NRL Match Preview: Sharks ready for Top 4 clash
Rather than fear a quality opponent Sharks Coach Shane Flanagan was welcoming another stern test for his team this weekend as they continue their march towards the upcoming NRL finals.
The Sharks battled hard before finishing in an 18-all golden point draw against the Titans on Monday night, with another tough opponent in the Canberra Raiders now ready to challenge the competition leaders on Saturday afternoon.
It’s a position the coach embraces, with the Raiders providing another chance to measure exactly where his team is at just five weeks out from the NRL Finals series.
“Being on top we are the hunted, rather than the hunters at the moment, with teams wanting to knock us off,” Flanagan said. “But where we are, on top of the table, is where you want to be.
“We want tough games leading into the semi-finals to get us ready for those big games,” Flanagan said. “We got one last week and we’ve got another tough game this week against Canberra.”
The Titans draw was a wake-up call for a Sharks team on a 15-match winning streak and while the consecutive win record came to an end, to come out of that game still undefeated after 16 weeks was something not lost on Flanagan or his playing group.
“Last week while we didn’t win, we didn’t lose, so we learnt some things from that and we’ll continue to focus on us and continue to work hard,” Flanagan added.
The Sharks will go into the game with their team intact after James Maloney was judged not guilty by a judiciary panel on Wednesday night and Andrew Fifita managed to overcome a leg injury suffered in the Monday night draw.
While pleased to have Maloney on deck for Saturday’s game, Fifita will also be an important member of the team, especially when considering the size and strength of the Canberra pack.
Running freely at the Captain’s run today, Fifita dispelled any fears that he might not be able to take to the field this weekend.
“He spent the night in hospital after the game on Monday night but it was a cork that bled into his ankle and caused it to swell up. We didn’t run Wednesday but he trained today and is good for tomorrow night,” Flanagan explained.
Although it might be expected that the Sharks will trot out the same 17 from Monday night, waiting in the wings is Ricky Leutele, with the talented centre fit and available if needed.
“I have 1-17 fit, then Ricky is available, so I’ll make a decision on the final make up of my team tomorrow,” Flanagan said.
The Sharks V Raiders game matches the first-placed Sharks against the third-placed Raiders in what is undoubtedly the match of round 22 of the Telstra Premiership.
As impressive as the Sharks have been over the last 16 weeks the Raiders counter with a five-game winning streak of their own, with the most recent effort a 54-4 drubbing of the South Sudney Rabbitohs last weekend.
The two teams have met once already this season, with the Sharks scoring a comfortable 40-16 win at GIO Stadium back in round 7, while the head to head record reads at 35 wins to the Sharks, 30 to the Raiders.
At Southern Cross Group Stadium the Sharks have a 20-10 advantage in the 30 matches played.
The Sharks v Raiders match is scheduled for a 5.30pm kick off on Saturday, with the NYC clash at 3.15pm and an Australian Schoolboys v England Academy Test Match the curtain-raiser beginning at 1.10pm.
Gates to Southern Cross Group Stadium open at 1.00pm.
Key Match Up: Wade Graham v Eliot Whitehead
The NSW Origin representative and the tear-away Raiders second-rower will go head to head in one of the most enticing clashes of the afternoon.
Whitehead has been one of the Raiders best in 2016, leading his side in tackles per game (35.7 average), along with 5 line break assists this season.
Whitehead shows his big engine by playing 81 minutes on average this season (19 games) so will be a major force in the clash.
Graham on the other hand has had just as big an impact for the Sharks this season, nearing the top of each key stat this season.
Graham leads the side in 1-on-1 tackles (48) and ranks highly with 9 line break assists and tackle busts (25).
With both players showing a tenacity to take the game on, be sure to keep a close eye on the impact each has on their sides attack in the opposition half.
Head-to-Head: Played: 65, Sharks (35 wins), Raiders (30 wins)
At Southern Cross Group Stadium: Played 30, Sharks (20 wins), Raiders (10 wins)
Last 5 Meetings:
Round 7, 2016: Sharks 40 def. Raiders 16 @ GIO Stadium, Canberra
Round 19, 2015: Sharks 21 def. Raiders 20 @ GIO Stadium, Canberra
Round 1, 2015: Raiders 24 def. Sharks 20 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium
Round 24, 2014: Raiders 22 def. Sharks 12 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium
Round 26, 2013: Sharks 38 def. Raiders 18 @ GIO Stadium
HTH: Sharks ($1.46) v Raiders ($2.80)
Line: Sharks -6.5 ($1.94) v Raiders +6.5 ($1.94)
First Try Scorer: Valentine Holmes ($7.50), Ben Barba ($10), Sosaia Feki ($10), Jordan Rapana ($12), Jarrod Crocker ($12).
*Prices quoted 16:00pm Friday, August 5. For the latest odds and more markets on the match, click HERE.