NRL PREVIEW | Sharks v Raiders
With both teams teetering on the edge of the top eight, one will emerge with their finals aspirations intact, the other under pressure as the race for a finals berth begins to hot up.
The ninth-place Sharks travel to GIO Stadium to take on the 10th placed Raiders in Canberra during what Sharks Coach Shane Flanagan knows is a crucial stage of their 2015 campaign.
“It is a really important time of the season,” Flanagan said. “We need to knuckle down and the teams that are going to play in semi-finals need to knuckle down at this time of the year and get some wins.
“You need to win some games now so you have control of your own destiny over the last month.”
Standing in the Sharks way of controlling that destiny he speaks of is a Raiders team building in confidence and riding on the back of one of the NRL’s hottest players in Blake Austin.
“He’s been outstanding for them playing off the back of a forward pack which is going good. He’s a good runner of the football and we have to be on our guard tomorrow and mark him up,” Flanagan said.
However the Raiders are about much more than Austin, boasting a big and physical forward pack and some classy outside back, the Sharks will need to bring their ‘A’ game to the national capital should they hope to return with a victory.
Helping the cause for the visiting Sharks will be the fact that skipper Paul Gallen is approaching full fitness after recovering from a rib cartilage injury in what is to be his 250th NRL game and 250th game for the Sharks.
A couple of his younger teammates in Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird are certainly pleased to have their spiritual leader on deck this Saturday.
“It’s good to have him back. He’s such a big part of our team and we all work off him,” Holmes said.
While Bird added; “Gal brings a lot of energy to the team, he’s a great leader, a great bloke on and off the field.”
In other significant Sharks milestones set to be achieved this weekend, Jeff Robson plays his 150th NRL game, Ricky Leutele his 50th, with both set to play important roles for the team against the Raiders.
Robson will again need to be the guiding influence in the halves so Bird can play his exuberant and natural style, while Leutele will have his hands full with the Canberra side featuring some explosive attacking players in the ranks.
If they are hoping to notch a win the Sharks will need to halt a two-game Canberra winning streak in games played between the two clubs, however in the overall head to head the Cronulla club has its nose in front with 33 wins from the 63 games contested.
In matches played at GIO Stadium, Canberra holds a slight advantage with 14 wins as opposed to nine by the Sharks.
The selected Sharks 18-man squad all boarded the bus for Canberra today, with Coach Shane Flanagan to finalise his line-up closer to kick-off tomorrow.
The Sharks v Raiders match is scheduled to get underway at 3.00pm, with the NSW Cup Jets v Mounties match at 12.40 and the NYC clash at 10.40am.