Buoyed by six wins from their last seven starts, the Cronulla Sharks face perhaps their toughest test of the last eight rounds this week as the side travels to Auckland to take on the Warriors.
Minus 2014 Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, the hosts will need to look elsewhere for points – with ex-shark Chad Townsend the likely go-to man.
The Wingers – Sosaia Feki v Ken Maumalo
Junior Warrior Sosaia Feki returns to Mt Smart Stadium for the third time since joining Cronulla in 2012. Successful on his first venture back to the Auckland base as a Shark, the 24-year-old last time out tasted defeat in a gripping encounter against his ex-NYC teammates.
Having proved himself to be one of the game’s best dummy-half runners, Feki’s metres out of acting half will prove vital in helping the Sharks forwards out of their own end of the field.
Feki is set to face off with Warriors young gun Ken Maumalo, a 21-year-old just four games into his NRL career. This is a match-up – if Feki and his left-edge partner Ricky Leutele can click – where the Sharks can exploit the untested defensive pairing in Maumalo and Konrad Hurrell.
Yet to score a try against the Warriors, Feki will be out to impress his friends and family with a four-pointer against in Auckland on Saturday.
The Five-eighths – Jack Bird v Chad Townsend
Brought to Cronulla as an outside back with plenty of speed to burn, Jack Bird has found himself a home in the halves and this week squares off with ex-Shark, and Shark to be, Chad Townsend.
While Bird has been a revelation in his time in the six jersey in 2015, so too has Chad Townsend across the Tasman. In arguably his best season in the NRL, Townsend has laid on 12 tries and made 10 linebreaks, crossing for two tries and being at his consistent best.
The battle of Bird’s electric style of play versus that of Townsend’s cool and collected manner stands to separate the sides at the end of the 80 minutes.
Townsend’s ability to handle the added pressure of finding points in Johnson’s absence will prove vital, but if Bird can show signs of his sensational best – watch out Warriors.
The Captains – Paul Gallen v Simon Mannering
Perhaps the most telling personal match-up at Mt Smart Stadium this weekend will be that of the skippers, in Paul Gallen and the Warriors’ Simon Mannering.
Gallen last week scored his first try of the season – and his first since Round 16, 2014 – in his side’s 18-16 win over the Bulldogs. Returning to the side after hip and rib injuries respectively, Gallen’s output has been to that of his usual best, with his work both with and without the ball showing no signs of being hampered.
‘Gal’ leads the Sharks for average tackles per game (31) and average metres run (204m), while having offloaded 24 times in his 10 appearances this season.
Mannering meanwhile leads his side for average tackles per game (44, 2nd in the NRL), having offloaded on 34 occasions this season.
While Gallen broke his try-scoring drought against the Bulldogs, Mannering is yet to cross the stripe this season and will be out to make amends on that figure.
The work of the skippers will be sure to inspire their respective teams and whoever best leads from the front will go a long way to ensuring their side walks away with the two competition points.