A Sharks side minus skipper Paul Gallen and the suspended Michael Ennis face a daunting challenge in a bid to keep alive a three-game winning streak when they travel to Brookvale this weekend to tackle the Manly Sea Eagles.
Gallen has been missing from the Sharks last two wins due to a rib cartilage injury, however successfully replacing Ennis could be the team’s most difficult task ahead of Sunday’s clash.
Sharks Coach Shane Flanagan is confident he has the right man for the job, with the extremely capable Pat Politoni getting the call up for what will be his first game in the NRL this season.
“Pat would have liked to play more first grade, but it’s hard when Michael (Ennis) is an 80-minute player,” Flanagan said. “He has played well in the NSW Cup, they had a good win last weekend and I know he’s been itching for a start. He deserves this opportunity and I expect a real good performance from him.”
While Politoni has been shouldered with the responsibility of starting the game in the hooking role, his inclusion opens up a few options for Flanagan and his bench rotation, with Ben Barba again selected to begin the match as an interchange player.
“Pat can play 80 (minutes) if he has to, Robbo (Jeff Robson) can move there, Ben Barba can play there, but I try not to pre-empt those things and we’ll just see how the game goes,” Flanagan said in keeping his cards close to his chest.
However whatever team the Sharks put on the field they will need to be near their best despite taking on a Manly side languishing in an unfamiliar position on the NRL ladder.
Perennial contenders, the Sharks game represents probably the last throw of the dice for the Sea Eagles who are currently in last place and likely needing to win at least eight of their final nine games to qualify for the 2015 finals.
Neither Flanagan nor his Sharks team are under any illusion as to how tough the Manly road trip can be and realise they certainly can’t take this weekend’s opponents lightly.
“Manly have a quality side. I expect Jamie Lyon to play, Willie Mason to play and I don’t take into account where they sit on the table, they are a quality team,” Flanagan said.
Sharks half-back Jeff Robson, himself a former Sea Eagle, is also aware of how tough Manly can be at home, especially with the addition of their star number seven who was shunned by Queensland Origin selectors.
“Whenever you play a Manly side at Brookvale it is always a hard game. And having (Daly) Cherry-Evans is definitely a bonus for them,” Robson said.
Despite the odds being against them, including a Brookvale Oval record which reveals the Sharks having won just five of the 37 matches played (with one draw), the Cronulla side head to the northern beaches in a confident frame of mind.
After beating the Roosters at home, then the Newcastle Knights away, the Sharks recorded what they hope will turn out to be a season-defining win in coming from 18-points down to beat the second-placed North Queensland Cowboys at their last start.
The win in Townsville lifted the Sharks into ninth position on the NRL ladder, level on 18 competition points with the sixth-placed Storm, the Warriors in seventh and the eighth-placed Bulldogs, but trailing those teams on for-and-against.
The Sharks v Manly match is scheduled for a 4.00pm kick-off at Brookvale Oval, with the two teams to play for the Steve Rogers Cup, a trophy honouring the late-great Sharks Immortal.
The Sea Eagles currently hold the Steve Rogers Trophy.
The match will also be the 100th NRL game as a Shark for back-rower and stand-in Captain Wade Graham.