend's Knights clash.
Meanwhile the Cronulla Sharks will be hoping to finally entrench themselves in the top eight with victory on Saturday, after missing out only by points differential in recent weeks.
Coach Shane Flanagan has named an unchanged outfit from the team that thoroughly outplayed the Dragons in Sunday's local derby.
Watch Out Raiders: While the men from Canberra have had no trouble putting points on the board this season, their defence coming into the closing rounds of the competition still leaves a lot to be desired. They've missed 434 tackles this season (4th highest in NRL), made 260 ineffective tackles (2nd most) and have conceded a whopping 64 tries. They'll be trying to rectify these worrying statistics against a team that has been powerful in attack. The Sharks have made 441 tackle breaks so far this year (3rd in the NRL), 166 offloads (4th), 1322 hit-ups (2nd) and have the second fewest handling errors in the competition with 53.
Watch Out Sharks: While the Raiders have been poor in defence, their attack, led by the dynamic Blake Austin, has been outstanding so far this year. Their standing in the NRL for key attacking statistics is very impressive. They rank second in completion rate, dummy half metres and try assists, and first in tries and quick play-the-ball percentage. The Sharks will have to be switched on in defence to try to slow the Raiders attack down, particularly if the Green Machine manage to start rolling their big bodies through the middle.
Key Match-Up: Shaun Fensom v Paul Gallen. Two locks who play a huge role for their team in very different ways. Shaun Fensom is one of the last remaining 'workhorse' style locks in the NRL, as more and more teams revert to the style that Paul Gallen plays, almost as an extra prop in the middle of the field. In seven less games this year, Gallen has one more offload and only 26 fewer hit-ups for the season than his Canberran counterpart. However Fensom averages 12 more tackles per game. These influential forwards will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game by laying the platform for victory.
The History: Played 63; Raiders 30, Sharks 33. Jack Wighton starred the last time these two sides met in Round 1 of this season. The Raiders got the better of the Sharks 24-20.
What Are The Odds: Home ground advantage and their strong attacking record makes the Raiders the favourites with the bookies. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant Referee: Chris Butler. Touch Judges: Jeff Younis, Phil Henderson. Video Referees: Shayne Hayne, Daniel Irvine.
Televised: Foxsports – Live from 3:00pm.
The Way We See It: Both sides have so much to play for this weekend as the race for the NRL finals heats up. In the Raiders's favour is home advantage and the fact they've already got the better of the Sharks this year. However, the Sharks' advantage is the omission of the hugely underrated Sam Williams at halfback for the Green Machine. As such, the performance of Baptiste at halfback will be crucial to the outcome of this game. We'll back him and the Raiders to be good enough on Saturday afternoon. They'll win a nail-biter by one point.