Schick Hydro Preview: Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
Sunday 2:00pm (AEST)
The surging Cronulla Sharks visit the nation's capital to try to make it four wins on the trot against a Canberra side looking to bounce back after being blown off the park by the Eels last start.
This looms as possibly the game of Round 7 with both sides possessing powerful forward packs and an ability to play some enterprising footy out wide.
Both come into this clash with familiar line-ups, with Luke Lewis the only notable omission from either camp, having picked up a one-game suspension for a shoulder charge against the Titans.
In his place Jayson Bukuya will slot straight in for the fourth-placed Sharks, having missed last week due to a finger injury.
Gerard Beale retains his place on the Sharks bench, having impressed filling in for a concussed James Maloney last week.
Meanwhile for the Raiders, who've dropped to seventh position on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder, coach Ricky Stuart has named an identical side to last week, giving Paul Vaughan and Josh Hodgson every chance to recover from niggling injuries sustained against Parramatta.
Both players are vital to the Raiders' chances on Sunday afternoon, in particular the Dally M-leading Hodgson, who was sorely missed for large periods last weekend, having come off with both a knee and a thumb complaint.
Watch out Raiders: Ben Barba is hitting his straps and there's nothing he likes exploiting more than a disorganised defence. The Raiders' edge defence can expect plenty of probing runs from the fleet-footed Sharks fullback on Sunday afternoon, particularly after what the Eels were able to do to them last weekend. Barba is quickly finding the form that won him a Dally M medal in 2012, thriving off the back of the playmaking structure afforded by James Maloney and Chad Townsend. His 90-metre effort against the Titans was a sparkling reminder of his amazing skill. The Raiders defence will have to start making the right decisions on Sunday to minimise his impact.
Watch out Sharks: He may not be one of the first players you'd name as a Raiders star, but Jordan Rapana has been quietly tearing it up in every game Canberra has played this year. While he can be overshadowed by the brilliance of those around him, Rapana's efforts are always rock solid, his ability bringing the ball back from his own end is extremely underrated. Very rarely will a defender be able to bring this rangy winger down one-on-one, which allows the Green Machine to start their attacking sets on the front foot. The Sharks will have to focus on getting numbers down to him on their kick chase to slow him down and put the onus back on the Raiders' big men to make the early metres.
Key match-up: Josh Papalii v Paul Gallen. There are few more tantalising prospects in rugby league than seeing these two behemoths go hammer and tong. And rugby league fans have been lucky enough to see it on multiple occasions in the last few years. Ever since Papalii unleashed a host of brutal shots – one labeled a "dog shot" by the Cronulla skipper – in the 2012 Finals series, these two have been nothing short of enemies on the field. Expect plenty of fierce contact when these two come together as both side's enforcers look to get the upper hand. Whichever big man can get the better of his opponent will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game.
The history: Played 64; Raiders 30, Sharks 34. The last time these two sides met the Raiders suffered yet another excruciating home loss, as a Valentine Holmes field goal lifted the Sharks to a 21-20 victory.
What are the odds: Raiders $1.80, Sharks $2.05. There’s three times as much money wagered on the Sharks in comparison to the Raiders in head to head betting but Sportsbet punters are picking the Sharks to get home in a close one (1-12). Canberra’s price has been drifting almost daily. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant: Peter Gough. Touch Judges: Rohan Best, Brett Suttor.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 1:30pm (AEDT).
The way we see it: Both sides have started the season in superb form, but that changed somewhat for the Raiders last round. Their less impressive performance could be put down to a short turnaround, or the brilliance of the Eels, but they'll need to be much better against a firing Sharks side looking for four wins on the trot. On the park both sides look extremely evenly matched. So we'll say the home advantage will be the difference, knowing how much impetus Ricky Stuart and his Raiders are placing on making Canberra a fortress once again this year. Raiders by 4.