Warriors v Sharks preview
New Zealand Warriors v Cronulla Sharks
Mount Smart Stadium
Saturday 5pm NZT (3pm AET)
You know it's been a terrible night at the office when you lose 32-12 and the result isn't even the worst part of the game.
The Warriors' defeat to Manly last Saturday was hardly ideal, but it's the loss of halfback Shaun Johnson to a season-ending ankle injury which may end up being the most telling thing to come out of it.
This week they aim to bounce back against a Sharks side coming off an 18-16 win over the Bulldogs at Belmore which lifted them to sixth on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
Both sides have a number of changes for the game at Mount Smart Stadium, with the hosts welcoming back Manu Vatuvei and rookie Ken Maumalo on the wings in the place of Glen Fisiiahi and Jonathan Wright.
Second-rower Bodene Thompson is out injured which sees Albert Vete start at prop and Ben Matulino shift up into the back-row. Youngsters Sebastine Ikahihifo, Charlie Gubb and Sam Lisone all return to Andrew McFadden's 17 as well.
The Sharks meanwhile are without Andrew Fifita, who has been stood down by the club pending further investigation into an alleged incident at a club match in Penrith last weekend.
Back-rower Anthony Tupou returns from a broken jaw sustained in Round 9 against the Warriors, Chris Heighington starts at prop and Tinirau Arona comes back onto the bench.
Watch out Warriors: The Sharkies will arrive battle-hardened in Auckland, following back-to-back victories by two points or less over the Bulldogs (18-16) and Raiders (21-20). Cronulla will be more than happy to get into an arm wrestle against the Warriors, and will back themselves to come out on top if the score is close in the dying stages.
The Warriors are going to have to work out quickly how to score points without Shaun Johnson, who this season has set up and made more line breaks, created more tries and scored more points than any other member of the squad. They can't rely on blowing teams away with their attack now that their best weapon is gone.
Watch out Sharks: If they are to get the job done in Auckland, Cronulla will have to do it without one of their key weapons in prop Andrew Fifita. The Australian international has run for more than 100 metres in every game this year, while he averages over 30 tackles per game in the middle of the park. He would have been a crucial part of Shane Flanagan's strategy to maintain the Warriors' pack.
Mathematically the Warriors will still be in the top eight race regardless of Saturday's result, but a look at their upcoming schedule suggests it's close to a must win for the Kiwi side and you can expect them to be suitably fired up. After consecutive losses by 20 points or more the Warriors have slipped from fourth position to eighth and desperately need something from their next two home matches.
Key Match-Up: Tuimoala Lolohea v Jeff Robson. About the only thing these two players have in common is the number they will wear on Saturday night. Robson, 32, has been typically reliable for the Sharks in his 12th NRL season. Lolohea on the other hand will make his first start in the No.7 jersey, but he's already starred across several backline positions this year, scoring eight tries and averaging 113 run metres per game.
The History: Played 34; Sharks 18, Warriors 16. With the exception of the last-minute 16-12 loss to the Warriors in Round 9 this year the Sharks have had it over their Kiwi rivals of late, winning five of their last six.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet punters are throwing out the form book and sticking solid with the Warriors at home, and the New Zealand side have been very well backed with the start at the line. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au. http://www.sportsbet.com.au/betting/rugby-league/
Did You Know: Without Andrew Fifita the Sharks win a whole lot less. Over the past two seasons Cronulla have won just 21.4 per cent of their games while missing the big prop.
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Gavin Morris. Touch Judges: Bernard Sutton and Anthony Eliott. Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Sky Sport – Live from 5.00pm NZT. Fox Sports – Live from 3.00pm AEST.
The Way We See It: The Sharks look every bit a team on the up right now, and are sitting in sixth position thanks to a grinding style of play which they have become specialists in. Those qualities are also why they will probably be too tough for the Warriors this Saturday, with the Kiwi side lacking enthusiasm and any real execution in their last two matches. Cronulla to win by four.